As Somali civilians watch, US Marines walk single file toward the camera, down a small ally in Somalia’s Bakara Market. The Marines sweep the market looking for arms and munitions as part of Operation Nutcracker. This mission is in direct support of Operation Restore Hope (National Archives)
Thirty years ago, on October 3-4, 1993, the Battle of Mogadishu, or, as it’s commonly known, “Blackhawk Down,” raged in Somalia. The battle was the result of a failed attempt by Task Force Ranger to capture General Mohamed Farrah Aidid (Aideed), and it claimed the lives of eighteen Americans, including Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, both of whom received Congressional Medals of Honor.
In addition to the military losses, the battle also forced the US to reassess its role in international relief and peacekeeping operations. Along with other Americans, I vividly recall the images of the bodies of American soldiers dragged through the dirty streets of Mogadishu by armed thugs. How could this have happened?
I was at Camp Pendleton when the battle took place, but previously, from October 1992 to May 1993, I served in Somalia on a joint task force in Operation Provide Relief.
The focus of our work was modest. Our small task force of 300 US service members and a handful of C-130 aircraft worked with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fly donated food, mostly grain, from Mombasa, Kenya, to remote Somali villages outside the capital of Mogadishu.
My job was working with members of the Air Force’s RED HORSE (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer) squadron to determine if Somalia’s rudimentary airfields could handle C-130 aircraft. It was what one of our senior officers labeled “pretty good duty.” We were doing humanitarian work while living in an exotic country on the other side of the globe.
Early in my deployment, I volunteered to accompany a group of State Department personnel to Mogadishu. We were not permitted then to travel to Somalia in uniform, so I wore a ragged pair of dungarees and a polo shirt. Our arrival was captured by a Swiss news crew, and the film was later shown on C-Span. When it aired, my sister exclaimed, “There’s my brother!” The same clip was seen by former college classmates.
By late 1992, both the famine and the lack of a central government in Somalia to deal with it became front-page news and the leading story on all the major networks.
One could no longer ignore the images of starving children and roving bands of Somali militia, nicknamed “Technicals,” riding on Toyota pickup trucks and armed with AK-47 rifles.
Under intense domestic and international pressure, President George H.W. Bush dispatched thousands of American troops to Somalia as part of an international relief effort named Operation Restore Hope.
In hindsight, it’s unclear what the mission or exit strategy was, but many, like New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb, felt something had to be done.
I remember listening with others to radio traffic when US Marines landed in Mogadishu. We shook our heads listening to complaints that news reporters were clogging the beaches, making it impossible to conduct operations.
At the same time, our small contingent in Mombasa dramatically swelled in size. The number of C-130 aircraft increased threefold with a corresponding increase in support ground personnel. Moreover, our mission changed from flying food into Somalia to supporting the 25,000-strong coalition force there. By May 1993, my participation was no longer required, and I rotated back to Camp Pendleton, where I reassumed my position on the 1st Force Service Support Group (FSSG) staff.
Somalia, for me, was a distant memory, but Blackhawk Down changed everything.
On Columbus Day, October 11, 1993, a little more than a week after the battle, I received a call from my boss telling me I had “volunteered” to return to East Africa as part of another joint task force. I thought I had perhaps a week to prepare. I was wrong. Within 72 hours, I was on a commercial flight from San Diego to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where an Air Force C-141 waited to take me and a few dozen of my new friends to Mogadishu.
We all had witnessed the aftermath of the Blackhawk Down debacle and, though none of us would admit it, were understandably nervous about entering a warzone.
The tension was elevated when we were issued live ammunition and told to be “prepared for the worst.” The fourteen-hour-plus flight gave us a lot of time to think.
We touched down in Mogadishu in the early morning wearing helmets and flak jackets and with live rounds in our magazines. Charging out of the aircraft, “ready for anything,” we were stunned (there is no other word) to see a group of soldiers laughing and playing volleyball in shorts and tee shirts next to the hangar we were told had served as a makeshift morgue for the fallen after the battle.
