Veteran discusses mission to take down the Taliban, movie hitting theaters Friday
By KALEY JOHNSON | Belleville News-Democrat | Published: January 18, 2018
BELLEVILLE, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Sixteen years ago, a Cahokia native became a “horse soldier” — one of the 12 elite men sent to Afghanistan following 9/11 to take down the Taliban. On Friday, the movie portraying the secret, high-risk mission will premiere around the country.
In 2001, Steve Kofron was on a six-month break from the military to attend college and had just re-enlisted. On Sept. 11, the 37-year-old was riding in a truck with his friend when, like the rest of the nation, his life abruptly changed.
Kofron said when he and his 11 comrades in the Green Berets of the military’s 5th Special Forces group heard about the post-9/11 mission to bring down the Taliban, they did not just volunteer for it — they fought to be able to go.
“There were five teams interviewed and you had to convince the commander that you’re the best trained and you’re ready for this type of mission,” Kofron said.
As it turned out, Kofron and his team, the Operational Detachment-Alpha 595, were most convincing. Codenamed Task Force Dagger, their mission was the initial push into Afghanistan, one that would lay the groundwork for an overwhelming defeat of the Taliban in just a few months.
The 12 men landed in the middle of Afghanistan after a four-hour helicopter ride. Over the next few months, they would meet with the generals in the country — part of the northern alliance — to break the spirit of the Taliban and kick them out of Afghanistan.
Challenges were plenty and security almost nonexistent, the Cahokia man said Wednesday.
“We wrote the mission as we were going along. It wasn’t like you just did a raid of a prison, it wasn’t like you just did an ambush. It was every step we take, we’re writing this mission as we go.”
To complicate matters, the only transportation available across the rough terrain were horses, earning the team the name the “Horse Soldiers.”
At the time, Kofron had two children and a girlfriend, who would later become his wife, waiting for him back home.
“It was brutal. There’s a line in the movie where someone asks, ‘how do you love your children and leave them and go to war?’ I don’t have an answer to that. You just do the best you can with what you have and what you got,” he said.
The declassified true story
The movie, “12 Strong” tells the declassified story of the soldiers, starring actors like Chris Hemsworth, who played Thor in the hit Marvel films, and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon. A Warner Brothers film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Alcon Entertainment, it is expected to gross $15 million or more in ticket sales from the U.S. and Canada this weekend.
It isn’t the anticipated sales or the Hollywood names that impressed Kofron, who watched the film for the first time on Wednesday. Instead, it was the impact the film can have on others, for both those in the special forces and for a nation still shocked from the 2001 attacks.
“I hope this is the beginning of something. There are Green Berets out there doing this all the time,” he said. “We hope you’re going to attach this to what happened in 9/11. You could feel the energy in the Lincoln Center today. It was awe-inspiring, and I was just thinking, ‘this is for us?’”
Overall, he said the movie was also true in its portrayal of the high-risk reality of the mission.
“We were briefed that we might not be coming back and a lot of that is depicted in the movie,” Kofron said. “They were saying we don’t have a lot of intel on this and they [the Taliban] are cutting people’s heads off and skinning people alive. They offered rewards for our dead bodies in real life and in the movie.”
This past week, Kofron and his family were sent to New York for a dedication ceremony at Ground Zero for the horse soldiers, as well as for the movie premiere and a segment on “Good Morning America.” It was the first time in at least six years that Kofron had seen some of comrades.
“We’re just trying to digest this, they’re making it out that we’re heroes and none of us look at it at all like that. We knew it was a serious mission, we never looked at it like that,” he said.
His family, however, was more than comfortable in the spotlight.
“My wife really pushed me hard to get a picture of Chris Hemsworth. At the pre-party before the premiere, we were talking to people and my son grabbed my phone, walked over to Chris and said ‘how about a selfie?’ and just took a picture,” Kofron said, laughing.
Kofron also met actor Geoff Stults, who portrays his character, Sean Coffers, in the movie. He said his character is seen as the “team troublemaker,” which Kofron said is not exactly accurate since they all “beat each other up verbally to keep each other on their toes.”
Strength from the foundation
Kofron joined the military in December of 1985 and retired in October of 2006. He graduated from Cahokia High School in 1984. While there, he was on the football and wrestling team under coaches Lawrence Taylor and Russ Baum.
“I was just this little white guy but I always remember Coach Taylor said ‘he’s never quit. I see one day, that man is going to be something,” he said. “You always have a teacher that inspires you, and Coach Baum and Coach Taylor were pretty awesome.”
Kofron said his other inspiration is the person who has been by his side for over 15 years — his wife, Diana Kofron.
“Don’t forget the foundation to the building, the wife. We’re strong because of our foundation and I have a hell of one,” he said. “My sweetheart is an active duty major in the United States Air Force. She’s my hero.”
As he stood in Times Square on Wednesday with his family, Kofron looked around, imagining the ashes falling from the sky in 2001.
It’s been 16 years, but Kofron is still hoping that his experiences, and now the film that shares them, will be a positive impact on those still fighting overseas and at home.
“I’m not a hero and I know I’m not a hero,” he said. “I just hope that we can make it better for the guys behind us.”
Chris Hemsworth, center, in a scene from "12 Strong," a movie about the Green Berets who were sent to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
DAVID JAMES/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT