INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 11, 1997
CAPT. MIKE STEELE KNEW this was the most dangerous time of the night. The moon was high and the shooting had all but stopped. He and his men had been pinned down for more than nine hours.
There were a few pops, but otherwise the air had cleared of smoke and gunpowder. Now there was just that musky stench of Somalia, the trace of desert dust in the air, and the bitter aftertaste of the iodine pills the soldiers had dissolved in the local water to purify it.
Somalis would still inexplicably wander into the perimeter around Cliff Wolcott's wrecked helicopter. The Delta soldiers would let them stroll and then drop them with a few quick shots. From time to time, the Little Birds would rumble in and unleash rockets and minigun fire. But the only noise that concerned Steele was the intensifying thunder of guns as the rescue column moved closer.
With that much shooting, with two jumpy elements of soldiers about to link up in darkness in a confusing city, the biggest threat to his pinned-down men was their rescuers.
By the sound of it, the convoy troops were coming fast now, and shooting at everything. Word came from the command helicopter shortly before 2 a.m.
OK, start getting ready to get out of there, but keep your heads down. Now is a bad time.
Steele answered: Roger, copy. Positions are marked at this time. We are ready to move.
Roger, they are going to be coming in with heavy contact so be real careful.
You better believe it, over.
Steele radioed First Lt. Larry Perino, who was in a house a block north: ``I want everybody to back up out of the courtyards, and to stay away from the doors and windows.''
The Rangers drew back like hermit crabs into their shells, and listened. They were all terrified of the 10th Mountain Division, regarded by many Rangers as poorly trained regular-Army schmoes, just a small step removed from utterly incompetent civilianhood.
Five minutes passed, 10 minutes, 20 minutes.
Perino called Capt. Steele: ``Where are they?''
``Any minute now,'' Steele said, for the umpteenth time that night. Both men laughed.
When Steele heard vehicles making the turn onto Freedom Road, his men saw the dim outline of soldiers. Everyone called out, ``Ranger! Ranger!''
``Tenth Mountain Division,'' came the response.
Steele stuck his head out the door.
``This is Capt. Steele. I'm the Ranger commander.''
``Roger, sir, we're from the 10th Mountain Division,'' a soldier answered.
``Where's your commander?'' Steele asked.
IT TOOK HOURS to pry pilot Cliff Wolcott's body from the wreck. It was ugly work. The rescue column had brought along a quickie saw to cut the metal frame of the cockpit away from Wolcott's body, but the cockpit was lined with a layer of Kevlar that just ate up the saw blade. Next the soldiers tried to pull the copter apart, attaching chains to the front and back. Some of the Rangers, watching from a distance, thought the D-boys were using the vehicles to tear Wolcott's body out. They turned away.
The dead were laid out on top of the armored personnel carriers, and the wounded were loaded inside. Sgt. Mike Goodale, who had been shot in the thigh and had a big exit wound on his buttock, hobbled painfully and was helped through the doors of an APC.
``We need you to sit,'' he was told.
``Look, I got shot in the ass. It hurts to sit.''
``Then lean or something.''
Down the street at Delta Capt.Scott Miller's courtyard, they carried wounded Pfc. Carlos Rodriguez out first. Then they loaded the rest of the men.
As the hours stretched on, the wounded men grew restless in the windowless chambers of the APCs. They couldn't see what was going on, and they didn't understand the protracted delay.
Painted white, parked in the center of the road, the APCs might as well have been giant bull's-eyes. Goodale had only a small peek hole to see outside. It was so warm he started feeling woozy. He took off his helmet and loosened his body armor. They all sat in the small dark space just staring silently at one another, waiting.
``You know what we should do,'' suggested one of the wounded D-boys. ``We should kind of crack one of these doors a little bit so that if an RPG comes in here, we'll all have someplace to explode out of.''
There was bitter laughter.
Goodale leaned up toward the Malaysian driver.
``Hey, let's go,'' he said.
``No. No. We stay,'' said the driver.
``Goddamnit, we're not staying! Let's get the f- out of here!''
``No. No. We stay.''
