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Great Moments—A Personal Perspective on Heroism and Sacrifice

Daniel G. Schilling
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

On 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.  

Generally, 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.  

Now, 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.  

Safely 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.  

Everything 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.  

I 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.  

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