Soon after arriving at the airfield in Mogadishu, we got settled in our platoon areas, attended a quick briefing where we received several items to carry at all times, and darkness fell. I was sent to a hole in the compound wall to make sure none of the other occupants of the airfield were able to access our area and had one of my privates with me. We had nothing but weapons and a radio and soon after we surveyed our surroundings, the first mortar round hit. The glowing red fireball and shrapnel hit the corner of a rooftop about 35 feet from where I stood. Having no cover, no body armor, and no helmet, and armed with a radio, I made a radio call for someone to run our equipment out to us. We squatted down as close to the wall as we could get and listened to the other rounds impacting further away. Finally, our equipment arrived, we quickly donned it and felt only slightly more secure. At some point, my Ranger buddy and I, Tim, lit up cigarettes and our platoon sergeant, Bob Gallagher made us do push-ups for smoking during a mortar attack. The irony is we were being made to do push-ups during a mortar attack. I am chuckling as I write this thinking back on that night and doing push-ups as mortar rounds struck.
Over the next several nights, we were able to configure our newly acquired vehicles and take our drivers out to train, at night, for their introduction to driving under Night Vision Goggles (NVG’s). Believe it or not, the very first time our drivers ever conducted this training, it was on Somali soil. This training was almost salt in our wounds and was infuriating. Soon, with only a few hours of training, we’d embark on our first mission. As we started down the main avenue to our target, we could see tracer rounds to our front, and I watched them float across the road several hundred meters to our front. I was in the second vehicle in the convoy and heard the radio call “tracers to our front” come over the vehicle radio. Within a few minutes, we arrived at our destination, quickly jumped out, and started scanning our surroundings. Helicopters circled above and on some, I could see legs hanging below out of the doors while others were empty. To my rear, a large stadium that had latticed cinderblock looking walls extending from it. At some point, a buddy came over and said, “this is the stadium where Aidid (referring to Mohammed Farrah Aidid) gives all of his speeches”. Aidid was THE guy we were there to capture and made looking at the empty stadium surreal. It was a very uneventful night until we could see helicopters head to the target area to pick up those on target and fly away with many legs hanging from the doors. We were waiting for the “exfil complete” call on the radio when an eruption came from 50 meters away, from my rear. There were explosions and such a violent release of gunfire that it was deafening. Our entire blocking position swung around, returned fire, and within 45 seconds to a minute, a ceasefire was called. The first thing I did was reach down and feel my legs and touch both arms looking for blood on my hands a few inches away from my face. No blood. The next thing I did was start checking on everyone else. It was a very brief but very violent encounter wherein; 12 Somali militiamen would lay dead. By the time we got back to the hangar, our buddy’s who’d been given the sexy helicopter mission greeted us claiming we shouldn’t have even been there because THEY were the vehicle platoon. How the tides had turned. They were jealous that our platoon had been the first to engage and had already started politicking to get their mission back.
Now, for a little insider baseball and something that only three other people know about (until now of course). Because of our platoon being pulled off the helo mission, and because we witnessed our company commander committing a myriad of hypocritical acts, we took aim at him during our “skits” in the hangar. These skits were not the fun-loving and joking portrayals as seen in the movie “Blackhawk Down” I can assure you. They were very calculated, pointed barbs, meant to be a payback for both our mission change and more importantly, to show our support for our platoon leader (PL) who was a prior-enlisted 1st Ranger Battalion Squad Leader. It may not have been one hundred percent accurate, but the feeling in the platoon was that there was a rift between our PL and the company commander and that may have contributed to our mission change. Whether or not that is completely accurate remains a mystery. If memory serves correct, the skit opened with my buddy Dominick Pilla portraying the company commander in a mock football helmet, shoving Pop-Tarts in his mouth, while directing the platoon leaders to disseminate the ‘no eating in the hangar rule’ (which we actually witnessed). I played one of the other platoon leaders and from the start, we had the entire hangar howling with laughter.
We would conduct five more operations before October 3rd rolled around and on each, the tension was palpable. The tension was escalating and in general, the people looked angrier and angrier each time we would encounter them up close. During a daylight raid, the crowds grew so angry and hostile that Blackhawk helicopters would swoop in to hit the crowds with their propeller wash and blow them away, literally. In addition, small non-lethal grenades were dropped and would disrupt and disperse the crowds. Sure, there were sporadic gunshots and small engagements, but the thought that an entire city would violently turn on us wasn’t something that we’d considered, nor did it seem likely. And, unlike what was depicted in the feature film “Blackhawk Down”, my platoon never received any warning that we’d be entering a particularly hostile and dangerous part of the city known as “The Black Sea”. To us, it was another mission, another day with angry crowds no different than any of the previous six missions.
