INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
November 25, 1997
FOR THE RANGERS left behind at the American airport base on the beach in Mogadishu, the battle seemed immediate and distant at the same time. Unlike the commanders at the Joint Operations Center nearby, they couldn't watch the fight unfold on video screens.
All they had was the radio, and that was enough. They could tell the mission had gone to hell. The snatch-and-grab mission had clearly become a pitched battle. They heard the voices of men who never got rattled shouting with fear and cracking with emotion. Their best friends, their brothers, were trapped and dying.
Earlier that day, Sizemore had felt miserable when his buddies had suited up for the mission. He couldn't go because he had a cast on his arm. He had banged up his elbow a few days earlier wrestling with a Delta colonel who had flung him down.
Now word came that the remnants of Pilla's convoy were to be joined by fresh Rangers and vehicles from the base. They were going to fight their way to the Durant site and rescue the crew.
Not everyone was as eager as Sizemore. Spec. Steve Anderson, hearing the distant gunfire and the radio traffic, had a sick feeling. Anderson and Sizemore were both Rangers from Illinois, and were friends, but they were quite different. Anderson was slender and quiet, with a bad case of asthma. He had shrapnel in his legs from a night mission a few weeks earlier. Until then he had been as gung ho as the rest of the guys, but his wounds, while minor, had cracked his Hoo-ah spirit.
Anderson was dismayed by the confusion of shouting and shooting. It seemed to him that everybody was using the radio twice as much as usual, as if they needed to stay in touch, as if talk were a net to prevent their free fall. As much as it made Sizemore want to join the fight, it made Anderson want to be someplace else. He dared not show it. His stomach was churning, and he was in a cold sweat. Do I have to go out there?
Seeing Pilla dead and Blackburn busted up brought things into immediate and dire focus. What are we doing in this place? Then Anderson got a good look at Spec. Brad Thomas. Pilla had dropped dead in Thomas' lap inside the humvee. Thomas rode the whole way back bathed in his dead friend's blood.
As Thomas emerged from the humvee now, his eyes were red. He looked at Anderson and choked out, ``Pilla's dead.'' Thomas was crying, and Anderson felt himself start to cry and he realized, I do not want to go out there. He was ashamed, but that's how he felt.
He looked at the Delta and SEAL commandos who had climbed off the little convoy. These guys were like machines. They were already rearmed and ready to charge back out. There was no hesitation whatsoever. But the Rangers were all shaken, to a man.
Thomas lost it. ``I can't go back out there!'' he shouted. ``I can't! They're shooting from everywhere!''
Even those Rangers who remained composed felt the same way. How could they go back out into that? They'd barely escaped with their lives. The whole damn city was trying to kill them!
``Look, sergeant, you need to clean your vehicle up,'' he said, pointing to the blood-splattered humvee. ``If you don't, your guys are going to get more messed up. It's going to mess them up. They're going to get sick.''
Struecker strode over to his Rangers.
``Listen, men. You don't have to do this if you don't want to. I'll do it myself if I have to. But we have to clean this thing up right now because we're fixing to roll right back out. Everybody else go resupply. Go get yourselves some more ammunition.''
The gunner nodded glumly. Together they set off for buckets of water. Sizemore saw all this, and it made him wild with anger.
``I'm going out there with you guys,'' he said.
``You can't, you're hurt,'' said his team leader, Sgt. Raleigh Cash.
Sizemore didn't argue. He was wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt. The rest of his gear had been packed away for his medevac flight home the next day. He ran into the hangar, pulled on pants and a shirt, and began grabbing stray gear.
He found a flak vest that was three sizes too big for him and a helmet that lolled around on his head like a salad bowl. He grabbed his SAW, his squad automatic weapon, and stuffed ammo into his pockets and pouches. He raced back out to the convoy with his boots unlaced and his shirt unbuttoned.
``I'm going out,'' he told Cash.
``You can't go out there with that cast on your elbow,'' Cash said.
``Then I'll lose it.''
Sizemore ran back into the hangar, found a pair of scissors, and cut straight up the inside seam and flung the cast away. Then he came back and climbed onto a humvee.
Cash just looked at him and shook his head. ``OK,'' he said.
Anderson saw Sizemore's response and admired him enormously for it, and felt all the more ashamed. He had donned his own vest and helmet, and taken a seat in the back of a humvee, but he was mortified. He didn't know whether to feel more ashamed of his fear or of his sheeplike acceptance of the orders.
He had decided he would go out into Mogadishu and risk his life, but it wasn't out of passion or solidarity or patriotism. It was because he didn't dare refuse. He showed none of this.
As the other men were about to board the humvees, Thomas pulled Struecker aside.
``Sgt. Struecker, I can't go back out there,'' Thomas said.
The sergeant knew this was coming. All the men watched for his response. Struecker was a model Ranger: strong, unassuming, obedient, tough and, above all, by the book. There was no doubt that, of all of them, Struecker fit the unit's mold better than anyone else. He was like the prize pupil in class. The officers loved him, which meant that at least some of his men regarded him with a slightly jaundiced eye. With Struecker challenged like this, they expected him to explode.
Instead, he pulled Thomas aside and spoke to him quietly, man to man. He tried to calm him, but Thomas was calm. He'd made a calculated decision, a perfectly rational one. He'd taken all he could take. He'd just been married a few months before. He was not going to go out there and die.
He repeated very deliberately, ``I can't do it.''
However steep a price a man would pay for backing down like that - and for a Ranger it would be a steep price indeed - Thomas had made a decision.
``Listen,'' Struecker said. ``I understand how you feel. I'm married, too. Don't think of yourself as a coward. I know you're scared. I'm scared. . . . I've never been in a situation like this, either. But we've got to go. It's our job. The difference between being a coward and a man is not whether you're scared, it's what you do while you're scared.''
Thomas didn't seem to like the answer. He walked away. As they were about to pull out, Struecker noticed to his relief that Thomas had climbed on board with the rest of the men.
Chapter 11: New orders for hammered convoy.