Black Hawk pilot speaks out on Iraq commitment
August 28, 2008
The nation's "Black Hawk Down" pilot, who is the only survivor of a helicopter crash in Somalia nearly 15 years ago during the Battle of Mogadishu, told a group of contract managers that the U.S. has accomplished too much in Iraq to pull out before achieving mission success.
Retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mike Durant, who was portrayed in the 2001 military movie "Black Hawk Down" and who has authored two best-selling books based on his experiences in Somalia and in the Army, spoke about the need to properly manage the war in Iraq during a question-and-answer period following his presentation to members of the Huntsville Chapter of the National Contract Management Association at a luncheon meeting Aug. 21 at the Huntsville Marriott.
"Iraq, in the next few months, could be the same as Somalia if it's mismanaged," he said. "We all want the war to end, we just want to win it. That, to me, is non-negotiable.
"We've accomplished too much, we've sacrificed too much, to just pull out. We've got to go over the finish line. In the end, we've got to accomplish mission success."
Durant worries that, as in Somalia, mission success in Iraq and Afghanistan is making the U.S. complacent in an area of the world that is far too dangerous to take for granted.
"That's my greatest fear today. We have been doing so well for so long that we are going to get a little complacent," he said. "We are not preparing ourselves as well."
During his presentation, Durant, who is now owner, president and CEO of Pinnacle Solutions Inc., a local service-disabled, veteran-owned engineering services company, spoke about the events in 1993's Battle of Mogadishu, the leadership lessons learned during that battle and how those lessons can be applied in the business work force of today.
He began his comments by speaking about the number one key to success for any organization - its people and their working relationships among each other.
"One way to build those kinds of relationships is to put people in groups in adverse situations," he said. "You establish relationships with people you have experiences with."
Referring to the Super Six-Four team he worked with in Mogadishu in June to October 1993, Durant said his team of Soldiers had been together for five years. "We didn't have to talk. We were operating as one. We were the essence of a team, of a well-oiled machine," he said.
"When you are facing a difficult task, you don't want to be trying to figure out how to work together. You need to go into a difficult task knowing the team and how it works."
Other keys to success include leadership, resources, tactics, training and planning.
"Leaders have to understand all the success of a mission or an organization is their responsibility," he said.
In all decisions made by leadership, the main goal should be to positively impact the employee who is at "the point of the spear ... Leadership is responsible and employees are all an integral part of supporting the capability at the point of the spear."
In Mogadishu, Somalia, the failure of the mission came down to "what were the leaders doing that day, what decisions were being made and what aspects did those decisions affect," Durant said. "The resource piece of the puzzle was really the Achilles heel of the whole operation."
The mission also changed, forcing changes in tactics that were difficult because of the lack of resources.
"Mogadishu turned out to be a lesson in chaos," Durant said. "The place was a mess with civil war, drought, natural disasters. We thought we would intervene by providing food and aid through relief agencies.
"But food and aid wasn't getting to the people. So we sent in Soldiers. We opened supply lines and occupied the terrain, and didn't fire a single shot. It was an overwhelming success. Unfortunately, the mission began to change."
In June 1993, there was slaughter in the streets and warlords were running rampant. The U.S. targeted warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who was making public statements that he was responsible for the nation's massacres, for capture in Operation Gothic Serpent.
"We knew where he was so the mission was relatively straightforward. As long as we had access to the terrain, we had a 95 percent chance of success," Durant said.
"But Aidid was given three months to go underground. Tensions were building. And our forces were drawn down from 28,000 to 1,500. We were a skeleton of our former self and the U.S. took out all its armor in spite of the fact the mission was becoming more difficult and complex. And the people we were up against were starting to understand us better. The playing field tends to level with understanding."
The decisions to draw down troops and to remove resources were made by the U.S. administration.
"Leaders make decisions based on the facts they get from their staff," Durant said. "But what happens when those facts are wrong' Then, you are going to make wrong decisions."
Six missions - three during the day, three at night - were successful with light resistance and limited casualties. On Oct. 3, 1993, during Mission Seven, a rocket-propelled grenade shot down a Black Hawk. In most search-and-rescue missions, armored tanks are sent in to aid downed helicopters. But that request was denied and a second Black Hawk was sent in for search-and-rescue. It was also shot down by an RPG, but made it back to the airfield.
"When the first Black Hawk was shot down, we had a commander in the field with a crisis and with no resources to be successful," Durant said. "We had two options - to abandon him or send in another helicopter."
Durant and the Super Six-Four were then called in to provide coverage of the crash site from the sky so that ground troops could get to it. But Durant's Black Hawk was also hit by an RPG.
"I have to thank Redstone Arsenal because of all the technology they've gotten into the platform to save lives. There's a lot of redundancy built in the platforms for that purpose," Durant said. "That technology and those redundancies are the only reason that I am still here today. Everyone on that helicopter survived the crash."
He also credited survival school for bringing him through his 11 days of captivity.
"Had I not been trained on what to do in captivity in survival school, I would have had a far more difficult time sorting things out," he said. "At the time of the training you think I will never use this. It's obvious now why that training is needed."
In the Battle of Mogadishu, the U.S. lost five aircraft, and had 74 Soldiers wounded in action and 18 killed in what was billed a "relatively straightforward mission."
"The culprit was strategic resources," Durant said. "There was not enough contingency resources to allow Soldiers to adapt as the mission changed.
"It was a strategic failure, but a tactical success. If we think we're going to send people into harm's way, we are naAfA-ve to think no one's going to get hurt. When we commit, we have to commit all the way."
The Battle of Mogadishu would have ended differently if leadership would have provided the resources for a changing mission and if they had listened to the Soldiers who were facing the enemy. That lesson also transfers to business, Durant said, if the business wants to survive in a changing world.
"It's all about understanding who within the organization is at the point of the spear -- the people who get things done in an organization. Everything in the organization has to support those people," he said.
"You've got to resource them. You've got to understand the world they are working in. You've got to accept they are right unless you can prove they are wrong ... The commander in the field is always right. This is not just Somalia. This is also every organization."