The Real Horse Soldiers in Afghanistan

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By Don Kyle

In 2018, the story of the first team of American soldiers (all Green Berets) who responded to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in Afghanistan in October of 2001, was told in the movie 12 Strong. Many of you have seen this movie, but you probably would be surprised to learn that Chief Warrant Officer 4 (Retired) Robert “Bob” Pennington, who was the Deputy Detachment Commander of ODA-595, lives right here in north Atlanta. In the movie, Pennington’s character was renamed Hal Spencer and was portrayed by Michael Shannon. The Detachment Commander was led by Captain Mark Nutsch, and his character was renamed Mitch Nelson and was portrayed by Chris Hemsworth.

Recently, Real Hero Report sat down with Pennington to hear how the mission actually happened.

Pennington was the detachment leader of ODA 595, assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky on the morning of 9/11, and the team was on a training mission nearby when they learned of the terrorist attacks of that fateful morning. They immediately headed back to Ft. Campbell.  As depicted in the movie, Nutsch previously had been the Captain of the detachment but had been reassigned to a staff position. At the insistence of Pennington, Nutsch was reassigned to the team. A plan to go in country then was approved, and in less than month, the 12-man team of ODA 595 headed to Uzbekistan on the morning of October 5, 2001.

On October 7, 2001, ODA 595 arrived in Karchi-Khanabad (K2) Airfield, Uzbekistan. ODA 595’s original mission was to rescue downed American pilots, but that mission was assumed by the U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Squadron. ODA 595 then presented a new mission plan to Colonel Mulholland, Joint Special Operations Task Force-North Commander, after a plan presented by another detachment had been rejected. ODA-595, was tasked to conduct Unconventional Warfare in support of General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Norther Alliance (NA). ODA-595 supported GEN Dostum from October 20, until December 20, 2001.

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CWO 4 Pennington on October 19, 2001, minutes before infiltration into Afghanistan–D-Day for ODA 595.

The mission was to begin on October 17, but due to weather delays, it did not begin until October 19, on which date the team headed to HLZ ALBATROSS, Base Camp Alamo, which was located approximately 50 miles southeast of Mazar-e Sharif (MES), in northern Afghanistan, approximately 2 miles south of the village of Dehi. The flight as depicted in the movie was extremely cold and dangerous. The three-hour plus flight was executed by the Army’s elite Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Task Force 160.

On the morning of October 20, an advanced security element of 20 NA horsemen galloped into the clearing ODA 595 had landed on near the compound. Trailing them by 10 minutes was Dostum and an additional 30 horsemen. They were all carrying small arms, including AK-47s, RPG-7s, and PK machine-guns. The introductions and translation for this initial meeting was conducted by the Other Government Agency (OGA) team leader, as he was fluent in Dari. The OGA, ODA and NA leadership then sat down on a carpeted mound inside the compound for an hour long discussion. Dostum produced a map, explaining his strategy and campaign plan to Nutsch. Dostum wanted to take only four personnel from the ODA to his mountain HQ, by horseback, but finally agreed to take six personnel. Six horses and three donkeys were prepared for the team to use in accompanying Dostum.

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The Alamo, base camp, early morning on Oct 20, 2001. An hour later, the team would split and ride horses to Dostum’s mountain CP.

Nutsch, Pennington and MSG Paul quickly decided that the detachment should split into two teams of six.  This was due to the logistical support of transportation assets.  Nutsch would command the Alpha Team, consisting of himself, SFC Andy, SFC Bennett, SFC Vince, SFC Steve, and SSG Pete.  And Pennington would command the Bravo Team of consisting of himself, MSG Paul, SFC Stephen, SSG Will, SSG Mike, and SSG Chad.  The Alpha Team, had only a few minutes to prepare their gear, tailoring them to be put on donkeys. Some gear was cut to remain with Bravo Team which would stay behind at the base camp until more horses could be obtained.  Dostum then rode off towards the village of Dehi, leaving the Alpha Team members to follow with a 10-man NA security element, riding horseback for four hours into the mountains. All members of the ODA, except Nutsch, were novice horseback riders. Several were riding horses for the first time in their lives. None of the NA security element could speak English or any language the ODA spoke, and the ODA members only could speak “caveman” Russian, Arabic, and French.

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Plane side of Vice Chief of Staff, GEN Keane in December 2001. The detachment met and briefed him on our campaign the day before.

From October 20 to 24, the ODA operated in this split team manner, executing operations de-centrally. Alpha Team would continue to build rapport, conduct the area assessment, and call Close Air Support (CAS).  The first CAS missions were conducted on October 21. This ability to call in CAS was the best rapport builder the team could demonstrate to Dostum. Initially the team had to call CAS from a distance of 8-10 kilometers from the targets, looking across the Darya Suf Gorge. Weather conditions made visibility extremely hazy, even with M-22 binoculars and spotting scopes. These first targets struck with CAS were two Taliban Command Posts (CP), six armored vehicles, two artillery pieces, and more than one hundred troops. The enemy could be observed straight north of Dostum’s HQ. They were positioned on a hilltop along the ridgeline.

