The real "Black Hawk Down" story remains an epic

Nowadays, these three men have vastly varied lives. One is a firefighter, one runs an aerospace company, one is a country-music singer. Back in 1993, however, they were linked in one fierce story -- which has been told in books, in the movie "Black Hawk Down" and now in a cable special. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

This was going to be
a quick mission, two hours tops. Army Rangers would zoom into
Mogadishu, capture two Somali rebel leaders, and leave.

Then everything
exploded; 18 Americans were killed, 72 were wounded. The story has
been told in a movie (“Black Hawk Down”), books and now the
opener of a National Geographic Channel series.

All of this was
happening to young men. “I had literally just turned 21 years old
the day before,” Randy Ramaglia said.

After growing up in
a small town, he'd enlisted at 18. “I wanted to be part of
something larger than myself,” he said.

Many in the Ranger
unit were still teen-agers during that Mogadishu battle, but Keni
Thomas was 23. Growing up in Florida, he had always wanted to be a
Ranger like his dad ... even if he didn't quite fit in.

“He was always a
singer-songwriter,” Ramaglia said, and “somewhat of an anomaly
within the unit, Most of us were not artistic. (Keni) actually had
hobbies that didn't involve Rangering.”

On Oct. 3, 1993,
several Rangers were playing Risk; then came the call for the
Mogadishu mission.

It went smoothly,
with the two leaders captured and extracted within a half-hour. Then
a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down; a second helicopter rushed to
the site and was also shot down. Two snipers managed to protect the
second crew and hold off the mob, until running out of ammunition.
Both men were posthumous Medal of Honor winners.

As a Ranger squad
tried to rescue the crew, its leader was wounded. Thomas suddenly
became the squad-leader, for an 18-hour ordeal that included getting
the wounded into armored vehicles, then fighting on foot, to reach a
secure soccer stadium.

For Mike Durant,
this lasted much longer. He was 32 at the time, a New Hampsire
native, a career Army man and the pilot of the second helicopter. The
only survivor, he had a broken leg and a badly injured back, but was
hauled away by the mob.

“There were
moments of sheer terror,” he said, “when I was sure I was going
to die .... And there were moments where I actually laughed in

“The treatment was
very hostile initially. (To them,) I represent everything bad in
their life .... But as they got to know me better, things improved
and they became more human.”

Former Ambassador
Robert Oakley arrived to negotiate, as the U.S. amassed 10,000 troops
at a nearby airfield. After 11 days, Durant was set free.

He stayed in the
military for eight more years, retiring with 22 years of service; now
he has an MBA and runs an aerospace company. Ramaglia stayed for 18
months, then became a career firefighter.

And Thomas? He
re-enlisted and remembers a pivotal day: “I was sitting out there
in the woods somewhere, going,'I wish that somebody would just start
something, so we could go back to combat.'”

This, he realized,
wasn't a good attitude. At the end of his hitch, he moved to
Nashville; he remains a country singer-songwriter, with two 2005
singles on the Billboard country chart. One (with Vince Gill and
Emmylou Harris) reached No. 47, another (with Blackhawk) was No. 56.

He and Durant have
each written books about their experience. Now Thomas feels this
Geographic series, “No Man Left Behind,” reflects what he
learned. “The day you enter the Ranger residence .... you are
taught, take care of each other .... That's a heck of a
responsibility to put on a 20-year-old kid.”

-- “No Man Left
Behind,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, National Geographic, rerunning at 11.

-- The June 28
opener, “The Real Black Hawk Down,” also runs at 9 and 11 p.m.
Thursday, June 30, then at 5 and 8 p.m. July 5, prior to the second