St, Petersburg, FL — Driving past the enclosed stadium known as the Tropicana Field, home of the major league baseball team the Tampa Bay Rays was the last landmark I needed to check off that I was near the American Freedom Distillery. The distillery that will focus on producing artisanal, locally made whiskey, rum, and gin is the latest entrepreneurial venture of retired Green Beret Master Sergeant, Scott Neil. Neil who retired with 25 years of service to Special Operations was one of the select few from the U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) to put America’s first “boots on ground” in Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks against the citizens of the United States on September 11th 2001.
My GPS informed me that my destination was up and to my right 1000 feet, and I pulled into a warehouse parking lot with the American Freedom Distillery banner clearly displayed. I walked up to the main entrance of the yet to be opened distillery lamenting the last-minute decision to wear pants in this Central Florida heat and rang the doorbell. As I waited for Mr. Neil to answer the door I couldn’t help but read the simple white lettered statement on a black banner within the distillery sign, “Legendary Men, Legendary Spirits.” Then the door swung open and there stood a smiling Scott Neil, “Welcome to American Freedom, brother!”
“What you’re standing in right now will be the gift shop,” Neil pointed out as he started the tour of the business venture belonging to him and three other former Green Berets. The warehouse was a massive expanse, with two full stories of various offices, tasting rooms, and bars planned for its gaping insides. One thing apparent within the warehouse’s decor, short of a few subtle crossed arrow and tomahawk images, there was an utter lack of any overt indications that this distillery is owned and operated by veterans of the Global War on Terror. “Right here used to be a trailer, like an Airstream trailer. They [the former owners] converted it into artsy office spaces, still didn’t help them.” Neil explained that prior to he and his partners acquisition of the warehouse, that the space was operated by some sort of tech start-up that attempted to recreate a Google like work atmosphere. “The only problem was that they didn’t make any money. So bad for them, good for us.” Neil declared.
Just like most Green Berets I knew that there wouldn’t be those overt signs of this house belonging to men of war within the fabric of the business, it’s more subtle in our world. It’s there, yet hidden. I knew before I even asked that a Team Room was drawn into the plans of the American Freedom Distillery, I made the query anyway. “Oh the Team Room, you know we have a Team Room. It’s upstairs past the private offices and events room.” And we took a tour of what is surely to become a little slice of Valhalla for the select few of Special Operations soldiers of past and present that will be invited into this exclusive hall while visiting the distillery.
After the tour it was time to get to business, Neil and another retired 5th Group Green Beret, Major Mark Nutsch were headed up to New York City as guest speakers at the 9/11 memorial museum to discuss being apart of America’s response and the unconventional warfare mission to Afghanistan. Mr. Neil agreed to sit with SOFREP to discuss his time in Afghanistan after 9/11. his next chapter in his life, and the future of the Green Berets after transition.
“Tell me about September 11th 2001.”
“Okay, let’s get into it,” said Neil, and he did just that. “Prior to the month of September, Alpha company 1st Battalion was tapped to train up for a new mission given to them by the Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) known as the Commanders in Extremis Force or CIF. And we were working to get the CIF charter approved prior to the October 1st 2001 deadline.” The CIF mission for 5th Group was two-fold, on top of being exclusively specializing in direct action kinetic operations, a mission set that mostly falls on the shoulders of Tier 1 U.S. Army Special Operations units such as Delta Force or the 75th Ranger Regiment; the 5th Group CIF unit, or simply A-1-5, would also fill the gap operators from JSOC were running into by also living, working, training, and fighting with host nation counter-terrorism special operations units developed by A-1-5 CIF unit members themselves.