Having never heard the crack of a single bullet aimed in my direction, I was completely unaware of the danger I was in at the time. The last thing I would say to Dominick Pilla was this: “What are they shooting at us, .22’s?”. I can still see that smirky smile to this very day. His face was red and sweaty, helmet cocked slightly back, and he was in the process of moving out of the middle of the street to find cover and a firing position. It’s an image I will never forget. Above us, and even more telling of our peril, an MH-60 K model helicopter was emptying it’s 7.62 caliber miniguns. The crew chief was maneuvering the gun and his red, white, and blue “No Fear” stickers on the side of his air-crew helmet were clearly visible. The helicopter was that close and that visual is another indelible image. It was about that time that I realized, the cracking I was hearing, and it was DEAFENING, was not the rapport of the weapons, but rather, the crack of the bullets hitting all around me. The tell-tale indicator was when I saw pieces of sidewalk and wall turning to puffs of dirty white powder. I was by myself hunkered against the only cover I could find when I saw the first Somali militiaman firing at me and firing past me at other Rangers. He ducked behind a van and I lit up the entire side of the vehicle and could see him lying still on the ground on the other side after my rounds impacted the van. This was the first of likely several hundred of my ambiguous engagements over the next 18 hours.
A point I’ve always wanted to make publicly, there is no such thing as a “confirmed kill”. There’s no panel of experts that follows along on the battlefield confirming those who you’ve engaged and then annotates those statistics. Yes, there have been many times when I was in a situation and knew the person or people my team and I engaged were no longer living, but I can assure you there was no confirmation process in 1993, and surely was no confirmation process later during the GWOT.
My second engagement with a known enemy combatant and I was left guessing. Was he lying wounded? Was he dead? Do I re-engage? There was very little time to think about it because I found myself pulling security down an alleyway alongside a guy wearing a black Protec helmet and when I looked at where my vehicle had been positioned, it was no longer there! I could see it a few blocks down the street and as I started my journey to reunite with my team, I saw several Rangers struck as an RPG impacted their hummwv. The RPG fire and machine-gun fire were at an almost deafening level at this point and that was about the same time three Somali militiamen rounded the corner. The Somali in the middle had an RPG and he was flanked on either side by another militiaman carrying RPG rounds. My M-249 saw gun rounds raked across the men and I could see them jerk and twitch. To my surprise, they didn’t just fall over dead, they kept moving and then started to fall. My distance to them was less than 30 feet.
Another point I’ve always wanted to make publicly, people are almost indestructible and it’s amazing how resilient the human body is. Supersonic bullets do very little damage unless they strike major organs or break bones. We learn the opposite from the time we see television depicting death by gunfire as almost always, the villain flies backward and immediately closes his eyes. Real-life is a huge departure from what we’ve seen and believed for many years.
This type of activity happened for the next hour or so, and then the real fun began. I, having no idea what we were doing, loaded into the hummwv and drove a short distance. It was there that I could see and participated in loading several casualties into a cargo hummwv. We began driving and I’m not exaggerating when I write this, we drove through one ambush after another for what seemed like an eternity. As we rounded one particular corner, I could see (and we had to scream just a few feet away from one another to be heard it was so loud) several Somali’s firing at our lead vehicle and saw Dominick Pilla killed. It was at that very moment that a switch got flipped inside me. Up until that point, none of this gunfight had seemed real. What I had been feeling, fear, dissolved very quickly and turned to rage and pure hate. During this time in the battle, I engaged many, many combatants and to be honest, I don’t remember how many because there were just that many. I don’t think my weapon ever really stopped firing or went onto safe.
We arrived back at the airfield and for all intents, and in my mind, the mission was over. The rest of the force was headed back to base, or so we all thought. After tearfully clearing my weapon upon entering the gate at the hangar, I could feel the rage building inside me. I was furious at the situation, that my best friend had been killed, and just received news the other KIA that I’d helped load up and evacuate back to the hangar, was my other buddy, Casey Joyce. Casey, Dominick, and I all attended the Ranger Indoctrination Program together and Dom and I went to Ranger School together. We endured months of suffering together as privates and that creates a bond that many use the term very loosely today, brotherhood. I kicked and punched things and slammed my helmet and gear on the ground and was almost subdued by several Ranger buddies that had not been on the initial assault, but I managed to push them away and continue my rage-filled, physical rant. About the time I started to settle down, word came down that we were heading back into the city, that a Blackhawk had been shot down, and that we would go secure the crash site. “You’ve got to be f*****g kidding me,” I thought to myself. We barely survived the trip back to the hangar, our humwwv vehicles had very limited armor protection, our resources (such as AC 130 Gunships) had been limited by the President, and I had been signed up for a suicide mission.
To be continued…
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