``No, you don't understand this. We're getting shot at. We're going to get f-d up in this thing!''
When Cliff Wolcott's body was at last freed from the wreckage, the exhausted remnants of Task Force Ranger who could still walk learned, to their dismay, that there wasn't room enough on the vehicles for them to ride out of the city. They would have to run a half-mile back out to National Boulevard.
At the stadium, the soccer pitch was covered with wounded men. Many unhurt men walked among the litters with tears in their eyes or with thousand-mile stares. Helicopters with red crosses painted on the sides came and went, shuttling the wounded back to the main hospital by the hangar.
Pvt. Ed Kallman, who earlier had so thrilled at the chance to be in combat, now watched with horror as medics efficiently sorted the litters as they came off vehicles.
``Dead in that group there. Live in this group here.''
The medics and doctors cut off the bloody, dirty clothes, exposing awful wounds, guys with gaping, bruised holes in their bodies, limbs mangled, poor Carlos Rodriguez with a bullet through his scrotum, Goodale with his bare wounded butt up in the air, Spec. John Stebbins riddled with shrapnel, Lt. James Lechner with his leg ripped open, Ramaglia . . . the list went on and on.
Spec. Steve Anderson recoiled. When the APC pulled in with Donovan Briley's body on top, he had to turn away. Briley had died in the crash of Super 61. His body was discolored. It looked yellow-orange, and through the deep gash in his head he could see brain matter spilled down the side of the carrier. When the medics asked for help getting the body down, Anderson ducked away. He couldn't deal with it. Pvt. Terry Butler volunteered. Anderson couldn't help watching as they slid the body off. Blood poured out of Briley's head and down the white side of the carrier.
Goodale was laid out in the middle of the big stadium looking up at a clear blue sky with his pants cut off. A 10th Mountain medic leaned over and dropped ash from his cigarette as he tried to stick an IV needle into Goodale's arm. Even though it was sunny and at least 90 degrees, the wounded Ranger was suddenly chilled to the bone. He started shaking. One of the doctors gave him some hot tea.
That's how Sgt. Raleigh Cash found him. Cash had come in on the rescue convoy and was wandering wild-eyed through the makeshift field hospital looking for his friends. At first sight, he thought Goodale was a goner. The half-naked sergeant was stone white and shaking.
Cash flagged a nurse, who covered Goodale with a blanket and tucked it around him. Goodale told Cash about the deaths of Spec. Jamie Smith and Sgt. Fillmore, and he went down the list of wounded. Cash told Goodale what he had seen back at the hangar when the lost convoy came in. He told him about the deaths of Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz, Spec. James Cavaco, Sgt. Casey Joyce and Pfc. Richard ``Alphabet'' Kowalewski.
Cash had seen Ruiz, badly wounded, not long before he died.
``You're going to be fine,'' he had told him.
``No. No I'm not,'' Ruiz had said. He had barely enough strength to form the words. ``I know it's over for me. Don't worry about me.''
Then they had taken him to the helicopter and flown him away. Word came back not long afterward that he'd died.
Stebbins was set down among a group of his buddies, naked from the waist down. A grenade explosion had shredded his fatigue pants. Sgt. Aaron Weaver brought him a hot cup of coffee.
``Bless you, my son,'' said Stebbins. ``Got any cigarettes?''
Weaver didn't. Stebbins began asking everyone who walked past. A Malaysian soldier gave him one, bent over to light it for him, and then gave Stebbins the pack.
Sgt. First Class Sean Watson found him.
``Stebby, I hear you did your job. Good work,'' he said. He reached down and took a two-inch flap of cloth from Stebbins' shredded trousers and tried to place it over his genitals. They both laughed.
The first person Spec. Dale Sizemore found from his Chalk was Staff Sgt. Chuck Elliott. They both burst into tears when they saw each other, glad to find each other alive. Then Sizemore started telling Elliott about the dead and wounded Rangers from the lost convoy. They sat and cried and talked, watching as the dead were loaded onto helicopters.
``There's Smitty,'' said Elliott.
