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Chapter 1DOWN AND DIRTY
I woke up in the silence of my own grave.
At least that's what I believed in that first moment, because in my last flash of consciousness I had clearly seen the clawing hand of the Grim Reaper. I did not know where I was. I did not know who I was. It was like emerging from an altitude chamber with a case of hypoxia as my mind began to stagger, slowly, through the darkened hallways of my concussed brain. And when my eyelids finally fluttered open, I was stunned to take in the light.
The chopper's windshield was almost completely gone, pierced and disintegrated by a slab of corrugated metal that had stopped only inches from my face. Yet my first sense of emotion wasn't relief, but fury at the disfiguring of my helicopter by that rusty blade. I reached up to shove the thing from my cockpit, and then the pain swept over me like a wave of molten lava.
My back was broken.
Super Six-Four had come down like Dorothy's house in The Wizard of Oz, spinning fast, falling even faster, and finally slamming its nine tons of steel into the hard-packed ground. Two of my vertebrae had smacked together on impact, displacing the disk between them and pulverizing each other. Every muscle in my back must have tried to prevent that catastrophe and been ripped apart in the effort, and it felt like some evil giant had me on his worktable, squeezing my spine in an iron vise. I stopped moving and just tried to breathe without passing out.
I sure as hell was fully conscious now, although my thoughts and reflexes seemed to trudge through a sort of syrupy fog. Slowly I moved my aching head and glanced around the cockpit, and found I was sitting level with thefloor. The pilot seats in a Blackhawk are designed to stroke downward in a major crash, and mine had done that and more. Its supports had snapped like the legs of a child's chair under the girth of a fat man. My right leg felt strangely numb, and as soon as I tried to move it I knew that the femur had broken clean in half over the edge of my Kevlar seat. My M-9 pistol was still strapped to my right thigh, and as its weight shifted I could feel the splintered ends of my bones grinding against one another. But it didn't hurt all that much. My crushed vertebrae were monopolizing my pain centers.
I was dead sure that I couldn't get myself out of the cockpit. A Blackhawk's hard enough to get out of when you're healthy. You have to contort yourself and maneuver your limbs around the seat and the controls. Now I could barely move. I unhooked my harness and took off my helmet, feeling rivulets of cold sweat running down my temples. Some guys come back from every mission soaked through, while I rarely break a sweat. Today was different. I peeled off my Nomex gloves and then, for some strange reason, I slipped my watch from my wrist, with my wedding ring still encircling the band, and laid them on the console. To this day, I'm not sure why I did that. Maybe I knew that "time" was about to become a non-issue here. Or maybe it was the ring, and I didn't want to be distracted by thoughts of home. It was like something a man might do before surgery, or certain death.
I saw my MP-5 submachine gun lying on the floor near my left foot, right where I'd left it. If I had abided by written safety procedures, that "Skinny Popper"-our callous nickname for the compact German weapon-would have been behind me, strapped down somewhere in the back and inaccessible. So I was grateful for having a touch of the renegade in me as I reached for it, made sure it was locked and cocked and laid it across my lap. I could hear some thin, muffled shouts in the distance. The Somalis would surely try to overrun us, and it looked like I'd just have to fight it out right there where I sat. And then I remembered that I wasn't alone.
I looked over at Ray. His helmet was gone and he was slowly edging himself off his seat, which had collapsed to the floor just like mine. The acrid smell of spilled jet fuel mixed with dry dust was in the air, and I heard someone moaning unintelligibly from the back of the chopper. It was Bill Cleveland's voice, but nothing he muttered made any sense. There wasn't a sound from Tommy Field. Ray looked at me.
"I tried to pull them off." He meant the engines.
"I know it."
"Couldn't do it."
I glanced up at the power-control levers. "You got 'em halfway."
He didn't say anything for a moment, and then: "Left tibia's broken, I think."
"Right femur here. And my back, too."
