ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — As the U.S. was reeling in the days following the 9/11 terror attacks, Mark Nutsch was receiving his assignment.
Nutsch was part of a 12-member group of Green Berets sent into Afghanistan as the War on Terrorism began 18 years ago. Their mission: Organize resistance fighters to take down members of the Taliban who orchestrated the coordinated attacks.
"It was definitely historic,” Nutsch said. “We were in there, along with the CIA, to gather intelligence and information to ultimately topple the Taliban regime."
It was a mission literally made for the movies, eventually serving as inspiration for the 2018 Hollywood film "12 Strong" starring Chris Hemsworth.
The group famously became known as the Horse Soldiers, trading typical military vehicles for horseback to navigate the country’s rugged terrain.
Today, their mission has morphed.
Nutsch and six of this fellow retired Green Berets are now business partners focused on whiskey rather than war. They’re in the midst of opening American Freedom Distillery in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District.
Their signature bourbon, aptly named Horse Soldiers, is packaged in bottles formed in molds made of steel from the World Trade Center.
With work underway on the distillery, they’re also focused on a project right next door: a one-of-a-kind tribute to 9/11 heroes.
St. Pete sculptor Mark Aeling, of MGA Sculptures Studio, is helping bring it to life.
“They expressed to me a real interest in focusing on where we go from here,” Aeling said. “It was very important this monument look forward not look back; the idea of the phoenix came to mind – rise from the ashes.”
The centerpiece of the monument is a 4,000 pound rusted, mangled piece of steel beam from the World Trade Center, believed to be one of the last pieces salvaged from Ground Zero.
In addition to the steel beam, the monument will also feature a fountain, clay tiles -- to which the community will be invited to add images, thoughts or prayers -- and a 25-foot copper phoenix wing that will sit atop a piles of white limestone, which will signify the crumpled concrete once scattered across Ground Zero.
"It’s become St. Pete rising,” Nutsch said. “What we wanted to symbolize was that after our service we're now trying to live the American dream we've been defending."
The 9/11 monument will sit in a new park at the corner of 5th Avenue South and 22nd Street South.
“The responsibility is intimidating, certainly,” Aeling said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity but at the same time I approach it with a great deal of earnestness. I want to do it justice.”
Non-profit St. Pete Rise continues to collect donations to fund the monument. Donations can be made online here.
Nutsch said the distillery should be open by the end of the year.
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