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‘Almost doomed from the get-go’

‘Almost doomed from the get-go’
Michael Durant, decorated U.S. Army pilot, told attendees to the Legion's 95th National Convention in Houston his personal account of the incident chronicled in "Black Hawk Down." (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

It’s said hindsight is 20-20, and in Michael Durant’s case, it’s also very analytical. The U.S. Army pilot – made famous worldwide when he became an 11-day prisoner of war in Somalia in 1993 – looks back on the U.S. mission to capture a Somali warlord and end a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of Somalis were killed by starvation, and has no trouble pointing out critical flaws that led to the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemembers.

“This mission was, unfortunately, as you look at it now, almost doomed from the get-go,” Durant told a packed hall of delegates to The American Legion National Convention on Aug. 27 in Houston. “You’ve got to be decisive, (and) you’ve got to act when the time is right. When we don’t act when the time is right is when situations get out of control and become much more difficult to deal with.”
Durant’s story and that of the raid were chronicled in the “Black Hawk Down” book and movie – the latter, Durant said, was “accurate enough.” But on the national convention floor, Durant gave a first-person account outside of the Hollywood lens.

U.S. forces landed in Mogadishu and within two weeks secured nearly one-third of the city, the port and airport facilities. “Unfortunately, we decided back here in the state that, after about six months, that that success needed to be built upon,” Durant said. “We changed the scope of the mission, and that is where we start to get in trouble. The leadership decided we were going to get into nation building, and we all know – certainly after 10-plus years in Iraq and Afghanistan – the challenges involved in those types of missions. It’s culture-changing, and cultures don’t change in days. They don’t change in weeks. They don’t change in months. They often time takes generations for cultures to truly change.”

“The leadership certainly has the authority and the latitude to do what they want to do, but at the end of the day, it’s the sergeant major and the platoon leaders and the people at the point of the spear that have to turn it into reality. In this case, the tactical leadership decides the best way to start this process in motion is to disarm the city of Mogadishu. That is the right first step, but it’s also a very difficult thing to take on. That is a very large city.”

The decision eventually was made to go after warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the self-proclaimed president of Somalia. But Durant said it took 90 days to get that order, causing the U.S. to lose the element of surprise. “He went underground,” Durant said of Aidid. “He never slept twice in the same place. It makes a guy who was fairly easy to track down and capture at the outset very, very difficult to track down and capture later on.”

The long wait to attack allowed Aidid’s forces to adapt to U.S. tactics. They began using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) – eventually shooting 125 during the Battle of Mogadishu, taking down five Black Hawks (three made it back to the U.S. airfield).

Another hurdle faced by the Americans was leadership’s decision to start drawing down U.S. forces, Durant said. “So we went from a high of 28,000 U.S. troops to less than 1,500,” he said. “Now 1,500 people is not a very large force to try to do all the things that this task force had assigned to it.”

Also gone were all the AC-130 gunships, as well as all the tanks – “The things you want to be in if you’re going to travel in a city where there’s a threat present,” Durant said. “It really, unfortunately, took away a large part of our probability of success.”

The inability to use tanks particularly is upsetting to Durant, who said that the Somalis’ growing use of RPGs made it simple common sense to bring tanks back. “We realized that those RPGs were a significant threat,” he said. “What you’ve got to do when you see those changes occur on the battlefield is figure out, ‘What do we need to do to counter that change in the situation?’ What we would have typically done if we lose an aircraft – we’ve been doing it for 50 or 60 years – is send in a search-and-rescue bird, a recovery aircraft, to get that crew and those passengers out. But in this particular case, when you’re in an urban environment... the likelihood of the threat being right there is very high. So sending in another helicopter to replace the first one is probably not a good idea.

“Our leadership recognized that and decided we needed to do something different. The conclusion was the right solution was to use a tank.”

But that didn’t fly with the leaders back home. “We sent the request for a tank up the chain of commander,” Durant said. “As much as I hate to say it, that request – making it all the way to (Secretary of Defense Lee Aspin’s) office – came all the way back down denied. It wasn’t denied because we didn’t have tanks. It was denied for political reasons. It was denied because we had begun to withdraw the force, and to put resources back in would send a bad message to the American people.

“I’m going to tell you – that is the unforgiveable sin. If you ask me was there was a lesson learned from Somalia – which should have been learned in Vietnam – it’s all about resourcing the commanders on the ground. It is our obligation as American citizens, and certainly our leaders’ obligation, to do everything in our power to make sure those resources our provided.”

Durant said that prior to the mission, everyone involved on the ground felt comfortable enough they could execute the mission. And everything was going well during the Oct. 3 Operation Gothic Serpent until the first Black Hawk was shot down. Durant’s MH60 Black Hawk – which already had dropped off 18 U.S. Army Rangers into the target area, went in to replace that helicopter; his also was shot down.

The crew survived the crash, and two Delta Force snipers – Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart – saw movement at the crash site and a mob of Aidid’s forces heading toward the crash and asked three times for permission to be dropped at the site to provide protection for the crew. They were finally granted permission and were able to hold off the overwhelming force for nearly a half hour before being killed, along with the rest of Durant’s crew. Gordon and Shughart both would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Durant – who suffered a broken back and leg during the crash – was captured and held hostage for 11 days by hostile forces. His image as a POW appeared in media outlets around the world; the Somalis also would force him to make a video that appeared in 127 countries.

“Captivity is a very, very difficult and challenging thing for any American and any of our allies,” Durant said. “We are victimized, quite frankly, by these people who are very angry. They are very anti-U.S. by this point. They broke my cheekbone, my nose, my eye socket. They shot me the next day in captivity. They were threatening me all night.”

Durant had gone through survival school and credited it with helping him survive the ordeal. The United States would end up sending former U.S Ambassador to Somalia Robert Oakley, who Durant said had already had earned credibility with the Somalis. Durant said that Oakley was very matter-of-fact with the Somalis. “When he went in and met with them, he said, ‘You have two choices: You can let him go within 48 hours, or not. If you choose not to, we will figure out where he is eventually, and when we do we’re coming with everything we got,” Durant said.

After being freed, Durant worked his way through recovery and resumed flying with the 160th SOAR, retiring in 2001 with more than 3,700 flight hours. He now serves as president of Pinnacle Solutions Inc., a simulation and training company in Huntsville, Ala. During his Army career, he earned the Purple Heart, Bronze Star with Valor device, Distinguished Service Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster.

“It got through it all... because the military takes care of our own,” Durant said. “We’ve gotten so good at that, and I think it’s a big part of why we have no issues whatsoever filling the ranks of an all-volunteer force. We can never deviate from taking care of our own.”

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