"Yeah," he said, and then he slowly maneuvered himself until he was sitting in the door sill with his back to me.
"I'm movin', Mike," he said.
"I'll be right here."
Ray nodded, and then he gripped the sill with his hands and carefully lowered himself to the ground. I couldn't see him anymore, and I would never see him again.
I knew we were about to battle for our lives. We were down in the middle of Mogadishu, and there was no doubt in my mind that the Somalis were coming for us. I was dimly aware of the echoes of gunfire in the distance, the chatter of small arms, and the ominous double booms of RPGs. There was a badass fight going on out there, a real slugfest. But I didn't think, Oh my God, this is it, it's over. I was focused only on the things I had to do, setting my gun in position and getting ready to shoot it out. I felt no sense of despair or hopelessness, just a grim determination to hold them off as long as I could. I was ready.
And just then, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon appeared on the right side of our chopper. They were Delta operators, and though I didn't know them personally or by name, I certainly knew who they were. More than once I had briefed them and other members of their teams prior to assaults into the city. Since they were wearing no helmets, I recognized them instantly. Randy was carrying a high-tech sniper rifle and Gary had a CAR-15, the short-barreled version of the M-16 assault rifle, and their load-bearing harnesses were slung with ammunition and grenades. They were the kind of professionals who could pick off a rabbit from a roller coaster with a BB gun. To me, they were Batman and Robin, only much better, and they just walked up to my aircraft like they were out for a stroll in the park.
Rescue Force! was the first thing that leapt to my mind. Already! I figured that only a few minutes had elapsed since Super Six-Four had been hit by the RPG, yet here were the Best of the Best, on the ground and setting up to get us all the hell out of there. Now there was cause for some real optimism, and a sense of elation swept through me. I was thinking that we'd all be all right, that it was over, and I assumed that Cliff Wolcott and Donovan Briley were alive and soon we'd all be swapping tales about what we'd been through. Maybe it would be bedside by bedside in an army hospital, but what the hell. We took a couple of punches, I thought. But we're still rollin'.
What I didn't know then was that Shughart and Gordon were the Task Force's last hope to defend our crash site. They had been circling overhead in Super Six-Two, watching the Somalis streaming into the area's perimeter, taking shots at the African gunslingers and bringing them down, while more and more of them just kept coming on. They knew we wouldn't last long before being overrun, and they had put in three urgent requests to the Air Mission and Ground Force Commanders to be inserted on our crash site. At last, Colonels Matthews and Harrel had acquiesced to what they must have thought would be a suicide mission.
Piloting Super Six-Two through a hailstorm of AK-47 fire and Rocket-Propelled Grenade rounds, Mike Goffena and Jim Yacone had put Randy and Gary down nearby, and almost immediately their chopper was hit hard by an RPG. One of the helo's crew chiefs had already been struck in the hand by small-arms fire, and now a remaining Delta operator on board had his leg blown off, but Goffena-with Yacone unconscious and slumped in the seat beside him-somehow nursed that chopper back to a seaside port facility and furrowed it into the ground, more or less in one piece. Some incredible flying was done that day.
Randy and Gary didn't say very much. They knew the situation was critical and they were there to work, not chat. They asked me about my injuries.
"Well, my right leg's broken," I said. "And I think my back."
"Uh-huh." They nodded and set themselves in position to lift me out of the cockpit, but I didn't fear those hands reaching in for me. I wasn't in much pain at that point, because I guess shock had set in and my body's physiology must have been intercepting those screaming messages to my brain. They acted as if they were in no particular rush, and they raised me up gently, as if they were handling an ostrich egg. They carried me to an open spot of ground to the right of the cockpit and set me down carefully in the dust. One of them recovered a large survival kit from the bird and they tucked it up behind me to support my back.
It was my first chance to get a lay of the land. No, we hadn't made the airfield, but somehow we had made it to that open area I had seen that looked like a small park. Yet now I could see that the whole space was covered with tin shanties, homemade shacks with walls and roofs of corrugated metal. By some miracle, we had come down in the only uninhabited flat spot between a cluster of huts.
To my right was a long, high wall of that same gray and rust-red tin. To my left, Super Six-Four sat in the pale dirt, its belly smeared into the ground, its big rotors dead still and drooping like wilted palm fronds. We had crashed flat and level, which was about as good as it could get, but the landing-gear struts had absorbed as much impact as they were designed to and then the whole strut assembly had snapped off. The chopper lay there like a big truck with its tires ripped away, and you could barely see a sliver of light under it. The tail rotor and vertical fin had disintegrated in flight, and what remained of the tail boom was tucked up against the wall behind me.
I couldn't see anyone in the cargo bay. Tommy Field's minigun had swung around hard and struck him full in the chest upon impact. It was a very heavy weapon and it had crushed his entire rib cage. Someone in the C2 bird flying overhead saw him briefly sit up, then fall flat back into the bay. Something else inside the chopper had torn up Bill Cleveland really bad.
Just in front and to my right was a long shack and a large tree, its high leaves rustling in the hot wind and throwing some shade onto me. The only open area was between that shack and my helo's cockpit, a clear field of fire. Randy and Gary knew what they were doing. They handed me my MP-5 and the single spare magazine, a total of sixty rounds of 9mm ammo, but they didn't say a word as they walked off around the nose of the helicopter.
I heard Bill's voice again and I twisted my head around. Shughart and Gordon had placed him on the ground behind me, and he was still incoherent and in great pain. Some of his flight gear had been removed and his trousers were soaked in blood.
I looked at my lifeless leg, knowing that it was already swelling and stiffening in the sun. Well, at least I'll be getting out of here and going home. Just that morning I had wanted to go out on every mission, but now with a broken femur I knew I wouldn't be flying for quite some time. I tried to buck myself up, but that minute of respite gave me too much time to think. I suddenly missed my family very much, and especially my young son, Joey.
I did not want to die here, and even as I fought it, the fear began to well up. I was badly injured and scared, and there was no doubt about it, I did not want to fall into the hands of the Somalis. Just a few weeks before, they had overrun some Nigerian troops, and rumors about what they'd done to them were too gruesome to believe. And the Somalis had done that to fellow Africans, so I couldn't even imagine what they might do to us. The images of mutilation that flashed into my mind terrified me.
Randy and Gary came back around the nose of the helo. I wasn't sure what they were doing, but I assumed they were looking for an area large enough to land an aircraft and get us out of there. They were calm and deliberate, talking to each other like a couple of surveyors planning a new parking lot, but I knew they were frustrated. They had four badly injured men on their hands and it was impossible to move us, even a short distance.
From the other side of the tin wall to my right I heard Somali voices. It sounded like they were trying to get at us, but I didn't think it over for more than a second. My MP-5 was set on single-shot mode and I put it to use, firing four quick rounds right through the wall. I didn't hear the voices anymore. When I stopped shooting, Randy and Gary looked at me, as if surprised that a badly injured chopper pilot might actually be useful in a firefight. They didn't speak, but they moved around the front of the helo again until they were out of sight.
At some point, Karl and Keith, the two Little Bird pilots, came back into the picture. They had already pulled off an incredible rescue at Cliff and Donovan's crash site, but they came right back in to see what they could do for us. I never saw or heard them, but they landed about a hundred meters to the right of our downed helicopter, which was as close as they could get due to the dense concentration of shacks and trees. They stayed on the ground for about a minute, but began taking so much fire that they had to get the hell out of there or lose their bird. There was nothing else they could do.
From beyond the far left side of Super Six-Four, I began to hear more frequent fire of AK-47s, that deep, hollow bang that comes from the throats of those Russian weapons. It hammered in ones and twos, yet more often, and was answered by precision sniper shots and "double-taps" from Randy's and Gary's guns. But I had my own problems. The Somalis were definitely trying to get at me now from the other side of the tin wall; I could hear their chatter and the quick flip-flops of their sandals and sneakers. I fired through the wall again, the tin rattling as my rounds punctured it and lances of light pierced back through the bullet holes. A little farther down, a pair of mahogany hands gripped the top of the wall and a dark head appeared above it. I fired again and the intruder disappeared, but my weapon jammed. I worked the bolt and a perfectly good round fell into the dust. Damn. Wasting ammunition was a luxury I could not afford.
K-k-k-kung. A burst of AK fire echoed from the far side of the chopper. B-dap, b-dap. It stopped. I looked over at my helo, at my seat collapsed there in the cockpit. It had worked exactly as advertised, stroking down with the crash and taking enough of the hit so that I'd been injured but not killed. It was cocked slightly to the right, probably because of the lateral spinning impact. I decided that I would like to meet the genius engineer who had designed those pilot seats. For just a moment, the distraction opened a brief window of hope, a glimmer of the future.
Then something moved on my right and I spun and fired four rounds. But while my trigger finger kept on pulling, the weapon just clicked. A wisp of pungent smoke curled from the barrel like a ghost. My first magazine was empty, and I switched to the second. Only thirty more rounds, Durant. You better choose your targets very carefully.
I looked to the left of the big tree out in front of me and I could see another Somali, crouched down and slinking toward the aircraft. It was obvious he hadn't spotted me yet, and he carried one of those worn-out-looking AKs, just holding it down by his side. I wondered where they'd gotten all those damn weapons as I slowly gripped my MP-5 two-handed and tracked him in the ring sight. We had all come to believe that the Somalis did not fear death, and this man clearly didn't, approaching with a thin, confident smile as if stalking some kind of defenseless prey. But we were not defenseless yet. I fired two rounds at him and he disappeared in a small cloud of dust. I know I hit him. He didn't come back.
I fired at some more shadowy figures, and then again. My weapon jammed. I pulled back the cocking lever and shook it violently, then chambered another round that seemed to seat properly. The thing was stressing me out. It had fired just fine at the range, but it was clear the damn gun needed a good cleaning. I couldn't claim that I hadn't had the time for some basic maintenance, and I could hear the ghostly echoes of so many drill instructors: Keep your goddamn weapon clean!
Four or five unfired rounds were scattered around the ground where I'd ejected them while clearing jams, mixed with spent brass casings that glittered in the sun. An African voice called out from the other side of the wall. Blam blam. I let loose. Tin rattled, and I heard the heavy patter of running. Blam blam blam.
The weapon's bolt locked to the rear. It was empty. I stared at it, horrified, yet I don't recall ever thinking about the M-9 pistol that was still strapped to my shattered thigh. There were two full pistol magazines there and another thirty rounds, but for some reason my brain refused to take that in. In the end, that failure in cognizance probably saved my life.
Something arced through the air above me, fell through the tree branches, and bounced on the ground just to my right. Grenade! I panicked and began to flail the now useless MP-5 in circles around my head, contorting and twisting like a man with a tarantula on his neck as I tried to sweep the horrible thing away from me. I thought I felt the weapon clang off of something, and I turned and covered my face with my arms as it exploded with a concussive bang off to the right, covering me with dust and hammering at my eardrums. I didn't feel any shrapnel wounds, but I lay there breathing as hard as a decked tuna.
My spirit, which only minutes before had been buoyed up by the arrival of Randy and Gary, now spiraled down into the ground just like my helicopter. At first I had been happy just to survive the crash, then accepted that I'd fight to the death, then swelled with elation at the promise of rescue. Now we were taking heavy fire, we'd almost been overrun, and they were throwing goddamn hand grenades in here! I was dripping sweat, in pain, half paralyzed, and out of ammo. The stench of spilled jet fuel and gunsmoke and rotting garbage and sweat would be the only escorts to my death. Randy and Gary were out there somewhere on the other side of the chopper, desperately trying to hold off the "Injuns." The bursts of AK fire were starting to roll together like a thunderstorm. I was alone. It was turning into the frigging Alamo.
"Damn. I'm hit."
It was Gary's voice, from the other side of the chopper. A Somali bullet had found him, yet it wasn't so much what he said but how he said it. He sounded almost irritated, like this was just going to make things harder for him. It wasn't a scream or a plea, just a statement of fact, like someone who'd nicked himself with a vegetable knife. At that point I am sure he realized how desperate our situation had become. No one was coming for us-not anytime soon, anyway. The ground convoy and the troops pinned down at Wolcott's crash site all had their own problems to deal with, and there were many more lives at stake. The unfortunate truth was that we were only a small part of a much bigger and bloodier picture.
Only minutes before, Gary and Randy had jumped from a hovering helicopter to rescue us. They had fought their way through a maze of paths and shanties, driving off seemingly countless Somali gunmen. They had already done more than any two men could be expected to do. They had put their own lives on the line to try to help their fellow American soldiers.
Gary Gordon died on the other side of that helicopter. I don't know exactly when, and I don't know exactly how, but I never saw or heard him again. He died before I even learned his name.
I will never forget him.
Randy Shughart came back around the cockpit, striding toward me and showing little more than professional concern in his expression.
"They're throwing grenades in here," I told him, but he didn't seem too worried about that. He was focused on our critical shortage of ammo, and he looked at my now useless MP-5.
"Are there any weapons in the aircraft?" he asked.
"My crew chiefs keep their M-16s between the seats."
He went off to the helicopter without a word, climbed in, and started digging around. Moments later he returned, carrying the longer M-16s and a CAR-15, the short-barreled submachine gun I had seen in Gary's hands. He handed me the smaller weapon, and for some reason it felt much better in my grip than my own MP-5. He held up a PRC-112 survival radio.
"What channel is the fire net on?"
It was odd. He didn't even have to shout. There was gunfire echoing from the far side of the aircraft, but in hesitant ones and twos.
"Channel Bravo," I replied.
He worked the radio, and suddenly I wondered if we'd been communicating with anyone at all out there. We had to be. I'd assumed that Randy and Gary had at least been talking on their own internal radio net. But maybe the communications were bad because of our location and the distances involved? Surely we'd contacted one of the other helicopters by now.
Could we be cut off? Wild thoughts began to race around in my brain. Does anybody even know what's going on down here? The gravity of our situation began to really dawn on me, and I simmered with anger and frustration. We're gonna be overrun. It's gonna happen soon. How far away is that damn reaction force? There are hundreds of American troops in this damn city! What the hell are they doing?!
Fortunately for me, I didn't know the truth about what was going on out there. If I had, my pounding heart might have simply succumbed with terror. Back at the first Blackhawk crash site, Cliff's and Donovan's corpses were jammed into the crumpled remains of their cockpit. Yet no U.S. serviceman would be left behind in enemy territory, not by this unit, dead or alive, and some of the Rangers and Special Forces had fought their way to the wreck. Other elements had been pinned down en route by relentless fire while, just like me, they waited with their injured and their dead for relief. But the vehicles in the ground convoy were being beat up so badly that they had to turn around and go back to the compound. The lightly armored Humvees and Five-Tons were riddled with bullets and RPG shrapnel, hauling dead and gravely wounded Rangers, their cargo bays slick with blood. They would have to regroup, rearm, muster more personnel, and come back out. It would be hours before any kind of help could make it to our site.
Randy made a call on the fire support net, which gave him a direct line to the Little Bird guns and the fire support officer. A Little Bird was flying high over our position.
"A reaction force is en route," came the return call from one of the helicopters. The voice sounded familiar. I was sure it was one of the Little Bird pilots named Chris.
Now, that was encouraging. All we had to do was hold out a little bit longer. We needed help, but help was on the way. We just gotta keep them from overrunning us. We gotta hang in here just a little while more. . . .
Randy probably knew right then and there that "a little while more" would not be soon enough. He squinted at the radio, stuffed it into his combat harness, hefted his weapon, and moved off around the nose of the helicopter. He left without saying another word. I would never see him again.
Once more, I was alone. As far as I could tell, there was only one man among us still on his feet, and he had walked off to make his last stand. Directly to my right front, another Somali was trying to climb over the wall. I couldn't understand why they so desperately wanted to get at us, hurling themselves into the open like that. They seemed to be coming from everywhere now, a veritable plague of killers.
I aimed the CAR-15 and pulled the trigger, and the burst of automatic fire took me by surprise. Randy had put the weapon on burst mode and I hadn't checked it, but it surely was effective. One moment the Somali's head was there, and the next moment he was gone. I can't say for certain, but I think I killed that man.
I looked at the weapon in my hand and thought, This is what we need, not that MP-5 piece of crap. The heavier "bangs" of 5.56mm ammo seemed much more effective than the 9mm "pops" from my MP-5. The small German weapon might be fine for urban antiterror work, but this American piece was a robust field tool. It felt better and it didn't jam, not once. My confidence came back. I fired a few more rounds at a flashing figure to my front. I fired a burst at one to my left. And then the CAR-15 ran dry. It had been Gary Gordon's weapon, and he'd used up half the magazine before he was hit.
Desperately, I looked all around, shocked to be out of ammo. Again. Just meters away from me there were six thousand rounds of 7.62mm minigun ammunition in the chopper. But I had no way to fire any of it. Those miniguns would have been so damn effective, but they required aircraft power to operate. Tommy Field had nicknamed our helo "Venom," but Venom would never fly again and her battery wasn't enough to run those guns. We had to have AC electrical power. We might as well have had six thousand rocks. Ammo, ammo everywhere, and not a round to fire. . . .
Suddenly, it grew very, very quiet. Up until this point there had been quite a bit of gunfire, ebbing and flowing in volume, some from us and some from them. But for some reason it all stopped for a few moments. Maybe they've given up, I told myself. I could hear my own lungs, rasping at the air like sandpaper on plywood. Maybe the reaction force is coming on and driving them away. I had no idea if this might be true, but the fantasy was encouraging. My mind worked hard to suppress the rising panic, but my thoughts weren't remotely clear or focused. I couldn't move. I couldn't hide. I couldn't make myself invisible. There were a few good 9mm rounds lying around me, but I never thought to reload the empty MP-5 mags, and my pistol never entered my mind. I no longer had any control of the situation. All I could do now was wait for that reaction force. It's only a couple of miles from there to here. They should be able to make it in time. They'll be here any second now . . .
My body jerked and I clenched my fists as a huge volume of gunfire suddenly shattered the silence. It came from the far side of the chopper and it rolled in like a hurricane of the worst sounds that Satan could conjure. Volleys of AK-47 fire hammered at our helpless bird, echoing off the clustered shanties, the heavy rounds piercing the chopper's steel skin and ricocheting everywhere. The only thing armored on that Blackhawk were the seats, and I watched, helpless and horrified, as it was punctured over and over again and it bucked like a downed elephant under a hail of poacher fire. Flying bullets plucked shorn metal and glass into the air and kicked up clots of dirt all around me, and it was like being on the wrong end of the firing range at Fort Bragg while an entire company of infantry let loose at you.
The Somalis had plainly changed their tactics. They seemed to have realized that they weren't going to take us one at a time, but it had become clear we were few in numbers and lightly armed. The regular soldiers of the Somali National Alliance had arrived and taken over, organizing a coordinated assault.