We learned later that the body of one soldier, who was killed by an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) buried in his chest, was carefully moved away from the hangar where it remained, covered with sandbags, until the unexploded ordnance team (UDT) could extract the dud round.
It didn’t take us long to realize that the expected hot zone had grown noticeably cooler.
Thus began my first-hand, six-month education in the realities of coalition and joint operations.
Our new commander, a freshly minted Army brigadier general, introduced himself to our thirty-person-plus task force. His operations officer was Marine Colonel “Buck” Bedard, who, beneath the gruffness, was an approachable and likable officer. The deputy commander was Peter Pace, who would eventually become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Over the next few months, members of the joint staff worked 16-hour days to begin to transition US forces out of Somalia.
What had begun as a noble effort to provide comfort and relief to a beleaguered people had devolved, with one exception, into a routine retrograde operation.
“With one exception“ because early in the operation, the joint commander tasked his operations staff to draw up plans to “retake the city.”
Most of us were aware of this planning but were either out of the loop or too busy to care. Later, I was told Turkish General Bir, who was the UN Commander and our nominal boss, was briefed and quashed those plans. There would be no further offensive operations in either Mogadishu or anywhere else in the country. After that, you could sense the wind had been taken out of the sails of the joint task force.
That disconnect was one of my lasting memories of Somalia.
There was already an Army general officer, Tom Montgomery, in Somalia when we arrived in the country. Montgomery was the senior US officer in UNOSOM II, and yet our General and his staff treated him and his small staff almost with contempt. Moreover, a friend of mine, who worked closely with Montgomery, later told me the General was not made aware of Operation Gothic Serpent, the failed attempt to capture General Aideed. My friend also told me he was with Montgomery as the General worked furiously to mobilize coalition armor to assist 10th Mountain troops who went to rescue Task Force Ranger. I met some of the 10th Mountain officers, all in their twenties, who rode with the coalition armor, and their stories of the battle, told matter-of-factly, were spellbinding.
The joint task force withered away over time, and the remnants, including General Pace, transitioned to Montgomery’s staff.
We thought, or hoped, our remaining time in Somalia would be uneventful, but one night, we were reminded of the danger and unpredictability of military service.
I was serving as the senior watch officer on the second shift, noon to midnight, when I received a call from our Special Ops attachment. Their watch officer called to report the possible loss of an AC-130 aircraft over the Indian Ocean. He was unclear on the details but asked me to alert Generals Montgomery and Pace. I made my way to their quarters, where I found them just having returned from dinner with General Bir. They were in a good mood, but that all changed the minute Montgomery saw me.
I told him slowly and unemotionally about the reported lost aircraft, and he asked me to keep him and General Pace informed on any developments. Later, I learned the plane crashed because the 105MM cannon in the rear of the airplane “cooked off,” shooting the tail. A total of 13 crew members were onboard. Only a few bodies were recovered by the Kenyan Navy. Another sad incident in an operation once filled with such hope and promise.
In late April 1994, Montgomery’s team, now about thirty of us, boarded an airplane for the United States via Mombasa, Kenya, where the General treated us for a little R&R. My fiancé, who worked at our hotel, graciously found rooms for us. We eventually returned to the United States, landing at Andrews Air Force Base, where a group of general and flag officers greeted us like we’d survived the Normandy landing.
It was all genuinely nice, of course, and General Montgomery wrapped things up with a short speech. From there, we made our way back to our units.
I look back on my Somalia experience with pride and some sadness.
Pride because we did our best to help people in need, and for me, because I was at the very beginning and at the very end of America’s experience at nation-building.
Sad, because we learned nation-building, if it’s possible at all, takes more than good intentions and bags of money. Months after returning to Camp Pendleton, reports came out of Rwanda about genocide and mass murders. This time, however, the pleas to help were tempered with memories of Somalia and the loss of American lives for no apparent reason.