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The Road to Unafraid
How the Army's Top Ranger Faced Fear and Found Courage Through "Black Hawk Down" and Beyond
By Jeff Struecker, Dean Merrill
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2006 Jeff Struecker
All rights reserved.
A Small Problem
It was a Sunday afternoon, but I can assure you nobody was taking a nap. Earlier thoughts about organizing a volleyball game in the warm sun at our Mogadishu airport compound by the ocean were long forgotten. Intelligence was now saying we had a golden opportunity to catch not one but two high aides to Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the warlord who was basically ruining Somalia.
This desert country on the tip of northeast Africa didn't just have a bad government, it had not had a functioning government at all for the past two years. If you wanted to mail a letter, there was no postal system to accept or deliver it. If you had a child who needed schooling, there was no such public institution. If you were in trouble and needed a police officer for protection, you'd better have a bribe ready.
It was such a shame, because as I had looked around Mogadishu, I couldn't help thinking it had the potential to be one of the world's great resort cities. The gentle breezes off the Indian Ocean, the sandy beaches, the warm sunshine—it all compared to the French Riviera. Instead, it was currently shot to pieces, totally trashed, the most violent place on earth. Only the mosques seemed to have been spared.
Aidid and his competitors ran daily life through sheer force, controlling the drug trade and choking off the world's food aid as soon as it arrived in the port. He had a sinister scheme for getting and keeping fighters. His policy was simple: free drugs if you'll join my militia. As a result, he had recruited thousands of desperate young men who stayed high much of the time. The average Somali lived in daily fear—more than two million had been driven from their homes, and three hundred thousand had starved to death.
The United Nations had commissioned us, along with troops from several other nations, to take care of this bully once and for all, ushering him toward a trial for crimes against humanity. In the two months Task Force Ranger had been in Mogadishu, we'd already conducted six raids into the dusty, chaotic city, nabbing key players in Aidid's militia each time. Cooperative Somalis who wanted a better life for their country fed us tips on where to look. Soon our small helicopters swooped down from the sky to drop special operators on the designated rooftop or in alleys nearby. They kicked in the doors, immediately threw flash-bang grenades to stun everyone inside, and then handcuffed them with flexbands before the targets knew what hit them.
Meanwhile, Rangers were already arriving on the larger Black Hawk helicopters, which hovered thirty feet or so over each of the four corners of the block. Three-inch ropes were flung downward, and Rangers slid down to the street like firefighters descending a station pole—a maneuver called "fast-roping." The instant the Rangers hit the ground, they took control of the intersection, thereby setting up a controlled perimeter that no one could penetrate.
This rectangle stayed in place until a column of vehicles rolled up to the door of the target building to load up the captured. Normally this was my mission to lead. The Rangers at the four corners, on receiving a radio signal, collapsed back in our direction to jump on the convoy themselves, along with the special operators. We raced out of the neighborhood before most people even had a clue what was going down.
Two for the Price of One
On the afternoon of October 3, 1993, we received word that a high-level meeting was under way at a certain three-story building on Hawlwadig Road, just a block north of the Olympic Hotel. Sunday was a normal business day in this Muslim country; their day of worship is Friday. At this meeting, not one but two of the big shots were supposedly present: Omar Salad, Aidid's top political adviser, and Abdi "Qeybdid" Hassan Awale, his interior minister. What a lucky break!
Yes, it would have been nicer not to have to go in during the late afternoon, when crowds of people were around and paying attention. We'd rather have done this raid during the night or early morning, of course. But the opportunity for a two-fer was too good to pass up.
"Struecker, you know how to find this place?" Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight asked as we stood in the JOC (Joint Operations Center). By studying satellite maps, I had become something of an expert in the geography of the city. It was a challenge, since no street signs existed, and you definitely weren't going to get help from MapQuest or AAA. But gradually I had built up my memory bank of local landmarks and what streets led where.
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I've driven by there several times. It's just a few blocks east of the Bakara Market, which is not the most pleasant neighborhood for us, as you know. But we can definitely get there." This was the heart of Aidid territory, where open-air booths sold everything from cucumbers to rugs to rifles.
"Okay. We're moving out in ten minutes. Birds lift off first, and you'll be heading up the road almost immediately after." That was the way it usually ran for Ranger missions; we had to be ready to go on very short notice.
While the helicopters were loading up, I lined up the ground column at the gate. My Humvee (army-talk for HMMWV, High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle—in other words, the prototype for what eventually became the Hummer in today's auto marketplace) would lead the way, with young Private First Class Jeremy Kerr as my driver. He was getting all kinds of new experience here in Somalia—first time to drive a military vehicle, first time to wear night goggles. Everything was a steep learning curve for Jeremy.
