a pleasant, breezy Saturday evening on October 2, 1993, I sat smoking a
cigar with my good friend, Tim Wilkinson, contemplating the growing
darkness and the constellations as they slowly materialized overhead.
Sitting on a wall of sandbags outside the only hangar at the airport in
Mogadishu, Somalia, it was an unusually calm evening. We were, as we
often reflected, doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. We had spent
the majority of our adult careers rising to the top of our professions,
and this was the culmination of that work. The constant breeze off the
Indian Ocean always brought welcome relief from the rank smells of
Mogadishu. We were here at the request of the United Nations and by
direction of the president of the United States to capture Mohamed
Farrah Aidid, a renegade Somali warlord who intentionally killed
several U.S. Marines and more than twoscore Pakistanis and Nigerians in
the previous eight months. As a secondary mission we were to dismantle
as much of his infrastructure as possible through the snatching of his
key personnel, whenever they could be located. Our missions had gone
well, at least from a military viewpoint. Politically, the situation
had become mired in the mixed signals we received through the media and
the White House. We were confident we were going to catch Aidid, but
what then? According to the foreign policy of the day, we would then
turn him over to U.N. authorities who would do...we knew not what. But
that was not our concern. We were soldiers, sailors, airmen, there to
do a mission, nothing more .And what missions they were. The United
States had spared no expense in assembling this, the finest precision
strike force it ever had implemented in a real-world environment. There
was no doubt that we were capable of forcing our way into the heart of
a hostile city ravaged by years of civil war and teeming with over a
million people. Task Force Ranger was comprised of the absolute best
U.S. shock troops. There was the secretive Delta Force, shored up by a
company of Rangers, young men with more energy to expend than a
conventional Army unit three times their size. Ferrying our lethal
assembly on its missions was Task Force 160, the best combat helicopter
pilots in the world. Mixed in were a select few Air Force Special
Operators and Navy Seals. This was truly a joint endeavor, just as the
designers of modern U.S. special warfare had planned. No one could
strike faster, hit harder or leave more devastation in their wake than
us. Task Force Ranger had successfully completed six previous missions
without a single serious U.S. casualty. Drawing a parallel to today's
situation in Yugoslavia, it would be like putting 150 men in downtown
Belgrade and charging them with the mission of snatching Slobodan
Milosevic from anywhere in the city, anytime, day or night.
most of our time was spent waiting for our next mission. Many days and
nights were devoted to devising ways to relieve the stress and boredom
that accompany long deployments: TV in the hangar, volleyball, cards,
calisthenics, running. For myself and Tim, it was a cigar on the
sandbags. We had a ritual.
liquor was prohibited on this deployment; however, my wife had managed
to smuggle me a bottle of Tanqueray gin disguised as a water bottle
along with a jar of olives (it is one of the hardships of war eternal
that men have often survived without ice). In the evenings I would
covertly mix myself a canteen cup of Tanqueray with a little olive
juice and a couple of olives. Then Tim and I would leave our cots at
the rear of the hangar and as nonchalantly as possible saunter through
its length, me with my hand over my canteen cup so that no one might
catch the scent of gin.
through the gauntlet, we'd settle on a short sandbag wall on the
perimeter of the task force's compound. Tim would clip the cigars. My
usual smoke was a Royal Jamaica Maduros, and Tim typically enjoyed an
H. Upmann or Punch. It gave us a chance to relax and forget about the
distance home to our loved ones, hostile Somalis outside our perimeter,
and the possibility that one of us might get wounded or killed in the
coming days. Occasionally the Somalis would drop a few mortar rounds in
the area just to let us know they were still out there. Still, it is
one of my lasting memories that those evenings were filled primarily
with calm feelings of serenity, good conversation and wafting cigar
aromas amid the sensations of a foreign land. That's how it was on the
evening of October 2nd.
changed the next day. On October 3, 1993, we engaged in the fiercest
firefight involving U.S. troops since the Vietnam War. That afternoon
we launched what was for us a typical plan to seize two individuals
from a covert meeting site. But this mission was different. In broad
daylight we were going where no one else dared venture, into the
thickest concentration of militiamen in the city. The U.N. wouldn't
send forces anywhere near this area, known as the "Black Sea," nor had
any U.S. troops ever been sent there. In this district, amidst the
city's winding dirt streets, the Somalis felt they had an impenetrable
labyrinth that was immune to assault.
sensed the difference as soon as we arrived at our target, a
nondescript two-story building. Within minutes we were engaged in a
growing firefight. Several of our soldiers were shot by the time we
prepared to load our captives near the end the assault. But we were
managing, and soon we would be on our way back to the airport and the
safety of our hangar. Meanwhile, the air was becoming unbelievably
thick with crisscrossing bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Reports
of casualties and calls for medics became frequent. I knew if we could
get the Somalis loaded and the vehicles moving, we'd make it out OK.
