On the morning of 9/11, a member of the group that became known as the Horse Soldiers was training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, responding to a mock terrorist attack. He had just returned from the Middle East.
Another member, in a different Army unit, was getting ready to deploy there on Oct. 1.
That morning, an intelligence officer wrote on the whiteboard, “The World Trade Center’s been hit.” An hour later, he walked back in and wrote , “The second World Trade Center’s been hit.”
“We thought it was part of the exercise,” Master Sgt. Scott Neil, of Tampa, Florida, told MGM Resorts International’s Veterans Employee Network Group on Tuesday evening at Vdara.
But, there it was, on CNN, in the mess hall.
Neil, with retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Pennington, served as a Green Beret. Neil spent 25 years in the Army. Pennington, who lives in Atlanta, served 30 years.
The two were part of the first group of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers sent to Afghanistan less than a month after 9/11, where they secretly entered the country on horseback to go to war against the Taliban.
Honored at ground zero
A monument at ground zero in New York called “De Oppresso Liber” honors the group, which inspired the 2018 film “12 Strong.” Tuesday, they told their stories not only to veteran MGM employees but to a room of airmen from Nellis and Creech Air Force bases and the UNLV Rebel Vets.
It was a chat called “Whiskey and War Stories.” Afterward, they indulged in some whiskey from the distillery the two run with four other Green Berets.
MGM Vice President and Chief of Staff John Flynn, who also served in the Air Force and is a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, said the night was about sharing stories and camaraderie on the eve of 9/11.
“Not forgetting that we still have many service members on the ground in Afghanistan today,” he said. “It’s important for our veteran community to hear some of these great success stories and take those lessons learned and apply it to their daily lives.”
Pennington had spent about four years in the 1990s training at Nellis with other military branches.
That training proved worthwhile in Afghanistan, he said. Before they departed for a four-month deployment there, they had to quickly pack some essentials: toilet paper, ammunition, water, half a day’s worth of food, battery power for communications and a sleeping bag to share with three people.
Pennington said his medic survived that mission but was killed in Iraq.
“Imagine having the most secret mission, with the most dangerous terrain, with the most dangerous enemy, and you don’t even know if you’re going to survive,” Neil said.
“It was basically, ‘Go do that voodoo that you do so well,’” Pennington added.
They weren’t sure if the helicopters would make it over the Hindu Kush mountain range. They weren’t sure who the enemy was.
“Who would volunteer for that mission? I think everybody, especially if you’re a veteran in here,” Neil said.
Pennington’s mission involved unconventional training and putting Afghan fighters into battle. Neil’s mission was to go behind the lines and kill or capture the Taliban generals. None of the teams knew what the others were doing, in case they were captured.
“For us, this was the pinnacle of the Green Beret,” Pennington said. “We are the only service in all of the military that actually trains in unconventional warfare.”
Had to learn to ride
Pennington had to learn to ride horses.
“My experience was the horse out in front of the Walmart that I would drop a couple quarters in,” he said.
In and near Afghanistan, his horse would buckle under the weight of the kit, his 235 pounds and the tied-down weapon.
But they were lucky to have the horses, Pennington said. With them, they could take the high ground and could call in air support. They rode from six to 24 hours a day, coordinating attacks, and went on trails about 5,000 feet high.
The Taliban had taken over the Afghan government and oppressed the nation’s people. The only way civilians were able to escape was to hide in the mountains and ride in and around on horses.
Together, the Horse Soldiers joined Afghan riders who had assembled to fight the Taliban. Young sergeants were paired up with 750 Afghan fighters, who advised them.
“That is what brought us to victory, in my opinion,” Pennington said.
Pennington and Neil went on to form the Ohio-based American Freedom Distillery in 2015, creating a whiskey called Horse Soldier. Its bottle is molded out of metal from ground zero.
They will never forget 9/11, which started the story behind the Horse Soldier.
“It’s a day of remembrance. For this generation, it’s our Pearl Harbor,” Neil said. “It’s really defined us. … What I love about what we’re doing now is, we’re talking about how we’ve risen since 9/11.”