Sizemore saw two feet hanging out from under a sheet. One was booted, the other bare. Elliott told him how he and others had taken turns for hours putting their fingers up inside Spec. Jamie Smith's pelvic wound, pinching the femoral artery. They had cut off the one pants leg and boot. That's how he knew it was Smith.
Steele was badly shaken when he learned that more of his men were dead. Until reaching the stadium, Smith was the only fatality Steele had known about for certain. His staff sergeant had told him there were others, but he wasn't sure yet how many. Steele found a bottle of water and sat drinking it, alone with his thoughts, overwhelmed with grief but unwilling to show much emotion before his men.
Some of his men were in tears, others were chattering away as if they couldn't talk fast enough to get all their stories out. The captain found a place to sit at the edge of a mortar pit and laid his rifle across his lap and just breathed deeply and swished the cool water in his mouth and tried to review all that had happened. Had he made the right decisions? Had he done everything he could?
One by one the wounded were loaded up and flown back to the hospital and hangar.
Riding in the helicopter on the way back was very calming for Sizemore. The wind through the open doors and the view of city and sky and ocean felt safe and familiar. All of the men on the bird sat silently.
Spec. Shawn Nelson looked out over the blue ocean at a U.S. Navy ship in the distance. It was as if he were seeing things through someone else's eyes. Colors seemed brighter to him, smells more vivid. He felt the experience had changed him in some fundamental way. He wondered if other guys were feeling this, but it was so weird . . . he didn't know how to ask.
Steele felt strange looking down at the city where they had just fought. His whole world had been so tightly focused for so long on two blocks of Mogadishu. To suddenly lift up and see the whole city stretching under him, to see the beach and the ocean in morning sunlight, it was almost too much, a reminder of how small Mogadishu was in the larger scheme of things.
When Ramaglia was loaded onto a bird, a medic leaned over him and said: ``Man, I feel sorry for you all.''
``You should feel sorry for them,'' Ramaglia said, `` 'cause we whipped ass.''
Capt. Steele finally got the accurate casualty list when he returned to the hangar. Sgt. First Class Glenn Harris was waiting for him at the door. He saluted.
``Rangers lead the way, sir.''
``All the way,'' Steele said, returning the salute.
``Sir, here's what it looks like,'' Harris said, handing over a green sheet of paper.
Steele was aghast. One list of names ran the entire length of the page, and Harris had started a second column at the top. This one ran almost to the bottom. One-third of his company had either been killed or injured.
``Where are they?'' Steele asked.
``Most are at the hospital, sir.''
Steele stripped off his gear and walked across to the field hospital. The captain put a great store on maintaining at least a facade of emotional resilience, but the scene in the hospital nearly reduced him to tears. Guys were lying everywhere, on cots, on the floor. Some were still bandaged in the haphazard wraps given them during the fight. He choked out a few words of encouragement to each. Saying more would have tapped the well of grief deep in his throat. The last soldier he saw was Cpl. Rob Phipps, the youngest of the Rangers on the search-and-rescue helicopter. Phipps looked as if he'd been beaten with a baseball bat. His face was swollen twice its normal size and was black and blue. His back and leg were heavily bandaged, and there were stains from his oozing wounds. Steele laid his hand on him.
The soldier stirred. When he opened his eyes, there was red where the whites normally were.
``You're going to be OK.''
Phipps reached up and grabbed the captain's arm.
``Sir, I'll be OK in a couple of days. Don't go back out without me.''
Steele nodded and fled the room.
The Rangers all wandered back into the hangar, amazed by the sudden emptiness of it. Many of the men talked, sharing stories, compiling an oral history of the previous 18 hours.
Spec. Shawn Nelson, who had helped his friend Casey Joyce into his flak vest the previous afternoon, now examined the bloody thing. It had a clean hole in the upper back. He rooted through the pockets. Guys sometimes stuffed pictures or love letters inside. In the front of Sgt. Joyce's vest he found the bullet. It must have passed right through his friend's body and been stopped by the plate in front. He put it in a tin can.
Sgt. Watson walked over to the morgue to see Smith one last time. He unzipped the body bag and gazed for a long time at his friend's pinched, pale, lifeless face. Then he leaned over and kissed his forehead.