A movie fit for a hero: Special forces vet screens “12 Strong”

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    Rep. Mike Moffett, a retired Marine Corps officer, is seen at a special screening of "12 Strong" at Chunky's Manchester Cinema & Pub in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

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  • Bolduc

  • Bolduc

  • Donald Bolduc

  • Chris Hemsworth, center, as Capt. Mitch Nelson in the new war drama “12 Strong.” MUST CREDIT: David James, Warner Bros. Pictures David James

  • A screening of “12 Strong” was held at Chunky’s Cinema Pub in Manchester on Wednesday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/18/2018 8:46:29 PM

The heroes weren’t on the movie screen Wednesday night at Chunky’s Cinema Pub in Manchester.

Those were actors.

The heroes were eating dinner behind me, a retired Brig. Gen. from Laconia named Don Bolduc and his wife, Sharon.

They watched a special screening of 12 Strong, a movie about the horse back-riding Special Forces team that fought the Taliban in Afghanistan soon after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

We got the film one day after its red-carpet premier in New York City and two days before major cities because local state Rep. Mike Moffett is a retired Marine Corps officer who served in Afghanistan.

There, he befriended Fahim Fazli, a native who worked as an interpreter to help bridge the cultural and language gaps between U.S. soldiers and anti-Taliban forces. Fazli had a small role in the film, and he and Moffett co-authored a book three years ago.

“What a lot of folks back here need to understand,” Moffett told me after we’d finished the movie and our burgers, “is that most people over there were on the edge of a lot of stuff, but only a few people were right at the tip of the spear.”

And that included Bolduc, 55, a special guest and former member of the Special Forces team. He’s 5-foot-7 and solid, with a gray goatee and affable nature that belies the toughness he once needed to lead men into combat.

He sat through a violent, graphic movie that showed firefights and explosions and death.

That begged the obvious question: After fighting in his own clandestine, shadowy battles during the current War on Terror, was the movie hard to watch?

“No, I’m good,” the general told me. “Not hard to watch, it just gets me tense, so I will probably have a difficult night trying to get some sleep. I’ll probably have a bad dream or two.”

And there, in those words, is our story, the one about the retired general who spent 66 months during several tours of duty in a rugged, unfriendly country. He led men in the Special Forces into combat. He saw friends die and he himself was severely hurt.

Mentally as well as physically.

And, as many have done after returning from combat, Bolduc kept his mouth shut for years, preferring to submerge himself into a world of fear and anger and mood swings, caused by the macho culture he’d been immersed in, rather than seek help for the post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury that still haunt him to this day.

“We knew I had all these symptoms by 2008,” Bolduc told me, Sharon by his side in the empty movie theater. “But I didn’t go for help until 2013.”

He nodded toward Sharon.

“I waited until she said, ‘Hey, listen. I can’t take it anymore. The kids can’t take it anymore. The dog can’t take it anymore. The cat can’t take it anymore.’ ”

“He waited until I gave him an ultimatum,” Sharon, a nurse, told me. “The dog would hide under the bed when he heard a certain tone in his voice. Not all the time, but (the dog) knew.”

Look up Bolduc and you’ll see his story featured in the New York Times. He’s on the ground floor of a new era. The one about the high-ranking officer coming forward to de-stigmatize post traumatic stress. The one about facing demons, of not being afraid of being afraid, of working hard to save your family, of making sure your dog forever trusts you.

“It wasn’t accepted to get help,” the general told me, “and the stigma still exists today.”

His background is full of grit and toughness. He said his toughness began from helping on the family farm in Laconia, those 4:30 a.m. shifts that whipped his body and mind into shape.

And from playing wing back on the Laconia High School football team under legendary coach Jim Fitzgerald. Bolduc also boxed and wrestled, and he joined the Army 11 days after graduating from high school in 1981.

He rose through the ranks and sought a spot on the Special Forces team, a team in which, statistically, three out of 100 make the cut.

The procedure to weed out those not tough enough, Bolduc said, was brutal. He described a test in which he and others had to figure out how to utilize a spare tire, some strapping and poles to push a three-wheeled jeep 6.2 miles, without ever touching certain areas on the jeep. If you did, you had to start over.

“It’s designed to smoke you every single day,” Bolduc told me. “People quit in the middle of this.”

I asked if he came close to quitting. Bolduc smiled and said, “Absolutely not. The thought never entered my mind.”

Was he being sarcastic, I wondered? “I’m saying it seriously. It never entered my mind.”

When those four commercial airliners crashed on 9/11 and signaled we were at war, Major Bolduc and his battalion were on their way to Jordan in the Middle East for a training exercise.

He knew what lay ahead. He knew nothing would ever be the same, as did Sharon. She was living the life of an officer’s wife, stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Two of the couple’s young children had just left on the school bus, and Sharon was out pushing her youngest in a stroller.

Then she heard the news.

“That’s it; Don’s leaving,” she recalled saying to a friend. “I’m going to get a call.”

Sharon said Bolduc’s confidence in his ability gave her the confidence that he’d make it through. And besides, she had her own job to do: comfort the other wives on the base whose husbands were also leaving. Bolduc, it turns out, was not the lone leader. Not in this family.

“The whole community in Special Forces is amazing,” Sharon told me. “We’re a family to each other.”

Then, just days after the mission that was depicted on screen Wednesday, Bolduc and his men were sent to Uzbekistan to train, then flew to southern Afghanistan to begin their mission to liberate Kandahar from the Taliban. They began shortly after the Special Forces shown in the movie had finished their drive from the north.

Over the next 12 years, the calendar years of 2003, ’04 and ’08 were the only ones that Bolduc spent no time in Afghanistan.

He paid the price. There was the helicopter crash that knocked him out and led to the removal of three discs in his back, as well as double hip replacement later on. And the 2,000-pound bomb that landed nearby, causing a traumatic brain injury and killing three of his buddies.

And, of course, there was the other injury, the other cause for concern, the unspoken problem that men –real men – were not supposed to feel.

In 2013 Bolduc was promoted to brigadier general and directed the fight against Islamic terrorism in Africa. He retired from the Special Forces in October, with a box full of dog tags at his home in Stratham from the 72 people he served with who were killed.

And over the last few years, he’s made headlines for the talks he gives and support groups he’s established, letting veterans know that it’s okay to suffer from post traumatic stress, and it’s okay to seek help.

“People I have never met have thanked me and thanked my husband for saving their marriage, things like that,” Sharon told me.

Their life isn’t perfect. Bolduc still yells in his sleep and thrashes about the bed. He told me about a recurring dream, and it’s triggered when he sees movies like 12 Strong, which Bolduc said was an accurate depiction of the fighting and logistics that went on over there.

There’s an explosion, then the oxygen is sucked away. Bolduc awakens suddenly, gasping for air.

But his life is far better than it had been, before he faced facts. Even his dog, Yukon, feels better.

“Now we’re good,” Bolduc said. “The dog and I are good.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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