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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

(continued from page 1)

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.  

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