“A-1-5 actually had two advance teams in Kuwait just prior to 9/11 conducting ‘train and assist’ operations with Kuwaiti military units under the auspices of EXERCISE IRIS GOLD to finalize the CIF overseas certification requirements for its JSOC charter. There was alot of build-up to stand up A-1-5.” Neil continued, “So fast forward to 9/11, we were already in the isolation facility doing mission planning and a special operations response to what we were told was a ‘mock terrorist attack’ on the United States originating from the Middle East. Maj. Mark Nutsch’s Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595 was our isolation support team.” ODA 595’s support role included providing real-time intelligence of what was still being considered a mock terror event to Scott Neil and his A-1-5 ODA.
“I remember when a kid came in and told us that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. We all thought that this was apart of the training exercise, we had no clue it was real. We were in complete isolation from the outside world, we had no exposure to anything other than what was being given to us from our support element and higher.” I could see the glint in Neil’s eye as recalled this day vividly, he was back in the isolation room like it was yesterday, “So now still thinking this is part of the training scenario we start to plan, who did this, and why. We started to generate requests for further information, or RFI’s for higher to paint a better picture. Then an hour later another Green Beret came in and said that the Pentagon had just been hit. Okay, so what does that mean intel guy? Still thinking this was a part of the scenario.” Scott Neil and his A-1-5 ODA spent the next four hours planning a mock special operations response to this attack when they received a visit that would change these men’s lives completely.
“About fours hours after we got word of the first plane hitting the World Trade and that another plane hit the Pentagon. General, then Colonel John Mulholland, the commander of 5th Special Forces Group at the time came in and said ‘no this is real.’ As this new grim information sunk into the Green Berets heads Neil came to the realization that the Green Berets of 5th Group were already in the best position to respond. “Look at the implications, you had a CIF team already forward deployed to the Middle East that was there to respond to a terrorist event, you had ODA 595 in isolation with us as well ready to deploy at any moment. And nobody knew. Think about that, here you have one of the worst events in history but the best timing for Special Forces who were already in place to provide America’s response, and no one knew.” Days after 9/11 the White House and the then president George W. Bush wanted options, he wanted a quick response to this heinous act. However, the soonest military response that the United States could muster were six months at best. “President Bush demanded a response, he wanted America’s Response to reaffirm to our country that this will not go unpunished. The first options were conventional airborne troops parachuting into the darkness, basically a Russia 101 version of invading Afghanistan. Of course the Bush administration political advisors were like ‘yeah lets do that.’ Yet, the strategic advisors forcefully reminded them that plan hadn’t worked too well for the Soviets. And then someone at the last second slid onto the table ‘SF Option 1 to get it started now.” And President Bush took that option and thus tasked the Green Berets of 5th Group into becoming the spear of the American vanguard and sent these men to off to exact vengeance in the name of the innocent American lives lost on 9/11.
The Green Beret led invasion of Afghanistan started shortly after a brief aerial bombing campaign and the legend of the Green Beret ‘Horse Soldiers’ was born. I couldn’t help but repeat the first part of Scott Neil’s distillery banner “Legendary Men.” And I assigned this to Neil, a Green Beret living legend of the Global War on Terrorism. A moniker Neil humbly refuses. “Green Beret legends are evaporating faster than we can find the storytellers that create them.” Neil said, “We fall back onto the Vietnam era Green Berets legacy, refusing to understand we are the new generation of Green Beret war fighters.” Neil expressed his concern with how the GWOT Green Berets have been brow-beaten into adhering to the ‘Quiet Professionals’ ideal of you don’t talk about fight club. “There’s a difference between quiet professionals and silent professionals.” Neil explained, “of course when you’re an active duty Green Beret you don’t talk about fight club, when you’re in fight club. The Green Berets wrote a number one hit song, had a movie made about them with full support from the chain of command, does that sound like that adheres to the ‘Quiet Professionals’ that is thrown at any Green Beret that attempts to tell the story of the Regiment nowadays? How can we change this aversion to publicity? Right now we have a mass of retired Green Berets from both the GWOT and Vietnam spending their entire days and nights in a group on Facebook hunting for stolen valor or questioning other Green Berets loyalty to the Regiment. Is that really what you want as your next chapter in your life? How is that helping the SF Brotherhood?”
