Horse Soldiers

From left, John Koko, Mark Nutsch, Bob Pennington, and Scott Neil — the American heroes behind Horse Soldier Bourbon — stood on the stage at The Center for Rural Development and shared their tales of battle and business for the “Whiskey and War Stories” event.

Everyone’s heads were turned toward the giant video screen in the hall of The Center for Rural Development, watching clips about the daring exploits of the “Horse Soldiers.” One of those watching was Scott Neil, a Horse Soldier himself. Most stood still, silent, solemn. Neil, on the other hand, fidgeted, bouncing, his leg shaking.

After all, what he was watching wasn’t just a movie or a documentary or a picture on a screen. It was his life. A dangerous life that he not only survived, but one in which he’s about to begin the newest chapter.

“(The Horse Soldiers) were a remarkable group of men who were on horseback, doing what Green Berets do ... but we’re also the quiet professionals,” said Neil. “... This really is a story about transition. Everybody wants to know about the past, but this isn’t the past. The success is what we’re doing today and the group of friends who served together and our families that are with us.”

Added colleague John Koko, “This is a journey that’s unfolding for us. ... We are every person you’ve ever known in your family. We’re average guys. It was just our turn to do something.”

The dichotomy between the “average guys” in 2020 who chose Somerset as the quiet all-American home for their bourbon business and the larger-than-life heroes portrayed in the book and film versions of “12 Strong” — based on the Green Berets Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595 group’s deployment into Afghanistan following 9/11 and the work they did on the rough terrain on horseback — is what makes them so attractive for this area.

On Wednesday, a sizable crowd packed The Center for Rural Development for an event called “Whiskey & War Stories.” Four of the “Horse Soldiers” shared glimpses into their extraordinary past with the crowd over a catered lunch while promoting their future here in town, where the distillery for Horse Soldier Bourbon will eventually be located. The project is expected to add dozens of new jobs to the area and ideally putting Pulaski County on the famed “Bourbon Trail” in Kentucky. 

“It was incredible,” said Somerset Mayor Alan Keck of the turnout and event. “It was just another step in a historic journey and I think it goes to show how supportive the community is for the project and how much they’re going to love the guys from Horse Soldier.”

Koko and Neil were joined by fellow Horse Soldier veterans Bob Pennington and Mark Nutsch on stage at the event, sharing firsthand accounts of how their military operations unfolded and showing photographs, maps, and quick media clips about their battles. 

By now, the story of the Horse Soldier Bourbon and American Freedom Distillery is fairly well-known. After moving on from their lives in the military, the band of brothers who made up the first U.S. Army Special Forces unit to enter Afghanistan following the infamous 9/11 attacks wanted something else to do with their lives. The idea was born to start a business together during a trip to Yellowstone National Park and visiting a craft vodka distillery — “Just the thought of it excited everybody,” proclaimed one of the videos the crowd was shown telling the Horse Soldier story. They approached the matter like they would one of their military operations — carefully gathering information, learning all they could, studying every aspect of the business.

It was started six years ago, in a little distillery in St. Petersburg, Fla., because the United States Special Operations Command is located in that area. “A lot of us retired there,” said Neil, “but we soon realized that we needed a larger capacity and we found a friend in Ohio where we currently make (Horse Soldier Bourbon). He had just built a distillery, he was looking for some support, his brand was very young ... We would all bunk up in this little Airbnb and we would make 100 barrels, then 200, then 500. But today we’ve outgrown that, and that’s what led us on this journey to discover our future home. ... We became captivated with Somerset.”

Yet Keck had to fight his own battle to get them here. The mayor recalled stating his vision of bringing a bourbon distillery to Somerset while still campaigning in 2018, only six years after Somerset went “wet” at all. 

“Many people said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re in the middle of a campaign. You’re six weeks from an election,’” recalled Keck. “But I believed in the vision so much ... I told my team, ‘I don’t want to wait. We won in November, I don’t take office until January. We’re going to bring a bourbon distillery here, somehow, someway.’ I said, ‘Let’s get a video done. Let’s go ahead and talk about Lake Cumberland.’”

