Freeing a pilot, ending a mission
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 14, 1997
Firimbi was a big man for a Somali, tall with long arms and big hands. He had a pot belly, and squinted through thick, black-framed glasses. He was warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid's ``propaganda minister.'' Once Aidid's men had purchased Durant back from the bandits who had kidnapped him, Firimbi was put in charge of his safekeeping.
He was told, ``If any harm comes to the pilot, the same shall be done to you.''
Durant arrived at night, angry, frightened and in pain. In the drive through the city he had been under a blanket in the backseat. He had no idea where he was. The men who brought him carried him up steps and along a walkway and set him down in a room.
Firimbi greeted him, but the pilot didn't answer. Durant's wounds, a compound-fractured right leg and a wounded shoulder, had become swollen and infected. Firimbi helped wash him and bandage his wounds. He passed word along that Durant needed a doctor.
That night, Monday, Oct. 4, Durant heard American helicopters flying overhead, broadcasting haunting calls:
Mike Durant, we will not leave you.
Mike Durant, we are with you always.
Do not think we have left you, Mike.
FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR to Somalia Robert Oakley was at a party at the Syrian Embassy in Washington on Oct. 5 when he got a phone call from the White House. It was Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton.
``I need to talk to you first thing in the morning,'' Lake said.
``Why, Tony?'' Oakley said. ``I've been home for six months.''
Oakley, a gaunt, plainspoken intellectual with a distinguished career in diplomacy, had been President George Bush's top civilian in Mogadishu during the humanitarian mission that had begun the previous December and eventually ended the famine. He had left in March along with 20,000 Marines.
Since his return, Oakley had watched with dismay the course of events in Mogadishu. Despite his long experience there, no one from the White House or State Department had consulted him.
``Can you come to breakfast tomorrow at 7:30?'' Lake asked.
The White House was in trouble. The day after the Oct. 3, 1993, Battle of Mogadishu, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Secretary of State Warren Christopher had been grilled by angry members of Congress. How had this happened? Why were American soldiers dying in far-off Somalia?
These were the same questions that Clinton was asking his aides. Until this raid, Clinton had been briefed on missions in advance. This one had been mounted so quickly he had not been informed. He complained bitterly to Lake. He felt he had been blindsided, and he was angry. He wanted answers to a broad range of questions from policy to military tactics.
At the breakfast table in the East Wing on Oct. 6 were Lake and his deputy, Samuel R. Berger, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine K. Albright. Then they walked with Oakley into the Oval Office, where they joined the President, the vice president, Christopher, Aspin, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several advisers.
The meeting lasted six hours. The thrust of the discussion was: What do we do now? An American soldier's body had been dragged through the streets by jeering Somalis. Eighteen soldiers were dead and 73 wounded. Hundreds of Somalis were dead. Durant was being held captive. The public was outraged, and Congress was demanding withdrawal.
Staying in Mogadishu to pursue Aidid was out of the question, even though retired Adm. Jonathan Howe, head of the U.N. effort there, and Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, commander of Task Force Ranger, thought Aidid had been struck a mortal blow, and that it wouldn't take much to finish the job. Intelligence reports were that Aidid supporters were fleeing the city, their arsenals of rocket-propelled grenades expended. Others were sending peace feelers, offering to dump Aidid. But it was clear that America had lost its stomach for anything further in Somalia.
The meeting ended with a decision: America was pulling out. Task Force Ranger, reinforced to make a show of military resolve, would stay on - but would make a dignified withdrawal by March 1994. All efforts to capture Aidid would be called off.
Oakley was dispatched to Mogadishu to deliver this message and to try to secure the release of Durant.
There would be no negotiating with Aidid. Oakley was instructed to deliver a stern message: The President of the United States wanted the pilot released. Now.
JIM SMITH, the father of Ranger Cpl. Jamie Smith, was in a meeting at a bank in Long Valley, N.J., on Monday, Oct. 4, when, oddly, his boss' wife walked into the conference room.
``I just got a call from Carol,'' she said. ``Call home.''
Obviously, his wife, Carol, had felt this was urgent. She had phoned the boss' home number, looking for a way to track him down.
``What's the matter?'' he asked when Carol answered his return call.
Smith will always remember her next words.
``There are two officers here. Jamie has been killed. You have to come home.''