In the back, behind a metal bomb protection plate, was Sergeant Dominick Pilla, the best machine gunner I'd ever seen. He was a big, funny guy from "New Joyzee," whose practical jokes and skits kept the entire battalion entertained. Beside him was young Specialist Tim Moynihan, a bongo-playing guy with thick black hair who could have grown a great-looking beard had regulations allowed. He was well-liked and popular among all the guys.
Up on top in the turret was Private First Class Brad Paulson manning the big .50 caliber machine gun. He was a small-sized fellow from the Midwest who almost looked young enough to still be in high school, except for his "high-and-tight" military haircut. I thought of him as a kid brother.
Right behind our vehicle was the other half of our squad in a second Humvee, led by my right hand, Sergeant Danny Mitchell. His super-slow Arkansas drawl made some people assume he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, which, in fact, was opposite of the truth. I soon realized he was qualified to fill in for me at any time. We'd worked together a long time and could almost read each other's minds. He was incredibly loyal and would do anything I asked.
Next came more Humvees and three five-ton flatbed trucks for holding lots of people—a total of twelve vehicles in all. I was the lead navigator, while Lieutenant Colonel McKnight, farther back in a Humvee, would be calling the main plays.
We roared out of the gate as soon as the signal came that the helicopters, already in the air, were about to launch their assault. The distance to cover was no more than a four-minute drive into the sandy, garbage-littered streets of Mogadishu. We dodged burned-out vehicles along the way and swerved around piles of loose tires, old furniture, and wood scraps that residents had set on fire to draw attention to previous gun battles. I found it odd that instead of running away from trouble, the residents almost seemed magnetized by it, coming out of their crumbling houses to get in on the action.
As we got close to the hotel, I instructed Jeremy Kerr to turn right. Actually, I spoke a block or two too soon. It was the only wrong turn I took during my whole time in Somalia. The confusion was quickly remedied, however, and the whole convoy reassembled behind the hotel—a five-story white building with lots of balconies—to await our next move.
We heard shots in the distance; it was clear that the Rangers at the four corners were taking fire from Aidid's hidden militia. They weren't about to let us capture their leaders unchallenged. Battered pickup trucks with their backs full of rifle-waving militia began screeching around corners.
But at the target house, things were progressing smoothly. The time for extraction of the bad guys was almost here. The main point of this mission—getting the two men—was nearly wrapped up.
Just a Minute ...
Then came the fateful moment when I first heard about a "small problem": "Hey, Struecker, we've got a casualty," came Danny McKnight's voice through the radio. "You need to go get him, put him on your vehicle, and take him back to base."
I got out and walked back to his Humvee. "Sir, what's up?" I asked. "What's going on?"
"I don't know who it is, but his condition doesn't sound too good. You need to get him out of here. I'll give you one of the cargo Humvees [the military version of a pickup truck], and your two with your squad can escort him back to the airfield."
"Who are we talking about, sir? And where is he?"
"I don't know the name, but he's one of the guys in Sergeant Eversmann's chalk just up ahead. You can ask Captain Steele if you want—he's right by the target building."
Steele was our overall Ranger company commander, a big man who had played football at the University of Georgia. I walked in his direction. The closer I got, the more the hostile fire seemed to increase. The Somalis weren't hitting much of anything, as usual, but they were definitely turning up the volume. I had been shot at before, enough to tell by the sound when the rounds were getting close. I crouched near a wall while I talked with Captain Steele to get a better fix on where to go.
The problem was this: as Eversmann's men had fast-roped down from their Black Hawk helicopter to secure the northwest corner of the perimeter, a young Ranger named Todd Blackburn had missed the rope as he jumped out. Either that, or he took a bullet into his bulletproof vest, which didn't penetrate but successfully stunned him right at the point of grabbing the rope. To make matters worse, the Black Hawk was higher than normal from the ground, due to some power lines on that corner (not that Mogadishu's electricity supply was even functioning anymore). Todd Blackburn had plunged some seventy feet and hit the street headfirst with a sickening thud.
I ran back to the convoy, grabbed a stretcher off the back of the cargo vehicle, and hollered for Moynihan to follow me. When we got to Eversmann's corner, I saw a medic working furiously on the guy in the street, trying to get his airway open. I moved to catch a glimpse of Blackburn's face, and it was not a pretty sight. Blood was coming from his nose, his mouth, and one of his ears. His eyes were rolled back into his head.
He still had his helmet on; nobody wanted to remove it for fear of jarring him. He's hurt his back, I thought. We're going to have to be really careful moving him.
We gingerly lifted Blackburn onto the stretcher, then hoisted it up and started back down the street. As we ran the enemy fire grew worse, to the point that we had to take shelter for a moment. Man, these guys are coming from about every window and rooftop, aren't they? I thought. I had hoped we could get this job done without rousing the whole militia.
In spite of the hammering, we fought our way back to the vehicles, where we loaded Blackburn on the back of the cargo Humvee. A medic quickly went to work on him, totally exposed to the incoming fire. A special operator jumped aboard to fire back and try to protect the medic and Todd.