The video was sent to “anyone that would listen, anyone that would watch it, big and small.” But nothing really happened until Keck’s colleague Cody Gibson told the mayor about a group he’d heard about on a podcast — “Something about American Freedom Distillery or something,” Keck recalled the conversation as going. Keck urged Gibson to send the Horse Soldier group the video in his behalf and “see what happens.” A return email was soon received, with their interest expressed, thanks in part to their roots in Lake Cumberland.

After all, members of the group were even conducting training on the Cumberland River when the 9/11 attacks happened, a moment that sealed their place in history forever.

“On Sept. 10, our mission was a (two-day) exercise to actually go down the Cumberland River,” said Pennington, noting that he was dropping off Neil’s team for Direct Action training near Nashville during the course of it. “... The exercise went as planned. We made our way back around 2 a.m. The fog had come in; it was so thick that we had to stop and and take our rubber rafts and put them on the side of the bank. We woke up the next morning on the side of the bank freezing in those rafts — it was absolutely chilling — and then made our way back to the designated pick-up point.

“We made our way back in the trucks and then we hear on the radio — the first plane hit. We’re all looking at each other and we know at that time it was a terrorist attack,” he continued. “So now we’re going as fast as we can in a truck full of rubber boats to try to get into the gate at Ft. Campbell, Ky. By now, the line to get in there is at least two miles long. But trust me, we made our way in there in five minutes.”

The time it took to woo American Freedom Distillery and its fine Horse Soldier Bourbon product to Somerset took a little bit longer. After an initial conversation with the group, Keck managed to square a lunch date when the Horse Soldiers were in Indiana. “One hour turned into four,” said Keck, “... and we started to forge some relationships that I knew in my heart were special.” That was especially true after they invited him to an event in the Dallas, Texas area at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. 

“Their brand is on a rocket ship, things are going really, really well, and so their three-to-five-year plan looks like it’s going to get sped up,” said Keck. He recalls being told that they “might consider Kentucky” as a location for their large-scale distillery project, but other cities were also interested: Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, “all the big boys we’re competing against.” But Keck and his team continued to sell the Lake Cumberland community, and Keck received another invitation to a Horse Soldier Bourbon event near their own monument dedicated to the soldiers’ overseas heroics located near the World Trade Center site in New York City — the America’s Response Monument. During that visit, Keck said, “(Koko) gave me that nod that Somerset is going to be the place.”

Nutsch put a human face on the soldiers who risked their lives going into Afghanistan, the 12 members of Special Forces Team 595: The average age was 32. Ten of 12 were married. Five were already combat veterans. 

“For Special Forces, we were considered a very senior, mature team,” said Nutsch. “We focused and trained in unconventional warfare.” Nevertheless, “they didn’t expect us to survive. There were so many questions that were unanswered, but we knew that our team was that team that could do this mission. We let our chain-of-command know, ‘Send me. Send us. We can do this. You need to get someone in on the ground to help provide those answers.’”

The team was matched with a CIA team and inserted. The soldiers joined up with a group of armed horsemen from a local warlord — only one member of the group, Nutsch, was an experienced rider — and eventually came to work with the warlord and offer strategic advice. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda had tanks and armored vehicles, and the 595 team watched the group of 300 horseman stand up to those weapons. “It was incredible,” said Nutsch.

Perhaps even more incredible was the work done to bring four different ethnic factions in the area together despite a deep and complicated history with one another — “I equate it to something like a Mafia Don meeting,” said Nutsch; each group brought about 100 armed “friends” — for a two-day conference. “We did not fully understand that rivalry or history of alliances between those people.”

Yet, the meeting was successful — Pennington said the 12-man ODA split into three-man cells of soldiers, teamed up with those factions and “engulfed the battlefield.” A militia army of nearly 5,000 fighters was raised and additional Special Forces teams were brought in to help, including an “aerial armada.”

And now, that crew is bringing their know-how to Somerset — not to unite different factions of the territory to fight terrorists, but to join with a new community and celebrate living the American Dream.

“I come here with my heart open, hoping that the next forever home ... is going to be even more historic than the things that we have done in our lives prior to this moment,” said Koko. “This is our journey, and it’s not over. It’s still being written.”

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