RTFU

Mogadishu

By
Updated: October 4, 2014

 

By Nick Palmisciano

I was 16 years old and had just been accepted to West Point when I saw the bodies of Americans being dragged through the streets of Somalia.  Like all young men preparing for military service, I already felt like I was a part of the team, even though I hadn’t earned that distinction yet, and rage coursed through my veins.

19 Americans dead.

I hoped we’d get the Somalis back, whatever that means.

Within days, the news reports buzzed about the heroism of the Rangers, Operators and members of 10th Mountain who fought that day.  I remember people saying things like, “We lost 19, but they lost over a thousand,” as if somehow that made any of it better.  But that’s the way things look sometimes to people who haven’t served.  I’ll admit that even I, at 16, felt a certain amount of bravado about the fact that we had overcome such overwhelming odds.

We.

How comical to think in those terms as if I, or any of us, had any part of it.  As if lives were a score.  What an asshole I was then.  I pictured the Rangers as cold, calculating bad asses out of some Hollywood movie.  I read everything I could about it and remember telling my high school classmates about how tough they were.  I didn’t really fathom that they were human, and frankly only a few years older than I was then.

Years and experience change you.  By the time I read Bowden’s book, I was a platoon leader, gearing up for a deployment to Kosovo, asking myself if I could handle what these men had gone through.  I hoped I could and would never let my men down.

Task Force Ranger 2013

Task Force Ranger 2013

When the movie came out, I had already been deployed, and had several friends who had taken part in the mission.  I had seen what people were capable of doing to each other firsthand. I had led men in a combat zone, and had known the fear of not bringing all of your guys home—though thankfully, I never had to experience that pain.  It was the first movie I cried during as an adult.

My emotions watching it were not about vengeance, but about wishing I could travel through time and be there – not to kill Somalis – not to fight bad guys – not to be heroic as I envisioned in my youth, but to help.  Just to help.  To be of use to my brothers in arms.

When I left the military, I felt something no one tells you about.  Massive guilt.  I had served, sure, but had I done enough?  Many had done more – were doing more.  I was well trained.  Had I failed them by leaving? Had I failed my country?  I’ve learned over the years, that everyone feels the same – from standard issue infantrymen like me to Medal of Honor recipients.  For me, and for several years, it was crushing.  I almost rejoined the military on several occasions.  I considered and was recruited for OGA work.  Ultimately, I started a creative outlet – Ranger Up – to stay connected to the brotherhood.

Because of my and Tom’s work at RU, last year I was invited to be one of a few “outsiders” to attend the 20th Anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu.  The event was hosted by Ross Perot over the course of two days, and it was one of the most powerful moments of my life.

I’m frankly not sure I have ever stood in a room with better people.

The day previous they had received a brief from CAG explaining how their TTPs had changed forever as a result of the Battle of Mogadishu.  This had never been shared with Task Force Ranger before and they were beaming about it.  Their sacrifice had led to improvements that had saved countless lives.  Most of them still felt they hadn’t done enough, but this let them know they gave more than they thought.

Now in their 40s or more, with children of their own, the idea that young Rangers and Operators may have lived as a result of lessons learned from them brought elation.  They knew the value and temporary nature of life now in a way they never could have when they stepped foot in Somalia as invincible young Rangers.

Their thoughts now, are not of the brash variety, but rather reflective, and there is profound wisdom in their words.  I took copious notes that weekend, and I’d like to share a little bit of the things they told me in the wee hours of the night as I had the privilege to share whiskey with them.

On being a Ranger: 

“To be a Ranger you have to have the highest moral code.  And killing, no matter what your religious views, is the least moral thing you can do.  And we were good at it, and we trained for it, but you carry that with you.”

RLTW

RLTW

On leaving Somalia:

“We were at the 6 inch line and it was first down.  We needed one more push and we’d own Somalia.  Meanwhile, America thought we lost it.  It was Tet all over again.  And they pulled us.  They made us question why we did it all.”

On coming home:

“You get back and no one understands.  When you first enlist you do it for God and Country.  Then, no matter who you are, you go through a phase where you realize you’re just a cog in the machine of the government and you start to question it all.  But then you realize the thing the movie got right the most is this: it’s about the man next to you and that’s it.”

On the changing face of war:

“We’ve gotten so surgical that it almost doesn’t seem horrible to Americans anymore, but it is.  Lee had it right, ‘It’s lucky war is so terrible, or we’d grow fond of it.’  But I’m worried that it doesn’t seem horrible to most people.  It’s a video game.  They don’t know what war smells like, never mind what it is like.”