When Jim got home, Carol told him: ``Maybe they're wrong. Maybe Jamie is just missing.''
But Smith knew. He had been a Ranger captain in Vietnam, and lost a leg in combat. He knew that in a tight unit such as his son's in Mogadishu, they wouldn't notify the family of death unless they had his son's body in hand.
``No,'' he told his wife quietly, trying to make the words sink in. ``If they say he's dead, they know.''
Camera crews began to arrive within hours. When everyone in his immediate family had been given the news, Smith walked out in the front yard to answer questions. He was repulsed by the attitude of the reporters and the kinds of questions they asked. How did he feel? How did they think he felt? He told them he was proud of his son and deeply saddened. Did he think his son had been properly trained and led? Yes, his son was superbly trained and led. Whom did he blame? The U.S. Army? Somalia? God?
Smith told them that he didn't know enough about what happened yet to blame anybody, that his son was a soldier, and that he died serving his country.
A Mailgram arrived two days later with a stark message signed by a colonel he didn't know. It resonated powerfully with Smith, even though he knew its contents before reading the words. It joined him in a sad ritual as old as war itself, with every parent who ever lost a son in battle:
``THIS CONFIRMS PERSONAL NOTIFICATION MADE TO YOU BY A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY, THAT YOUR SON, SPC JAMES E. SMITH, DIED AT MOGADISHU, SOMALIA, ON OCTOBER 3, 1993. ANY QUESTIONS YOU MAY HAVE SHOULD BE DIRECTED TO YOUR CASUALTY ASSISTANCE OFFICER. PLEASE ACCEPT MY DEEPEST SYMPATHY IN YOUR BEREAVEMENT.''
STEPHANIE SHUGHART had finally received word about her husband, Randy Shugart, that Monday morning, Oct. 4, at Fort Bragg, N.C. She had called her boss to say she wouldn't be in for work - ``a family emergency.''
Her boss knew that Randy was in the Army, and she had heard the reports out of Mogadishu. She drove straight over to the Shugharts' house.
The two women drank coffee and watched CNN. Stephanie had been in an agony of suspense since the day before, when one of the other Delta wives had spread the word: ``One of our guys has been killed.'' Stephanie and her boss were talking when two silhouettes appeared outside the door.
Stephanie opened it to two men from her husband's secret Delta unit. One was a close friend. This is it, she thought.He's dead.
``Randy is missing in action,'' her friend said.
She was determined not to despair. Randy would be fine. He was the most competent man alive. Her mental image of Somalia was of a jungle. She pictured her husband in some clearing, signaling for a chopper. When her friend told her that Randy had gone in with Gary Gordon, she felt even better. They're hiding somewhere. If anybody could come through it alive, it was those two.
Later that day notification arrived at Fort Bragg of more deaths: Sgt. Earl Fillmore and Master Sgt. Tim "Grizz" Martin. Then there were the horrible images of a dead soldier being dragged through the streets. Wives and parents and siblings were examining newspaper photos and squinting at TV images, trying to determine who the soldier was. They finally recognized Bill Cleveland, one of the two crew chiefs on Durant's helicopter.
Then word came that Gary Gordon's body had been recovered. But when proof came that Durant was alive and being held captive, Stephanie's hopes soared. Surely they had Randy, too. They just weren't showing him on camera. She prayed and prayed. She went to the funerals of the other soldiers, sat and grieved with the other wives. One day there were two funerals. Eventually all the missing men except Shughart had been accounted for. All were dead, their bodies horribly mutilated.
Stephanie asked her father to stay with her. Her friends took turns keeping her company. This went on for days. It was hell.
When she saw a car pull into her driveway with a priest inside, she knew.
``They're here, Dad,'' she said. ``Randy's body has been returned and identified.''
``Are you sure?'' he asked.
She was sure. The military discouraged her from viewing Randy's body - and, being a nurse, Stephanie knew why. She sent a friend to Dover, Del., where the body had been flown. When he came back, she asked: ``Could you tell it was him?'' He shook his head no.
``His body was intact,'' he told her.
Randy and Stephanie had had the ``death talk.'' That's what the D-boys called it. Randy told her he wanted to be buried at home in Newville, Pa. At the burial there was such a crush of photographers and reporters that she couldn't spend a few quiet moments alone at the grave to say good-bye. Two of her friends from Delta had to escort her out of the ceremony to keep the press away.
Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
MIKE DURANT'S FEAR of being executed or tortured eased after several days in captivity. After being at the center of that enraged mob on the day he crashed, he mostly feared being discovered by the Somalian public. It was a fear shared by Firimbi.
The ``propaganda minister'' had clearly grown fond of him. It was something Durant worked at, part of his survival training. The two men were together day and night for a week. Firimbi spoke Italian and Durant spoke some Spanish, languages similar enough for them to minimally communicate.
Firimbi considered Durant a prisoner of war. He believed that by treating the pilot humanely, he would improve the image of Somalis in America upon his release.
The pilot humored his jailer, asking him questions, indulging his whims. For instance, Firimbi loved his khat - the plant Somalis chewed as a stimulant. One day he handed cash to a guard and sent him to purchase more. When the man returned he began dividing the khat into three equal portions, one for himself, Firimbi and another guard.
``No,'' Firimbi said. ``Four.''
The guard looked at him quizzically. Firimbi gestured toward Durant. Durant quickly figured out what his jailer was up to. He nodded at the guard, indicating he wanted a cut of khat, too.
When the guard left, Firimbi scooped up the two piles for himself, winking at Durant and flashing an enormous grin.
Firimbi identified so strongly with the pilot that when Durant refused food, he refused food. When Durant couldn't sleep because of his pain, Firimbi couldn't sleep, either. He made Durant promise that when he was released he would tell how well-treated he had been. Durant said he would.
When the helicopters flew over at night, broadcasting, ``Your friends are looking for you, Mike Durant,'' Firimbi asked for a translation. After Durant told him what the words meant, Firimbi complained: ``But we treat you so nicely!'' A doctor had set Durant's broken leg in a cast. At first he was fed stale MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Then the woman who owned the house slaughtered a goat and offered him a meal of meat and spaghetti. Durant developed a bad case of diarrhea, which was uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Firimbi helped keep the bedridden pilot clean.
``What do you want?'' he kept asking Durant.
``I want a plane ticket to the United States.''
``Do you want a radio?'' Firimbi asked him.
``Sure,'' Durant said, and he was given a small black plastic radio with a volume so low he had to hold it up to his ear. That radio became his lifeline. He could hear the BBC World Service, and reports about his captivity. It was powerfully reassuring to hear those English voices coming from his own world.
After five miserable days in captivity, Durant got visitors. Suddenly the room was cleaned and the bedsheets were changed. Firimbi cleaned him up, redressed his wounds, and gave him a clean shirt and a ma-awis, the wraparound skirt worn by Somalian men. Perfume was sprayed around the room.
Durant's hopes soared. His first visitor was Suzanne Hofstadter, a Norwegian who worked for the International Red Cross. Durant took her hand and held on tight. All she had brought with her were forms with which he could write a letter. In the letter Durant described his injuries, told his family he was doing OK, and asked them to pray for the others. He still didn't know the fate of his crew or Delta soldiers Shughart and Gordon, who had roped down to save him.
Later, Red Cross officials, concerned about violating their strict neutrality by passing along what might be a coded message, scratched out the initials.
After Hofstadter left, two reporters were ushered in: Briton Mark Huband of the Guardian and Stephen Smith from the French newspaper Liberation. Huband found the pilot lying flat on his back, bare-chested, obviously injured and in pain. Durant was still choked up from the session with Hofstadter. He had held her hand until the last moment, unwilling to see her leave.
Huband and Smith had brought a recorder. They told him he didn't have to say anything. Huband felt great pity for Durant, and tried to reassure him.
Durant weighed talking to them. He finally agreed to discuss only the things that had happened to him since the crash. He wanted his family and his unit to know as much as possible about what had happened. He described the crash and his capture. Then Huband asked why the battle had happened, and why so many people had died. Durant said something he would later regret:
``Too many innocent people are getting killed. People are angry because they see civilians getting killed. I don't think anyone who doesn't live here can understand what is going wrong here. Americans mean well. We did try to help. Things have gone wrong.''
It was that ``Things have gone wrong'' line that haunted him after the reporters left. Who was he to pronounce a verdict on the American mission? He should have just said, ``I'm a soldier and I do what I'm told.''
He grew depressed. He really did believe things had gone wrong, but he felt he had stepped over a line by saying it.