When the Alpha Team called in a B-52 strike for the first time, the initial sortie aircraft had an extremely difficult time locating the targets due to hazy visibility and high flight altitudes. Over a two-day period, from October 20 to 21, Nutsch was able to convince Dostum that the bombings would be more effective if the team could closer to the enemy. Initially the team was not permitted to move forward towards the Taliban positions. Dostum was very concerned about a team member becoming injured. On several occasions, he told Nutsch the following: “500 of my men can be killed, but not one American can even be injured or you will leave.” By continually demonstrating U.S. commitment to his NA forces, eventually this barrier was broken. The ODA was able to then choose observation post locations at its discretion.

Dostum was very protective of the ODA. Assigning his own trusted bodyguards as the team member’s personal bodyguards and sending a small security force of his troops wherever they traveled. These personal security details were under the threat of death if anything should happen to the Americans. A joke between Dostum and the ODA was that detachment members were humanitarian aid workers sent there to help him hand out “lead” to the Taliban. Over the next several weeks, Dostum was interviewed over the phone by several journalists. When pressed about the presence of U.S. Special Forces, on several occasions he would say he had only a few humanitarian aid workers assisting his NA troops.

Pennington, commanding the Bravo Team, remained near Dostum’s logistics base with his team. The Bravo Team established rapport with the NA logistical officer, coordinated aerial re-supplies for the ODA and NA forces. Re-supplies included lethal and non-lethal aid, medical supplies, cold weather gear, and MREs. With only six members of the ODA and the small security force to secure the urgently-needed supply drops at night, these aerial drops were a significant challenge. These night drops became increasingly dangerous, as hundreds of local Afghan civilians would overwhelm the drop zones (DZ), on each occasion, taking urgently needed supplies and randomly firing shots across the DZs.

On October 23, the Bravo Team moved from Dehi up the mountain by horseback to linkup with the Alpha Team near Dostum’s mountain CP. Once at the HQ they were unable to move again as Dostum logistically could not support them with food, water, horseback or pack animals. The Bravo Team would remain at the HQ through the October 24, coordinating with Dostum for future aerial resupplies. The Bravo Team then rode and walked off the mountain with their gear on pack animals back to Dehi on October 25. Bravo team had to remain in the Dehi area near the base camp, until more horses could be found and purchased or motorized transportation acquired.

Again, Nutsch, Pennington and MSG Paul conversed and decided to again split down the detachment in order to gain a strategic control over the operational area.  The Alpha Team split into two three-man teams (Tiger 02 and Tiger-02A) performing separate missions. On 27 October, Tiger 02 and Dostum returned horseback across the mountains to the village of Dehi and Dostum’s logistic base where the Bravo Team was located.  Dostum, along with Nutsch, Pennington and the rest of ODA-595 members, held an area command meeting on October 28, in Dehi to discuss his coordinated plan of attack to recapture MES.  At this meeting, ODA-595 met CDRs Atta, Mohahqeq and scores of other commanders. Over the next several days he and OGA Reps would meet with these commanders, coordinating logistical support, and the linkup of ODA with CDR Atta’s troops near Aq Kobruk in the Balkh Valley.  This is said to be the greatest attribute Special Forces detachment’s offer, the ability to diplomatically form alliances with other factions or tribes.  The ODA with Dostum at the helm brought three separate factions together to fight a common enemy.

Though combat operations continued every day for the detachment, two key battles helped drive the Taliban further north.  By now the detachment had decentralized into four, 3-man cells and a 2-man HQ cell.  The detachment was able to accomplish this with the addition of two Air Force personnel who arrived on the night of October 28.  Each cell would advise and assist a Northern Alliance force of up to 750 fighters. No other detachments in theater at the time would decentralize and command elements in this fashion. By now, the entire force had grown to 4,000 fighters, 3,000 were horse-mounted cavalry.

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Final push into Mazar E Sharif on November10. Supplies were air dropped into a minefield early morning on the 10th. Pennington is seated in the passenger side; SFC Stephen is driving; SFC Vince standing left, and another team member is at right.

The fiercest fighting/bombing for the detachment and NA, would take place November 5-10. All cells including Pennington’s would be responsible for destroying key Taliban command bunkers, prepared trench and bunker systems, deliberate minefields which were heavily armed and manned, and several heavily armed vehicles with 100s of enemy fighters. The Taliban was demonstrating their tenacity and will to fight against the NA with their armor, air defense assets, artillery, mortars, and small arms.