After a quick consultation with Lieutenant Colonel McKnight to tell him I was leaving now with three vehicles, and to advise him on how the rest could find their way home without my map, we moved out. Turning right at the first corner, we headed for the next street to make another right back toward the ocean and out of the city. "We need to take it slow, so we don't break Blackburn's neck," I instructed my guys. "Dodge every pothole you can."
At the second corner, however, it was as if the whole city opened up on us. As we threaded our way through the narrow street with two- and three-story buildings on both sides, bullets were flying our way from every direction. We fought back with everything we had: our personal M-16s, submachine guns, Paulson's .50 cal up on top. It was definitely intense.
Paulson was swinging back and forth, shooting all over. "Paulson, just take the left side!" I hollered. "Pilla, you cover the right!" I concentrated on fighting the danger ahead of us.
We had stormed our way through about five blocks when we reached National Street, a four-lane boulevard. A right turn here would head us out of the slums and back toward the base. We were just rounding the corner when Dom Pilla spotted a gunman leveling his AK-47 right at him. Dom fired at the guy—who in the very same instant fired at Dom's head. The two shots were virtually simultaneous. The next thing I knew, Moynihan was screaming in the back: "Pilla's hit! He's shot in the head!"
I whirled to look around the corner of the metal plate. Dom Pilla had slumped over into Tim Moynihan's lap—and there was blood everywhere. The whole back of the Humvee was bright red. I couldn't believe how much of an effect one bullet could have.
It had, in fact, entered just above Dom's left eye and proceeded to blow out the whole back of his head. Just an inch higher, and it would have clanged off Dom's helmet. But it had struck flesh and brain instead.
"What do we do? Dom's killed!" Moynihan yelled. At this my other two guys, Kerr and Paulson up on top, began freaking out as well. For a second I panicked on the inside. I had just lost a very good soldier, a man I was responsible for—and a good friend. I swallowed hard. This operation was going seriously askew.
I couldn't let myself think more about all that. I had to detach myself and jump back into tactical mode. Otherwise a horrible situation would get even worse. Take charge, Jeff, I told myself.
"Moynihan," I said in a steady voice, "stop what you're doing. Take your weapon and face right; pick up Dominick's sector of fire." He quieted down as he followed my order.
"Kerr, step on it!" I said to the driver. "Fly down this road as fast as you can." No more worrying about jostling Todd Blackburn's neck or back in the vehicle behind us. Better that than any more of us getting killed in this maelstrom of hot lead. We couldn't afford to poke along as fat, easy targets in the middle of a hostile city.
We roared down National Street for a good mile until we approached the big food distribution center. Twice a day in Mogadishu, UNICEF, CARE, Food for the Hungry, and other agencies handed out relief, and every starving Somali showed up to get their next meal. Wouldn't you know—this just happened to be the hour of the evening handout. The road was packed with literally thousands of people. I couldn't even see to the far side of the crowd. Meanwhile, we were still getting hammered from the buildings on both sides.
"Paulson!" I hollered up to my gunner. "We've got to clear a path. Start shooting over their heads. Don't kill anybody, but make them think you're shooting at them, so they'll scatter." To help get the crowd's attention, I threw half a dozen nonlethal grenades.
The sea of humanity at the distribution center started to part—slowly. "Hurry up, people!" my driver yelled. The hail of bullets continued.
Finally, I couldn't stall any longer. "Just floor it," I told Kerr. "They'll get out of the way." We plunged toward the crowd and eventually reached the far side of it.
On our way again and building speed, the hostile fire slacked off a bit. Instead of getting shot at from fifty places at once, it was down to five places at once. Just then the voice of Platoon Sergeant Bob Gallagher, my direct superior on this particular mission, came on the radio. "How are things goin'?"
I definitely did not want to answer that. Most of our unit had heard about Blackburn's fall by now, but almost nobody knew about Pilla. And bad news has a way of messing with soldiers' minds—even highly trained Rangers. I ignored the question.
Gallagher's voice came again. "How's it goin', Struecker?"
I couldn't stiff-arm him again. Finally I said, "I don't want to talk about it."
That reply, of course, only piqued his interest.
"You got any casualties?"
"Yeah, one." Just let it go, man! my mind was begging.
"Who is he, and what's his status?"
I took a deep breath. "It's Pilla," I finally answered.
"What's his status?"
Another breath. I was cornered; I had to answer the question.
The radio, which had been crackling with lots of conversation all across the city between our various units, suddenly went quiet. Nobody said another word. Soldiers were simply stunned. This was the first man we'd lost since landing in Somalia. The invincible Ranger Regiment had been nicked by an untrained, impoverished Somali gunman with little more than a grudge to pursue.
Excerpted from The Road to Unafraid by Jeff Struecker, Dean Merrill. Copyright © 2006 Jeff Struecker. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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