Durant rallied a day later when he heard his wife Lorrie's voice on the BBC. She had made a statement to the press, which was carried on CNN as well. At the end Lorrie said loudly and firmly: ``Like you always say, Mike, Night Stalkers Don't Quit.''
This was actually not something Durant said often. It referred to the cryptic initials Durant had penned at the bottom of his note - still visible despite the Red Cross scratches. It was the motto of his unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. His message of defiance had gotten through.
WHEN ROBERT OAKLEY arrived in Mogadishu on Oct. 8, Aidid was still in hiding. He met instead with the warlord's clan. He told the Habr Gidr leaders that the U.S. military operation against Aidid was over, and that Task Force Ranger's original mission had ended. The Somalis were skeptical.
``You'll see for yourself over time that it's true,'' Oakley said. Then he told them that President Clinton wanted Durant released immediately, without conditions. The Somalis were adamant. Task Force Ranger had rounded up 60 or 70 men from their leadership. The top men, including the two most important men taken on Oct. 3, Omar Salad and Mohammed Hassan Awale, were being held in a makeshift prison camp on an island off the coast. Any release of Durant would have to involve a trade. That was the Somalian way.
``I'll do my best to see that these people are released, but I can't promise anything,'' Oakley said. ``I'll even talk to the President about it, but only after you've released Durant.''
Oakley was careful to say, ``This is not a threat,'' but then he laid out a chilling scenario. He offered it as friendly advice.
``I have no plan for this, and I'll do everything I can to prevent it, but what will happen if a few weeks go by and Mr. Durant is not released? Not only will you lose any credit you may get now, but we will decide that we have to rescue him. I guarantee you we are not going to pay or trade for him in any way, shape or form. . . .
``So what we'll decide is we have to rescue him, and whether we have the right place or the wrong place, there's going to be a fight with your people. The minute the guns start again, all restraint on the U.S. side goes. Just look at the stuff coming in here now. An aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships . . . the works. Once the fighting starts, all this pent-up anger is going to be released. This whole part of the city will be destroyed, men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything. . . . That would really be tragic for all of us, but that's what will happen.''
The Somalis delivered his message and ``friendly advice'' to Aidid, in hiding, who offered to hand the pilot right over. Oakley asked them to delay for a few hours to give him time to leave the country. He told them to turn Durant over to Howe, and he flew back to Washington.
THERE WAS A PARADE of sorts on the day Durant was released. All of the men from Task Force Ranger and everyone else now based at the hangar turned out to salute him.
He was carried on a litter through hundreds of men in desert fatigues, an IV in his arm, clutching his unit's red beret. It was a day of joy and enormous relief, but also a day of sadness. Durant was the only member of his four-man crew and two Delta defenders to return.
It had been the biggest firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War. Eighteen Americans dead and 73 wounded. More than 500 Somalis dead and at least a thousand injured. All for the capture of Omar Salad and Mohammed Hassan Awale, two men who were as little known after the fight as they had been before it.
President Clinton would accept Oakley's plea on behalf of the Somalian leaders and order the release several weeks later of every Somali captured by Task Force Ranger.
American soldiers had fought valiantly and well, but the price paid that day effectively ended America's mission to Somalia. Every man who fought was back home within a month.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, who had approved sending Task Force Ranger to Mogadishu, said in an interview this year: ``Bad things happen in war. Nobody did anything wrong militarily in Mogadishu. They had a bad afternoon. No one expected a large number of soldiers to get killed. Is 18 a large number? People didn't start noticing in Vietnam until it was 500 a week.''
To this day, many in Mogadishu honor Oct. 3 as Ma-alinti Rangers, or ``The Day of the Rangers.'' They regard it as a national victory. If a victory for either side, it was certainly a Pyrrhic one.
Mohamed Farrah Aidid, code-named ``Yogi the Bear'' by the Americans, was killed in factional fighting in 1996. He died on the same day Garrison retired from the Army, a coincidence the general is said to note with a wink.
Most of the wounded men who fought with Durant had already been flown home by Oct. 14, the day he was released. One of them, Pfc. Clay Othic, a turret gunner who had been shot in the right arm, added a final entry to the diary he kept during the mission. He couldn't write with his right hand, so he scratched out the words with his left hand.
``Sometimes you get the bear. Sometimes the bear gets you!''
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