It went on and on for maybe an entire minute, a short span of time that stretched into an agonizing eternity. I couldn't see anything through the hulk of the smashed chopper, so I can't say for sure, but Randy Shughart was probably the only American left fighting over there, alone against a countless number of enemies. He couldn't fight them all. It was only a matter of time before he went down. And when Randy finally fell, the shooting stopped. The last volleys of gunfire echoed off into the sparse trees. When the dust cleared, the Somalis would count twenty-five of their own killed at our crash site. In those last moments of his life, Randy had done some pretty damn fine shooting.
Then the most terrifying minutes of my entire life began. I doubt there is a more horrific thing one could experience. I still lie in bed at night and feel that flood of suffocating anxiety. Time seemed to stand absolutely still. My skin crawled and every vein in my body throbbed with terror. What did they really do to those Nigerians? I couldn't move. I could barely breathe. How much pain can a man endure before his mind shuts down and retreats into the sanctuary of unconsciousness? I knew they were going to kill me. I just didn't know how.
Death was on its way. I could hear it. They were a mob of hate-filled men and women, and I couldn't see them yet but their voices grew louder and louder, yelling and screaming, and the sound that really made my blood run cold was the clatter of debris being thrown out of the way as they advanced. It was like some multilimbed Hydra, stomping toward me, thundering the ground and furiously tossing away shards of metal and wood as it drew near. It was the sound of approaching death, just overwhelmingly terrifying, and I knew that as soon as they came around the nose of that helicopter and saw me, they were going to chop me to pieces. That's what they had done to the Nigerians. That's what they did to everybody. We had heard eyewitness accounts of them playing soccer with the skulls of their enemies.
The howling racket of the mob's rage grew louder and louder, and I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to save myself. There was a large survival knife in the chest pocket of my vest, and I could have plunged it into my heart and ended it right there, but somehow I never even considered that. My life was surely lost, but I would not be the one to take it. A fully loaded M-9 pistol was strapped to my broken thigh and within easy reach, but for some reason my brain still refused to recognize its existence. Maybe one small part of my psyche reasoned that if I was holding a threatening gun in my hand, any thin hope of being taken alive would be lost. That enraged mob would riddle me with a thousand bullets.
I was no longer a soldier fighting with my comrades against a common enemy. I was merely a man alone, facing a horrifying death. I did not know for certain that everyone else was dead, but I could do nothing to help them now. Within less than a week, American M1 tanks and armored personnel carriers-equipment that we'd requested and been denied-would finally arrive from the States. But for Ray and Tommy and Bill, and those two incredibly courageous Delta men whose names I did not yet even know, it would be one week too late.
I could think of no other course of action. I put the empty weapon across my chest, placed my open hands on top of it, and stared up at the hazy blue sky. In seconds, the Somalis would come for me. Not an organized military enemy, but a mob of enraged civilians and militia with only one thing on their minds: vengeance. A few clouds drifted by overhead. There were no helicopters in sight. I heard the rising victorious cries as the Somalis swarmed around Super Six-Four, the poundings of hundreds of fists against her battered hide, a rattle like a swarm of feeding locusts. I did not sob. I did not pray. No tears coursed down my cheeks. For me, in that one frozen moment in time, all that I could do was wait for their arrival.
My Joey will never know his father. . . .
The first Somali came around the nose of the aircraft. My eye caught the movement, and I raised my head up and looked at him. I tried to stay perfectly still, but I had startled him. He and his cohorts must have thought that they had killed us all. The man took a step or two backward, then realized that I was not a threat, and the crowd surged forward, descending on me like vultures on a cadaver.
There may have been a hundred of them, or even a thousand. I could not tell. I couldn't see what was happening around me. The sky above became a blur of screaming heads and flying fists and feet, punching and kicking at me. I didn't cry out or try to resist, I just went limp and tried to absorb the blows. How do I make it through the next five minutes? There was nothing I could do for the other men now; I had to focus on my own survival. If I can survive for five, then I'll worry about the next five. I decided to act as passively as I could. The situation was volatile as nitroglycerine. Only minutes before, I had been trying to kill them and they had been doing the same, and now I would just have to endure their unbridled fury.
