By Mackenna Cummings
You may recognize comedian and actor Rob Riggle from his success as a correspondent on The Daily Show, films like Step Brothers, Dumb and Dumber, The Hangover, and 21 Jump Street. This year you’ll see him in Midnight Sun, which came out March 23rd, and Night School, set to release September 28th. But it’s his recent role in the war drama 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers, released in January, that has us talking.
His two-decade-long entertainment career began while he was serving 14 years in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, following his 9 years of active duty service in the U.S. Marines. Retired in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel, Riggle has served in Liberia, Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan. He told the USMC official magazine Marine Mag what he liked best about serving: “One—I earned the title ‘Marine,’ no one gave it to me. I’ll be proud of that as long as I’m alive. Two—Marines are loyal to each other. I like loyalty. Three—Marine Corps history and tradition is something to be proud of, and I’ve been part of that history for the last 19 years. And four—honor, courage and commitment. Those words really do mean something.”
USVM: So how did a theater major from the University of Kansas rise through the ranks as a Marine while still pursuing comedy and acting?
RR: “I had my pilot’s license when I was an undergrad. I was also a theater and film major. So I either was going to be ‘Top Gun’ when I graduated, or I was going to be a waiter. […] I went through Officer Candidate School and went through flight school and the further I got along, the more I realized that, if I continue flying, I’m not going to be able to pursue my dream of comedy and acting. So I stopped flying, became a ground officer, had a short contract, fulfilled my contract and pursued comedy and acting. I stayed in the reserves though, serving there for 14 years,” Riggle told CBS News.
In 2001, the day after the September 11th attacks, Riggle was called by the Marine Corps Reserves to report to Ground Zero to help move rubble by hand and search for survivors. Six days of emotionally and physically grueling 12-hour shifts followed, and a few weeks later, Riggle volunteered to return to active duty. He was deployed to Afghanistan, where during his two tours he served under Lt. Col. Max Bowers, an Army colonel who was part of 12 special forces who were sent there immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bowers was the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group. In 2017’s 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers, Riggle was honored to portray Bowers. He told ABC News, “After I volunteered to go back on active duty … I worked directly for him. He was my direct boss. I was doing public affairs and some civil affairs work for him. Now I’m playing [him] in the movie.”
Of the 12 Special Forces featured in the movie, Riggle says “They Stephen Colbert and guest Rob Riggle were the first guys in. They teamed up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and did some truly amazing things, fighting in the mountains on horseback under intense conditions. They took three warlords and brought them together, fighting a pretty well-armed and entrenched Taliban force.”
As the ruins of the twin towers still smoldered at Ground Zero, Bowers and the U.S. Special Forces began the grisly war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Liberty Park, a one-acre elevated public park at the World Trade Center in New York City, a statue stands overlooking the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. America’s Response Monument, or “De Oppresso Liber” (the motto of U.S. Army Special Forces that means “To free the oppressed”), is dedicated to the U.S. troops who responded in those weeks following 9/11. The 18-foot bronze statue depicts a Green Beret soldier on horseback, symbolizing the horses that the Afghan tribes provided our troops to navigate the mountainous Northern Afghanistan terrain. Most of those U.S. troops had never been on horseback before. In the age of modern warfare, it is remarkable that the initial response to the worst attack on American soil was fought in the same cavalry style as the forefathers of this country.
Although Riggle usually plays comedic roles, 12 Strong gave him the opportunity to play a dramatic character, who helps tell a story Riggle himself is passionate about. Transitioning from comedy to a drama left him a little out of his comfort zone on set, but the story and the truth behind it made it something he’s proud of. Speaking of the real people who inspired the book The Horse Soldiers and this 12 Strong movie, Riggle says, “In the annals of military history, this is something pretty special, when you think about what [the soldiers] did with what they had, where they were, in the amount of time that they did it.”
As for the transition into acting, he notes that much of what he experienced in the military has helped in his comedy career. “You have to have thick skin, and you have to be able to bounce back from rejection and adversity. And you also have to have a mindset of ‘I’m not gonna quit until I accomplish my mission.’ So you learn those intangibles in the military, and those intangibles carried over and have sustained me in my comedy career,” he said. His career in acting and comedy was rather a trial-and-error process for him, as identifying what sort of sketches and scripts would suit him became easier the more he wrote and acted.
Riggle considers himself fortunate to have been able to pursue both paths that he was passionate about as a college student, and he’s still an active member of the veteran community. He participates in multiple charities, including Conservation International, ENOUGH Project, Entertainment Industry Foundation, Friars Foundation, James R. Jordan Foundation, Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Opportunity Village, Stand Up To Cancer, United Service Organization, We Advance, and Cats Care.
He also founded and hosts the Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic to raise funds for the Semper Fi Fund, which provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post-9/11 combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families. Riggle speaks proudly and candidly of his military career, and lives out the official motto of the Marine Corps League, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” Although his career is now focused on being a comedian and actor, Rob Riggle remains honored to call himself a veteran. His heart and mind are never far from his military comrades, and he continues to support them no matter where he goes.