I posited the question that maybe the aversion to telling their stories is the overwhelming saturation of Navy SEAL books, movies, and television series that are all the rage in entertainment might be affecting the Green Berets’ willingness to talk about the war. Neil simply stated “I honestly think that there cannot be that many SEAL stories left. I know SEALS that never fought in the GWOT that are living off the GWOT accomplishments of the SEALS that did. They are the best recruiters for the NAVY in my opinion. And the SEAL moniker gets them paid.” Neil went on and explained what he feels is the difference between Green Berets and SEALs saying; “Most SEALs talk about ‘I’ a lot. The core culture of the Green Berets is completely different to that of a Navy SEAL. When you talk to a group of SEALS it’s about the I, when you talk to a group of Green Berets its always We. Our selection process brings that out.” And the Green Berets continue to recruit and then select men for this trait among others. The U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets must be required to work in small highly intelligent, mobile strike teams, or be very comfortable working alone and unafraid behind enemy lines. “Green Berets are never handed a solution like SEALs or even Rangers are, we are handed a problem to be solved.” This core task has stayed with the men of the Green Berets since World War II where the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) began looking for “PhD’s that can win a bar fight.” to fill the ranks of the Jedburgh teams. Men who can think and then act just as quickly and decisively as they do with their fists.
The topic of discussion then drifted to Hollywood and the upcoming Green Beret story penned by Doug Stanton known as “The Horse Soldiers” that was bought by Disney and is being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, set to release in January 2018. “There’s a saying ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ This isn’t a documentary, this is a budgeted, scripted movie. With the end goal of a profitable business event.” said Neil. “There are no Green Berets advising on that movie. Period.” In late 2016 casting calls were posted to Facebook asking for extras with veteran experience to come try out for parts in the upcoming war epic about the Horse Soldiers. The Green Berets that were involved with the actual event waited quietly for the production company to call them, surely Hollywood would reach out to the living legends of Doug Stanton’s book to advise them like what occurred with 13 Hours. That never happened. “There is no Special Operations department in L.A., there’s the Department of Defense Public Affairs Integration of Hollywood office. But they are a very little network and they all like to develop themselves as technical consultants. It’s just like a headquarters job, you retire as an O-6, come back as a GS-12 the next day.” For months the 5th Group Green Berets waited and even reached out to Hollywood, to see if they would be called on to advise on their war story. The call still never came, until one day one of the actors playing the real life Green Berets reached out.
Actors Michael Shannon playing one of the Green Berets along with Navid Negahban, who is playing the Warlord of the Northern Alliance, General Dostum reached out to the Green Berets to help them understand the characters they are playing and felt that there was something missing. “So Mark and a few others headed out to Hollywood and met with the actors, the director showed them around, Bruckheimer met with them. But there was so much missing from the script because Doug Stanton only interviewed the teams for 2 hours. The problem is that the true story is even more unbelievable than Hollywood could ever dream up. They realized that they were not getting the story right and realized that it was too late to correct and way too expensive re-write.” So Hollywood thanked the Green Berets for their time and continued with the story they had. However, Scott Neil hold no animosity towards Hollywood saying “Hollywood is a business, directors direct, they don’t write. You want more stories of Green Berets, well show me a book that Hollywood can buy to direct the story. There are none because we don’t have storytellers out there willing to tell our stories. There has to be Green Berets willing to take up the mantle of Special Forces historian, to create the legends for the next generations. Right now we are lacking in that department.” I ended the interview with that and after some more banter back and forth Scott Neil needed to get about the rest of his day. As we walked back to the front door we shook hands and hugged one another as brothers often do. Just before I moved to leave, Scott grabbed my shoulder and looked into my eyes and asked this question. “What’s going to be the next chapter in your life? Because it didn’t end when you left the Green Berets.” And with that I headed back out into the midday heat of Central Florida thinking about just that.
Feature image courtesy of Derek Gannon