Nobody had been killed yet.
the unthinkable happened: Somalis shot down one of our helicopters with
a rocket-propelled grenade, killing the two pilots on impact and
leaving the rest of the crew injured or dazed. The stricken craft
crashed into the streets a few blocks from us.
single grenade changed all our lives. Shortly thereafter the Somalis
hit a second helicopter with another RPG, complicating our situation
further. The second helicopter, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer
Michael Durant, initially escaped the fate of the first and started for
the airport. They never made it, crashing halfway between the battle
developing around the first helicopter wreck and the airport.
those of us in the convoy, the next few hours were a veritable hell in
the streets, as our mission changed from an assault on the enemy to one
of rescue and ultimately to a struggle for survival itself. Our
vehicles became deathtraps at each stop as we attempted to wind our way
to our isolated comrades at the first crash site. I knew Tim was there
working on the injured, having been dropped there by another helicopter
with the rest of his search-and-rescue crew.
we attempted to reach our beleaguered friends, who were surrounded by
crowds of armed militia now outnumbering them by more than 50 to 1. For
nearly an hour we worked our way through streets hopelessly jumbled in
an impenetrable maze, while casualties continued to mount on our
convoy. I witnessed more selfless acts in that single hour than I have
seen in the rest of my entire life. Men who were badly wounded were
aided by fellow soldiers who were in no better shape. Men would take
risks to help a friend that they would never attempt in their own self
interest. In my Humvee alone, three of the five of us had been shot.
When two bullets came though my "bulletproof" door and hit me in the
chest and foot, I realized in a flash of blinding clarity that I could
very well die at any moment. Eventually, with more than half the men in
our convoy dead or wounded, and running dangerously low on ammunition,
the decision was made to return to the airport while we were still
able. Disheartened, we turned for home, leaving our friends behind,
trapped in a hostile city.
the second crash site, things were going even worse. The crew of four
survived the impact, largely thanks to Durant's cool handling of the
stricken bird, and were now stranded on the ground. Our helicopters
flying overhead reported movement in the cockpit and cargo area. But
there was a problem. There were no rescue or assault forces available
to assist the downed crewmen. Everything had been committed to the
initial assault and first crash. The few spare helicopters we had were
ordered away from the site, lest they be shot down as well.
one of the helicopters, two Delta soldiers, Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and
Sgt. First Class Randy Shughart, would answer the highest call a man in
combat can receive. On their own initiative, and despite repeated
denials from our command, they requested and eventually received
permission to be redeployed at the second crash site.
reasoned that two trained snipers might be able to hold off a hostile
crowd of Somali militiamen better than the injured crew.
helicopter dropped them off at a distance from the site and the two
went in on foot. They found Durant and his crew alive but in peril.
Simultaneously fighting the growing number of Somalis and assisting the
crew, Gordon and Shugart made a valiant effort to establish some type
of defensible perimeter. It was not to be. Within 30 minutes both men
would be dead, overrun by hundreds of militiamen. For their willingness
to risk their lives and fight overwhelming odds with little hope of
being rescued, both men would receive the Medal of Honor. It is the
only time since the Vietnam War that the United States' highest honor
has been bestowed.
at the hangar, I was relieved to be back in relative safety, but I was
sick inside. I knew that 99 of our soldiers and airmen were still out
there, waiting for us to come get them. While they waited, the number
of casualties increased by the hour as their ammunition, medical
supplies and water dropped to critical levels. The longer they waited,
the more likely they were to be overrun.
was now evening, and four hours had passed since we had launched our
ill-fated mission. It seemed like an eternity. For some it was a
lifetime. We were ready to go back out almost immediately, but with our
forces depleted, our commander sought support from Pakistani and
Malaysian U.N. troops, a process which took several frustrating hours.
sat in the hanger with another friend, waiting to go back out. We
slowly loaded ammunition into magazines for our return to the battle.
