4 Min read
Operation Gothic Serpent / “Black Hawk Down”
160th SOAR(A), Night Stalkers
Panel Discussion: Mike Durant (Pilot & POW), Dan Jollota (Pilot), Lee Van Arsdale (Ground commander)
This Veterans Day on the topic of missions past and the souls of those departed, let me share bits and pieces about a fateful day 30 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Operation Gothic Serpent was a military operation conducted by American Task Force Ranger on October 3, 1993 to capture two lieutenants of Mohammed Farrah Aidid. They were attacking U.N. troops and seizing humanitarian aid which was sent as relief during the severe famine in the war-torn country. The ensuing Battle of Mogadishu was the worst firefight since Vietnam, the costliest in terms of American lives.*
A friend who is a veteran wrote me about her husband who was assigned to the unit during Operation Gothic Serpent.
“Talking about being in the company of heroes. Steve arrived at the 160th [Special Operations Aviation Regiment] after [Command and General Staff College] in August 1993. In September, he took a week leave and we flew to Paraguay to adopt our daughter. . . Those months were busy times for the unit. We came back without her … and I had to go back down alone in early October. October 3, it’s a blur. Steve didn’t deploy with the unit, but was with rear detachment. . . I returned home with Maria and less than a week later, I took her and her brothers in for Mike Durant’s homecoming and Lee Greenwood singing, I’m proud to be an American.
“I think I was too busy with the kids during those three years at the unit (they were 8, 6, 4, and a 2 year old who spoke no English!) to worry as much as I should have worried about Steve.
“I wrote about army spouses and I said something about my first coffee with this unit. There were two widows there. Sobering for sure. And also what a statement about taking care of each other from beginning to end. When Steve told me about Sharri Briley standing up at the gala, my eyes watered and I wasn’t even there.”* (Gail)
I met Sharri Briley last month. She stood, rooted in one spot, in front of a large screen at the very top of Freedom Tower in New York City during the gala. With glimmering views of Manhattan, New Jersey, and the Hudson river from the glass windows surrounding the top floor observatory, Sharri’s eyes remained on the slides.
Sharri said there were photos she had not seen before of the mission and personnel from Operation Gothic Serpent, more commonly known as Black Hawk Down. The pilot Mike Durant was able to get out with his life after 11 days as a Prisoner of War. Sharri’s husband Donovan Briley died earlier in the shoot down of Super 61. I thanked her for coming to the anniversary event and blinked hard as she talked about him and that day.
Operation Gothic Serpent
Key mission personnel discussed what they learned 30 years ago. Here are memorable comments.
Enthusiastic Dumbass may be the catch phrase of the panel. Lee Van Arsdale* used this term to describe local Somali fighters, throwing old Soviet WWII hand grenades with the pins still in. Soldiers warned Van Arsdale about the grenades. Thinking on it, you may not want to throw them back; no need to be in a hurry to show them how it works.
“What the media missed is that the guy on the left and the guy on the right, that’s why you fight,” said Dan Jollota.
“Lessons learned. It is the civilian leader’s responsibility to resource the commanders on the ground.” Mike Durant**
In the Company of Heroes
Bob and I worked on the team to host this event. During the planning, he told me that he flew the assault of the Olympic Hotel, as callsign Star 43. He’s a retired Chief Warrant Officer 5, which is an achievement not unlike sainthood, given his time with the 160th. The odds of such a stellar and long career are about the same as the odds of getting into Harvard, but with a whole lot higher risk to self and to others.
We are roughly the same age: Bob joined the Army in 1986 and I joined in 1987. What was particularly moving to me was his role in escorting eleven of Task Force Ranger’s fallen soldiers in their ultimate return to the United States. During the transfer, I was stationed in Germany and visited the wounded as they processed through Landstuhl Medical Center.
I had not imagined that one day, I would work to support this storied unit and these elite aviators. Or, that I would get to meet friends who adopted a child from another faraway country during such a horrific time for the unit, and that joy is possible even amidst the darkest hours.
A thank you to all veterans and their families. I am grateful to you for choosing to serve this nation.
*Gail O’Sullivan Dwyer is an author, US Army veteran and spouse; she relates her husband Steve’s account of the 30-year anniversary gala last month and her memory of the homecoming of 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment mission personnel in October of 1993. Gail and Steve have two sons in the service, and one is stationed with the 160th SOAR! Her Upcoming book, 2024.
*Michael Durant was the downed pilot and Prisoner of War for 11 days during the Battle of Mogadishu. Lee Van Arsdale was the ground force commander responsible for extricating the encircled crew and operators. Dan Jollota ran aid and rescue missions back to the crash site. These three panelists discussed the mission during the event. In the Company of Heroes: the Personal Story of Black Hawk Down is Durant’s true story.
*CW5 (Ret) Bob Witzler, callsign Star 43, flew the assault of the Olympic Hotel not realizing that the mission would not conclude until the Little Birds completed the air exfil from the Paki Stadium early on 4 October. Later that morning, Bob and another pilot were chosen as escorts and immediately prepared to depart Mogadishu with eleven of Task Force Ranger’s fallen Soldiers during their return to the United States.
**US Secretary of Defense Les Aspin resigned, taking the blame for the decision of President Clinton’s White House for, “denying the US Army persmission to have its own armor units in place in Somalia, units which might have been able to break through to the trapped soldiers earlier in the battle.” The political leaders at the time felt tanks would “taint the peacekeeping image of the mission” and in doing so, not listening to the Army leaders, it cost the lives of 18 Americans and a 70 percent casualty rate.*