Scott Neil, part of a small group of Green Berets who helped take down the Taliban in Afghanistan nearly 16 years ago, recounts the story on film and in person today as a star at the famed Sundance Film Festival.
The retired Army master sergeant from Tampa is one of five men featured in the documentary Legion of Brothers, premiering at the Utah festival. It is the story of the first foot soldiers in the post-9/11 war against jihadis — the longest war in U.S. history.
About 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.
"We spend time recounting our actions 15 years ago and discussing how it affects us today," Neil said
"It is not about the heroics, just about our part on the team that did great things. This film is in our own words about us, and it's not a typical Hollywood production where the truth is exaggerated and the main characters are played by some Hollywood star."
Even before Navy SEAL Team 6 eliminated al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, the exploits of direct action units like the SEALs and Delta Force were the subjects of books and movies, giving a skewed view of the overall role of U.S. Special Operations Forces.
Special forces efforts are overseen by U.S. Special Operations Command, which has its headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
Years in the making, Legion of Brothers aims to showcase units like the Green Berets who play a larger role by working to help allies fight their own battles.
"The direct action missions garnered all the ink even though they make up about 10 percent of the action," said retired Army Col. Tim Nye, who was public affairs officer for SOCom commander William McRaven when the filmmakers approached the Tampa headquarters with their concept.
The documentary was produced for CNN by reporter Peter Bergen; his wife, journalist and Emmy-nominated documentarian Tresha Mabile; Emmy Award-winning director Greg Barker; and Academy Award-nominated John Battsek.
McRaven, a Navy SEAL admiral who was in charge of the bin Laden raid when he ran Joint Special Operations Command, offered his blessing.
"I did agree to have Peter do the documentary," McRaven said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "I have a soft spot in my heart for the Special Forces! All my aides have been SF and after watching the magnificent work they do overseas, you can't help but be impressed."
For the filmmakers, Legion of Brothers was a long-held vision come true.
"I came across a lot of these guys back in 2002," said Barker, the film's director. He won an Emmy for Manhunt, about the killing of bin Laden.
On assignment in Afghanistan for PBS, Barker met Neil and fellow Green Berets Jason Amerine, Mark Nutsch, Bob Pennington and Billy Howell.
"The extraordinary nature of that initial mission behind Taliban lines stuck with me," Barker said.
Bergen is a journalist, documentary producer, think tank director and author of five books, including one about the hunt for bin Laden. In an interview, he said that after so much attention on Navy SEALs, he and his colleagues wanted to focus on the Green Berets.
"It was an amazing campaign to overthrow the Taliban. One of the great unconventional victories of modern warfare. Pretty much a textbook case of what special forces should be doing," he said.
Bergen and Barker say the documentary can provide lessons for the new administration.
"It is highly unlikely that President Trump will send in tens of thousands of men and women in uniform to some other country," Bergen said. The future of American warfare, he added, is largely in special operations and drones, barring a war with China or another major power.
Tampa played a big role in the documentary, Bergen said, thanks to assistance from Neil and a man Neil introduced him to — Stu Bradin, a retired Army colonel and top McRaven aide who helped through the Tampa-based Global SOF Foundation.
Bradin said he hopes CNN, which plans to release the documentary in theaters, will bring it to Tampa for the upcoming Global SOF Foundation symposium next month. Bergen and Mabile are scheduled to speak.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.