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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.