They seemed to divide quickly into two groups, one bent on tearing me apart and the other intent on stripping me of anything of value. I saw flashes of incongruous clothing, men wearing T-shirts with Nike and Adidas logos, women wrapped in dresses with prints nearly as loud as their screams. Someone kicked me hard, while two more started to claw at my flight gear and clothing. My flight vest would not come off; it was closed by the kind of plastic clasps you find on a water skier's vest, and the Somalis had never seen such things. They tore at it so violently that I knew if I didn't help them they would rip me limb from limb simply to get it off. I opened the clasps for them, as well as the carabiners that held my extraction harness together, and then I was lying there in only my brown T-shirt and desert flight trousers and boots as they waved my vest high overhead and shouted victoriously while others swarmed in to try to capture the prize. I was carrying no personal effects, no wallet or good-luck charms. And it was a good thing that I'd removed my wedding ring, because they would have severed my finger to get it off.
I cannot remember how many times they struck me or clubbed me. But it was many, many times.
A snarling face bent in and a man ripped the green badge loose from my neck cord. That badge gave me access to the Task Force Ranger compound, and taped to the back of it was my military identification card. My metal "dog tags" went with it, and as soon as he saw the green badge in his hand he stuck it in my face and shouted.
"Ranger! Ranger! You die Somalia!"
His scream curdled my blood, but it shocked me even more that this man could know so much about our security and procedures. There was nothing on that green badge but a number. I wondered how many of these were now hanging around the necks of our enemies. But I didn't wonder for long, because two men began to work on my boots. They barely tore the laces open before bracing their feet in the dirt and twisting and pulling. I watched them tear my left boot off. I closed my eyes when they went for the right. The pain of my broken femur shot up through my shattered spine like a high-voltage electrocution.
I looked up as a man raised something high above his head. For a second the sun haloed around the object, and then he swung it down on me like a club. It smashed into my face, breaking my right eye socket and cheekbone. For many years I have held my peace-for the sake of the survivors of the men who were killed-not refuting the claim that I was struck with the butt of a rifle. But the truth is long overdue.
That object was not a weapon. It was soft and very heavy.
It was the severed arm of one of my comrades.
I did not cry out or try to defend myself. My assailant was poised for another blow and obviously preparing to beat me to death, but I stared into his eyes with such hatred and defiance and disgust that he froze, backed away, dropped his "club," and disappeared.
Someone fired a shot in the air. It didn't exactly bring things under control, but it must have stilled the blood lust that was surging through that savage crowd. I was lying there barefoot now, with only my T-shirt and flight trousers remaining. In those climatic conditions of heat and humidity, our medics had recommended not wearing underwear, and when the Somalis opened my trousers to drag them off and saw that I was naked, they inexplicably stopped. It was an absolutely surrealistic moment as someone slowly zipped my fly back up, and the last vestiges of my filthy uniform were left in place. Their choice to honor modesty, while mutilating and desecrating the dead and the defenseless, utterly dumbfounded me.
Someone threw a handful of dirt into my eyes and my mouth. The grit blinded me, and I choked and sputtered it from my throat. Someone else wrapped a filthy rag around my head. I felt many hands clutching at my legs and my shoulders, and then they hoisted me high up into the air. My crushed vertebrae ground hard against each other, and as they stretched me out like a prisoner on the rack, my broken femur cleaved into the back of my leg, the sharp bone puncturing right out through my skin.
I left my body.
I do not remember fainting, but the flood of agony triggered a response that would only be explained to me much later by a survival psychologist. The human mind has some defensive talents that only the dying or near dead can relay, and mine took me to a place high above my tortured form. I looked down on myself and the surging horde, watching it all in perfect detail, that sea of howling, triumphant inhumanity and those thousands of hands passing me aloft like a bloody sacrifice to their unholy gods.
For those brief moments, the pain was swept away.
And then, so was I. . . .