Ranger recalls 'insane,' deadly Somalia mission
(CNN) -- Before there was Afghanistan, there was Somalia -- and the U.S. military's first "battle" with forces linked to al Qaeda, the terrorist organization run by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.
On October 3, 1993, a mission involving scores of U.S. Special Operations forces went astray when one of their Blackhawk helicopters was shot down over Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Outnumbered 10 to 1, the U.S. forces escaped with 18 killed while hundreds of Somalis died.
One of the survivors was Keni Thomas, a then-U.S. Army Ranger who saw six members of his own unit perish in the foiled raid. Thomas talked with CNN.com about the mission, the Rangers and the current situation in Afghanistan.
CNN: What are the Rangers, and what sets them apart?
THOMAS: They're a light infantry force. We had -- I don't know what they have now -- a 50-caliber machine gun or grenade launcher mounted on a humvee, plus a weapons platoon that has mortars.
Rangers, a lot of them are young soldiers, but there is no finer infantry unit. The Delta Force guys and the SEALs aren't going to get on the front line; they're going to be the guys rescuing hostages and that sort of thing.
American soldiers are loyal and smart, military-wide. There's something about knowing you can count on someone 100 percent. There isn't anything we wouldn't do for each other.
CNN: What was your mission?
THOMAS: We went over there in support of UNISOM, or United Nations, operations in Somalia -- that's the one-sentence answer.
Really what was happening is Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, a Somali warlord, was deemed responsible for attacks on U.N. troops, including 25 Pakistanis.
We got in country about late August, and we had a most-wanted list that went down the line, starting with Aidid and going after his echelon of people in that order.
If they had somebody fixed in a position or a building or they were moving in a convoy, we went after them. And every day we were there, we were training … with tons of live-fire, which is why I think most of us survived that battle.
CNN: How did the October 3, 1993, mission begin?
THOMAS: It was Sunday, the one day we had off. Some guys were playing volleyball; I was writing a letter home to my mom. Then we got the call, and 10 minutes later we were ready. We were told to provide security for Delta Force guys as they went into a building to get Aidid. We had had word that there might be heavy fire, and we knew it was a bad part of town.
We came in from the north, set down near the target, and went in. We were engaged in combat right from the get-go, so it took us a while to get there. But the mission was going OK, although my squad leader did get hit and I took charge of the guys. We waited, got the prisoners out of there, and everybody took off.
CNN: When did things start to go wrong?
THOMAS: The mission we went in to do was a success. But on the way out, the first helicopter got shot down, about six blocks away from my guys. We moved as a unit -- the Delta Force unit included -- down toward the crash site. As we were running, I could see crowds of people running down the alleys, and we had to stop and keep returning fire.
We finally got to the point that we could take a left turn, and it started getting bogged down. So we set up a perimeter, an immediate position around the helicopter.
Just as we were getting there, a little bird (helicopter) landed in the street. The pilot drops it in there and pulled out some wounded while the co-pilot was firing out of the side. It was insane. They took off, and the rescue bird actually got hit, but the pilot held it.
CNN: What happened next?
THOMAS: We tried to extend the perimeter and move out, but we didn't go much more than a block. By nighttime, we tried to grab all our casualties and link up with the three different areas where people had been set up throughout the night. Our helicopters flew fly-bys all night long -- shooting in and out to give us cover, all with their night vision on.
At some point, we had to consolidate, and my squad went outside. It was like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, firing as we moved around. We decided to leave our casualties where they were and sat it out for the night.
It was nuts how close the fighting was. First they started massing on us, and they ran into the middle of it. Once they realized they'd be killed if they came forward, they held up.
CNN: Was your unit prepared? Overwhelmed?
THOMAS: To me, it was just like training up until someone got hit and they started screaming. Then it took on a real seriousness. It was surprising how much it was like training -- like all the moving target ranges set up to resemble close-range combat and firing.
Still, we were outnumbered 10 to 1. When it was all done we had 76 wounded, and 18 died -- six of them were in my company. The Delta Force lost three or four guys, and the rest were from the helicopter crews.
The Red Cross later told us the casualties for the Somalis were over a thousand. The only reason that we only lost 10 on the ground, and 18 altogether, was because we were so well-trained. We were just good.
CNN: How were you trained?
THOMAS: You train "real world" in a bunch of different scenarios. Throughout your time in the Rangers, there isn't one area of the world that's going to be completely foreign. The only thing I haven't done is a heavy snow.
All that fire training we did when we were in Somalia got really intensive to the mission. It comes down to the basics -- shoot, move and communicate. There's no one better at it than the Rangers.
CNN: What are your feelings about the Rangers now in South Asia? What should they expect?
THOMAS: The Rangers are the concept of the new war. They are who you call in an emergency -- and that's the way it's going to be for a while.
I have absolute confidence in those guys. They're better trained than I was. And they've got the best equipment, the best leadership in the world.
They should expect that when you're going in there, that there's going to be the same kind of screwed-up situation we had in Somalia. You're fighting an elusive enemy. The biggest difference between Somalia and Afghanistan is that the terrain is different, and they're going to be fighting an experienced fighting force.
CNN: What can the military and policy-makers learn from the Somali clash?
THOMAS: From the government's perspective, it's if you are going to go in to do something like that, you better know what it takes to accomplish the mission. When the [military] leaders in charge say, "This is what we need," you can't say, "I'll let you do it with only this." You support the guys on the ground.
If you feel, as a lawmaker, that it's a strong enough policy mission, count on the fact that you're going to lose people. And don't send them in with their hands tied -- if you do, you'll just re-learn the same lessons.
You have to be careful sending an army of well-trained men on a manhunt. It seldom works out the way you want it to. It's not as easy as the American people think it is. The hunt for [drug lord Pablo] Escobar, for example, went on forever. We didn't even get Aidid, and it's in his country.
CNN: What about the American public?
THOMAS: People should know that it's going to be a long fight. Those guys, the Taliban and al Qaeda, think they're going to sit it out and we'll get tired of it.
But no one is going to forget the attacks that killed 6,000 people right smack in the middle of New York. As long as we stay focused and the government does a good job, so that it's not a manhunt and they're patient, we'll prevail.
CNN: On another subject, were you ever vaccinated for anthrax?
THOMAS: The Army is ahead of the game. Maybe 18 months ago, everybody got vaccinated for anthrax.
Chemical and biological weapons training is standard -- you have to do it. You just kind of blow it off. It's so unconventional when you sit down and go to some of these chemical schools. None of these are mass weapons of destruction; they're chemical agents.
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