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Subject of 'Black Hawk Down' speaks in Chambersburg

May 29, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. -- Retired Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Durant knows what it is to be "In the Company of Heroes," the title of the book he wrote recounting his military career, the most harrowing episode of which was the time he spent as the prisoner of a Somali warlord after his helicopter was shot down over Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993.

That 11-day ordeal was one of the central stories to Mark Bowden's 1999 best-seller "Black Hawk Down," as well as the 2001 film version of the book, in which Durant was portrayed by Ron Eldard.

Before speaking to the 177 guests Wednesday at a dinner kicking off the third Letterkenny Business Opportunity Showcase, Durant sat down and talked about the lessons he and the military learned from the Battle of Mogadishu.

"Look back, but don't stare" was a piece of personal advice Durant said he has taken to heart. It came in a letter from a cancer survivor, the only member of her support group still alive.

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It's all right, Durant said, to remember the friends he lost and those who died to save him, but not to live in that past.

"It's what I'd want them to do" if the situation was reversed, he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart, who lived in Newville, Pa., as a boy, and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon of Lincoln, Maine, received the Medal of Honor posthumously for protecting Durant and his three crew members after their Black Hawk helicopter, Super Six Four, was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The two Delta Force snipers fought their way into the crash site as 100 or more Somali militiamen converged on the wreckage, keeping them at bay until their ammunition was exhausted and they were killed.

Crewmen Bill Cleveland, Ray Frank and Tommy Field survived the crash with severe injuries, but were killed by Somali militia. Durant, who suffered a broken leg and back in the crash, was spared by his captors.

Durant, a veteran of Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989 and Desert Storm in 1991, was at first treated harshly in captivity. As his captors became less hostile, he was allowed to read a Bible, keeping coded notes in the margins, a secret diary of his captivity.

The U.S. Army lacked critical resources it had requested for Somalia -- armor, artillery, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers off shore and AC-130 gunships in the air, Durant said. Despite that, the Army acquitted itself well in an urban battle its soldiers were not specifically trained to fight, he said.

Eighteen soldiers died, but hundreds of Somali fighters were killed as the Rangers and Delta Force units fought their way to safety. Durant said the political fallout of the battle was more damaging, as the United States withdrew from Somalia.

"That told the radical groups and the nation states that oppose us that we won't stand up to a tough mission," Durant said. "We'll critique our way into withdrawal."

The military learned valuable lessons about fighting in urban environments and against insurgents. Those lessons have proved effective in the war on terrorism, he said.

While the views of the presidential candidates differ widely on the war in Iraq, Durant said he believes all three realize that an "immediate and total withdrawal would be catastrophic."

In practical terms, the situation in Iraq is much different from the limited military role the United States played in Somalia, making a withdrawal a far more complicated logistical exercise.

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