On pressure: 

“A person is like a tube of ketchup.  You only see the outside – what they want you to see.  The military applies the pressure that allows you to see what’s inside.  Maybe it’s ketchup.  Maybe it’s BBQ sauce.  We don’t know what’s inside without pressure.  A guy walks around and looks like a stud and can lift this and run that, but without the pressure, all of that is window dressing.”

As the surreal night drew to a close and I sat there with the one or two remaining guys, I did the drunk guy thing and told them about the role their mission played in my life and the lives of many of my friends, how I approached being a PL differently as a result of reading Black Hawk Down, and I asked them the question I had always rolled my eyes at when Generals answered it.  But for the first time in my life, I wanted the answer.

Tommy, Retired COL McKnight, and Nick.

Tommy, Retired COL McKnight, and Nick.

“What would you tell a new leader if you could to prepare him for success?  What would you tell him to do to ensure his guys could do what you did?”

After a brief pause, the answer came much faster and more clearly than I ever expected.

“Not long before we came to Somalia, LTC Kennealy gave a speech.  ‘I am the least important man on this field,” he said.  ‘If something happens to me, LTC McKnight, my XO, will meet or exceed the standard.  If something happens to him, the senior company commander will step up and meet or exceed the standard.’  He proceeded to follow this line of thinking all the way down to the newest private in the Battalion.  ‘Who is going to replace him if he goes down?” he asked.  ‘No one,” he replied. ‘And that’s why you have to pour everything you can into teaching him.’  A few weeks later, LTC Kennealy died during an air operation.  And LTC McKnight took us to Somalia.  Your privates are not your tools.  They are your priority.”

 

I went to bed that night with the slight haze of whiskey lulling me to sleep; with a completely shattered view of these men.  They were not the invincible, calculating warriors I saw in my childhood.

They were so much better than that.

Rangers Lead the Way.

RLTW

RLTW

Comments

comments

5 Comments

  1. Adam Murphy

    October 4, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Sir,
    This is a great article and very well written. I never saw the movie but before I went to Afghanistan with 3rd BDE (RAKKASANS) 101st ABN DIV (AASLT) I did read the book. (I think I never saw the movie because they guy who portrayed COL Steele (then a Captain) was about six feet shorter than the real COL Steele and was missing about 300lbs of pure muscle mass!)
    Before going to Afghanistan I only knew of JRTC or BDE FTX’s but this book really emphasized that the most important person out there are the guys next to you. As I made the flight to Kandahar, this was on my mind. No matter how bad it was going to be, I was going to do everything I could for the guys to my left and right. This was not truly tested until 2 Mar 2002 near Takar Gur during Operation Anaconda.
    I had several deployments after that one and no matter what leadership role I held, this priority of constantly thinking about the guys next to me remained as I know it did with my teammates as well.
    I recently transistioned out of the Army and the thought of “Have I done enough?” remains. I never had to watch the war on television but now I am forced to knowing that I am not going back. “Did I do enough?”
    Being a “spectator” now, I look back on what Veterans have done for this country. I spend a lot of time at the Army Heritage Center in Carlisle, PA researching “Troop Leading Procedures” and how they have changed over time and how leadership has been shaped in our Armed Services. It takes Heroes like these guys you got to hang out with, and so many Veterans that have taken an oath to obey the orders of the President of the United States and to be willing to go in to bad places for this country in the hope that their efforts will make our world a better place. It takes men and women like this to go to these bad places to go through some very difficult times to help us learn by way of books like “In the Company of Heroes.” These heroes create traditions and make unit history which offers immense pride to those of us who have followed in their foot steps.
    When I think if I have done enough……….well I hope so. It’s impossible to measure but I do know this; To all Veterans that have served this country, brother and sisters, you have done enough and you have done a great job. You are all Heroes.

  2. Murphy

    October 5, 2014 at 2:33 am

    Thanks Nick.

  3. Leslie H

    October 5, 2014 at 5:44 am

    As the ex-wife of an Operator and the mother of a son who leaves today for BCT, I can only hope my first-born encounters leaders like this along his path. RTLW & De Oppresso Liber

  4. Jeff Coulter

    October 5, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks, Nick. This was great. I remember being stationed at Fort Hood when Gothic Serpent went down and thinking how I wasn’t doing my part. I learned later as an NCO and an officer that we all serve regardless of where the operations take us. When it’s all said and done, just like the man said, it all boils down to taking care of your people including the man on you left and right. Task Force Ranger was probably one of the greatest examples of this. These men are my heroes. RLTW!

  5. JG

    October 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing. I always felt guilty about getting out in 02, until one of my soldier’s told me that the things I and other NCOs taught him helped him perform downrange, and take care of his troops during multiple deployments. This helped me realize that I had contributed in a very small way to his and his soldier’s success. It’s good to know the lessons you learned from those before you and passed on to those after you had a positive impact on peoples lives.

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