INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 5, 1997
MINUTES AFTER orders came for the Rangers and Delta teams to make their way on foot to Cliff Wolcott's crash site, the formations broke down. The D-boys moved out on their own. Some of the Rangers ran to catch up with them, but others fell behind, uncertain and confused.
Capt. Mike Steele, the Ranger commander, was outraged. They had gone just two blocks from their original positions at the target house, and already unit integrity had collapsed. There had been bad blood for weeks between Steele and many of the Delta men. Now it was boiling over in the middle of the worst firefight of their lives.
Steele felt outflanked. He had given orders for the Ranger Chalks to occupy the front and rear positions of an orderly movement of men to the crash site. The Delta teams were to stay in the middle. But a team of D-boys led by Sgt. First Class Paul Howe took off. Howe, a powerfully built veteran, knew the streets were a killing zone. Staying alive meant moving as if his hair were on fire.
Fillmore winked at him and said: ``It's all right, kid. We're coming out of this thing, man.''
It calmed Goodale. He believed Fillmore.
Steele watched with mounting distress as his formation broke down. He despised some of the Delta operators for their arrogance and their cocksure bravado. He respected their expertise and courage, but not their professionalism. They were disdainful of authority and discipline, and cavalier toward orders issued by anyone outside their tight, secret fraternity.
For his part, Howe thought Steele was a buffoon - a huge, overmuscled ex-jock still wrapped up in the naive rah-rah of his years playing football for the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Steele was too spit-and-polish for his taste. And Howe, who was 34, considered many of Steele's Rangers little more than frightened, impressionable teenagers.
Now, an hour into the mission, the Rangers and Delta men were operating as separate units under competing commands. They even had different radio connections. Each Delta commando had a radio earpiece under his little plastic hockey-style helmet - Steele called them ``skateboard helmets'' - and a microphone that wrapped around to his mouth. The Delta men were in constant touch with one another, but not with the Rangers. The Rangers relied mostly on shouted orders. They hadn't perfected the elaborate hand signals the D-boys used when the noise of battle drowned out their radio talk.
Poor communications had come into play just minutes into the assault, when one side ended up literally shooting at the other. Howe and his Delta team had been on the roof of the target house, rounding up Somalian prisoners, when they fired at a Somali on a nearby rooftop. They were instantly peppered with return fire - not just from the Somali, but from a Ranger blocking position on the ground. A Ranger had evidently seen shooting from the roof and had fired away without checking it out.
The Delta men weren't hit, but Howe was furious. He got on the radio and told the mission commander to order that idiot Steele to have his men stop shooting at their own people!
They had to find cover to treat the wounded man. Howe abruptly kicked in the door to a one-room house and barged in with his weapon ready. Less-experienced soldiers still felt normal civilian inhibitions about doing things like kicking in doors, but Howe and his men moved as if they owned the world. Every house was their house. If they needed shelter, they kicked in a door. Anyone who threatened them would be shot dead.
The house was empty. Howe and his men caught their breath and reloaded. Running under the weight of their gear was exhausting, and the body armor was like wearing a wet suit. They were sweating profusely and breathing heavily. Howe drew his knife and cut away the back of the wounded man's uniform to check the shrapnel wound. There was a small hole in the man's back, with a swollen, bruised ring around it. There was almost no blood. The swelling had closed the hole.
``You're good to go,'' Howe told him.
Behind them, Sgt. Goodale moved with a group of Rangers led by First Lt. Larry Perino. Goodale had just turned to squeeze off a round when he felt a stabbing pain. His right leg abruptly seized up and he fell over backward, right into Perino.
Perino heard Goodale say, ``Ow!''
A bullet had entered his right thigh and passed through him, leaving a gaping exit wound on his right buttock. Goodale thought at that instant about a soldier who supposedly had lost an arm and a leg after a LAW - a light antitank weapon - he was carrying exploded when a round hit it. Goodale was carrying a LAW! He flailed wildly, trying to get the weapon off his shoulder.
Perino couldn't tell what Goodale was doing.
``Where are you hit?'' he asked.
``Right in the ass.''
Goodale dropped the LAW.
Perino left Goodale with a Delta medic and moved on across the intersection. Goodale lay back on the dirt as the medic looked him over.
``You got tagged. You're all right, though. No problem,'' the medic said.
Goodale had the same feeling he used to get in a football game when he got injured. They carried you off the field and you were done. He yanked off his helmet, then saw an RPG fly past no more than six feet in front of him and explode with a stupendous wallop about 20 feet away. He put his helmet back on. The game was most definitely not over.
``We need to get off this street,'' the medic said.
He dragged Goodale into a small courtyard, and several D-boys hopped in with them. Goodale asked one of them to help him reach his canteen, which the medic had taken off to work on him. The D-boy fished it out of Goodale's butt pack and discovered a bullet hole clean through it from the same round that had passed through his body. Goodale decided he would keep the canteen as a souvenir.
Capt. Steele and a large contingent of Rangers were the last to make the turn onto Freedom Road. Steele got a radio call from Perino.
``Captain, I've got another man hit.''
``Pick him up and keep moving,'' Steele said.
The captain was struggling to maintain a semblance of order. He needed to consolidate his Rangers into a single force. Time was essential. Steele had been told the ground convoy would probably reach the crash site before he and his men did. He did not yet know the convoy was lost and being riddled with gunfire. Assuming that the convoy would arrive at any minute, Steele was concerned. He had about 60 young Rangers to account for - and only a vague idea where they all were. He was pondering all this while on his belly in the dirt, his broad face nearly in the sand.
The captain and Sgt. Chris Atwater, Steele's radio operator, were massive men, and they were both trying to take cover behind a tree trunk about a foot wide. In front of them, the last team of D-boys was moving into the intersection.
Just then one of the D-boys, Sgt. Fillmore, went limp. His little hockey helmet jerked up and blood came spouting out of his head. He hit the ground, dead.
The D-boy behind Fillmore grabbed him to pull him back into a narrow alley a few steps away. He, too, was hit - in the neck. A third team member helped the wounded soldier pull Fillmore into the alley.
For the first time that day, Steele felt the gravity of their predicament hit fully home.
Chapter 21: Somalis under siege.