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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.
Then 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.
That 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.
For 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.
Vainly 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.
At 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.
Aboard 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. They reasoned that two trained snipers might be able to hold off a hostile crowd of Somali militiamen better than the injured crew.
Their 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.
Back 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.
It 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.
I 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.
We 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.
We 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.
Shortly 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.
Also, 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 hours.
Eighteen 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 1,000 wounded.
From 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."
We 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.
I 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, America's best.
I've 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. I 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.
My 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.
Daniel G. Schilling is a former staff sergeant in Air Force special operations. He writes in Utah, where he lives with his wife and son.