Little was said between us. We sat silently and gazed at the ammunition
as we packed all we could carry. Or we just simply looked off into
space. Occasionally, when our eyes would meet, we'd shake our heads and
say things like, "Man, I don't want to go back out there." Then we'd
return to the task at hand, checking and rechecking gear, considering
everything we might need and trying to think of every possible
contingency. What choice did we have? Our friends were out there
waiting, possibly dying. As unpleasant as the thought of going back
into hell was, the reality was that we had to go.
went back into the city a few hours later, ready for anything the
Somalis would throw at us. The mission was now to retrieve our friends
at all cost; any remaining restraint was gone. Any opposition would be
met with overwhelming firepower. Back on the streets, my anxiety
dissipated, replaced with a fierce determination to get my friends. I
had no idea if Tim was alive or dead. I hadn't heard his voice on any
of the radio transmissions, but that might not mean anything. Tim was a
medic, and chances were that he was busy patching people up, telling
the wounded guys everything was going to be OK. Occasionally, I heard
the voices of other friends of mine, but never Tim's.
fought all through the night, trying to collect all our comrades. In
some cases it was hopeless. At the second crash site, only silence
remained. I didn't know it at the time, but Durant had been captured
and the others had been killed, their bodies later paraded through the
streets in gruesome fashion for the world's television viewers by mobs
with no respect for the dead.
after dawn, our now reunited force fell back to a sports stadium
occupied by Pakistani troops, the airport being too far from the battle
to function as a triage and evacuation site for our injured. We had
collected all we could. Exhausted, covered in blood, sweat and dirt,
and somewhat dazed, I found Tim among the survivors; but there wasn't
time to express our relief at finding each other alive. There were
injured to treat and load on helicopters for the ride to our medical
facilities. For our dead, it was the beginning of their long, final
journey home to their families.
we still had to get ourselves back to the airport from our Pakistani
safe-haven. For some of our troops, it was a two-minute ride by
helicopter. For myself and many others, it would be another run in our
vehicles through the carnage of the streets. I offered Tim a ride back
in my Humvee, and to my surprise he accepted. We rode to the airport
together in the open back of the last vehicle in the convoy, just the
two of us, tense and ready. Ours was the last vehicle to roll into the
airport. It was noon the next day; we had been fighting for nearly 20
of America's finest soldiers lost their lives and 73 more were wounded
in that terrible battle, and Durant would remain a prisoner of war for
11 days. The toll we exacted on the Somalis was far worse. Conservative
estimates put the number of Somali dead at 500, with another 750 to
a military standpoint, the battle was an incredible victory.
Politically it was anathema. Amid public outcry, the Clinton
administration ceased all operations in Somalia from that day forward.
The entire task force was redeployed three weeks later without
achieving its goal of capturing Mohamed Aidid. The events surrounding
Task Force Ranger and its aftermath have influenced U.S. foreign policy
ever since. In today's complex and nebulous international order, the
mantra among U.S. foreign policy makers is: "Remember Somalia."
smoked a cigar the next evening, Tim and I. The ocean breeze was there,
the temperature comfortable, the sunset a bright crimson. But something
had changed, for me at least. I no longer looked at my life the same;
yet it defied definition.
think of those 18 men from time to time. They are examples of the best
this country can produce. Men who should be remembered by all
Americans. They were paid little, and endured long separations from
their families and brutal living conditions, without say as to what
they did or where they went. But go they did. These men excelled in an
art few men ever attempt, let alone master. They were, and still are,
since left the service to pursue other endeavors, but Tim chose to
stay. We talk often, sometimes sharing a drink and a cigar over the
phone. We share a bond that only those who have gone before us in the
hell that is combat can understand.
take a day away from work every October 3rd and sequester myself at my
local VFW post, where I think, and write, and smoke. When I reflect on
the greatest men I shall ever know, it sometimes gives me pause that
this country should be so blessed to have men like these. And that they
should be so easily forgotten. They are out there today, Tim and the
others, defending you and me, ensuring that our freedom is upheld.
taste in cigars has evolved over the past six years, but every October
3rd I smoke a Royal Jamaica Maduro, and the flavor always takes me back
to those days before that final raid. It's the only time I smoke that
brand anymore. The taste is always bittersweet.v
Note; the above story was written by Dan Schilling for a cigar magazine...... thanks Dano