On November 9, the Kuh-E-Al Borz Pass towards the city of MES came under heavy and accurate Taliban BM-21 MRL and artillery strike. These strikes on this key choke point effectively stopped the NA advance as troops became scattered into the caves and rocks in an effort to seek cover. Watching several of their injured and killed comrades being transported to the rear, fear and panic became clearly evident in the NA troops. Without delay, Pete, following Nutsch on horseback, proceeded through the chokepoint and recent locations of mines and artillery strikes. The mere presence of these Special Forces soldiers motivated the NA commanders and troops in such a manner as to pick up their weapons, mount their horses or move by foot from cover onto the road and follow the Americans through the pass, where they quickly determined the enemy situation and immediately plotted their positions. At the same time establishing clear communications with command elements, employing a B-52 sortie, and destroying the heavily armed enemy.  The resulting CAS strike effectively opened the pass, allowing friendly forces to continue pushing north towards the city of MES the following day. On November 10, under cover of darkness with all cells in positon for the upcoming early morning attack, Tiger 02B (Pennington, Vince and Stephen) surveyed, reported and serviced an aerial resupply drop that landed 1,000 meters off its target into a suspected minefield. The cell, placing themselves in great personal danger with total disregard for their safety, recovered nearly all of the much-needed supplies for the final assault into MES on the morning of the November 10.

On the afternoon of November 10, Tiger 02D, consisting of Pete, Chad, Will and Tomcat, was directed to enter into the city of MES for a Direct Action mission on a hard-line Taliban stronghold. The reported 600 Taliban stated “they were unwilling to surrender and will fight to the death.” This CAS element entered the city via truck during daylight hours utilizing alleyways and back streets, speaking with a number of city leaders informing them of the situation, giving them time to evacuate the surrounding area of Afghan civilians. When the negotiations for the surrender failed, the element then moved to an OP in the center of the city, just 380 meters from the enemy position. While under heavy enemy small arms fire and a deteriorating time constraint, this element again exposed themselves to enemy fire setting up and maintaining the SOFLAM laser. A CAS strike employing a flight of F-18s was utilized. After completing a detailed talk-on of the pilot to the target, the 4 MK-83 bombs successfully impacted the target, without any collateral damage or fratricide to civilian or friendly personnel who were in dangerously close proximity to the targets. The Direct Action mission resulted in the complete destruction of the Sultan Razia compound and more than 400 determined Taliban personnel.

The city of MES had been secured by Dostum, CDRs Atta and Mohahqeq Forces on November 10. Dostum then established his HQ at the medieval fortress of Quali Jangi. There would be other skirmishes the detachment would face in the coming weeks. Most notably, the discovery and capture of John Walker Lindh and two other high-ranking Taliban fighters. The American-born Taliban fighter Lindh, trained alongside of Al-Qaida terrorists. Across the area, detachment members would conduct numerous surveys in order to ascertain humanitarian needs, visiting numerous hospitals and clinics to determine medical needs for local doctors. Requesting several humanitarian aid drops, NA troops would receive uniforms and cold weather gear. The ODA continued to work with Dostum, training his bodyguards and advising him in his personal security.

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October 2013–Dedication of the TF Dagger at USASOC. Pennington (right) along with MSG Mike, weapons SGT for ODA-595 during our Afghan campaign.

Nutsch, and the 13 other detachment members supported Dostum, his subordinate commanders and their forces in extensive combat operations throughout the Darya Suf and Balkh Valleys. The entire ODA, coordinating and controlling United States Air Force, United States Navy, and United States Marine Corps air support, was directly responsible for assisting the NA forces in destroying hundreds of vehicles, including transport and armored vehicles, artillery and air defense assets, heavy equipment, bunkers, and command posts. They also were instrumental in assisting the NA forces in destroying several thousand determined Taliban soldiers, forcing the capture and surrender of several thousand more Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, and causing the defection of hundreds of local Taliban fighters to the NA forces.

During the campaign with Dostum’s NA forces, the ODA with other Special Forces elements, effectively liberated the six Northern Provinces. This included the key cities of Mazar-e Sharif, Meymanah, Sare pol, Sheberghan, Heyraton, Auybak, Konduz, and more than 50 other towns and cities through 100 miles of mountains, gorges, hills and valleys on some of the roughest terrain in the world. The ODA traveled by horses (primarily), ATVs, NTVs, and also by foot. Except for Nutsch, all other ODA members were novice horseback riders, maneuvering along hazardous mountain trails, often at night and in all extremes of weather through suspected minefields, over daunting terrain from the ODA infiltration point south of Dehi to Mazar-e Sharif. The Detachment alone called in more than 300 sorties which was reported as an astounding number for the time frame they were on the ground.

Throughout their time in Afghanistan, this ODA supported Dostum’s forces in combat and in peace, built a strong and unique bond with them, and worked with them towards a common goal: To free Afghanistan from all Taliban forces and secure peace throughout the region.

Horse Soldier Bourbon Whiskey
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Since retiring from the Army, Pennington has teamed up with fellow former Army Green Berets, John Koko (CEO) and MSG(R) Scott Neil (COO), and Mark Nutsch, in creating Horse Soldier Bourbon Whiskey. The bourbon is produced and distributed by American Freedom Distillery (AFD), located in St. Petersburg, Florida.

AFD is a dream turned reality for a special group of friends who served our nation in its’ darkest days, answering America’s call as generations before them have. Today, AFD handcrafts this American product with the same sense of mission, training, and honor. Simply put, it is made by them to share together and with you. AFD puts their passion, pride, and shared dreams of the future in each and every drop–premium spirits that will stand the test of time. They gave their all then, and they give their all now to you, their loyal supporters, and to their beloved charities.

 

 

 

 

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