In 1993, Mogadishu, Somalia was caught in the violent political conflict of the Somali Civil War. Over 400 U.S. service member operators had commenced the mission, ‘Operation Gothic Serpent’ with the principal task of capturing a Somalian military officer, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and his key lieutenants, convicted by the Unified Task Force for his attacks against United Nation troops in 1992.
Between August and October of 1993, the U.S. Joint Operations Command supervised the grueling mission and after 28 years of reflection, service members who served during that mission tell their side of the story during the Mission Command Conference event at West Point on April 8.
Retired Cols. Lee Van Arsdale and Larry Perino, retired Maj. Jeff Struecker, retired Chief Warrant Officer Stan Wood and retired Master Sgt. Matt Eversmann took the stage at Eisenhower hall and conveyed to a full audience of cadets their perspectives during the Somali Civil War.
Leading up to the conflict, the 75th Ranger Regiment were activated and Arsdale along with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta started doing rehearsals not knowing whether or not they would actually deploy. It was two months later from June to August when they received word of deployment. They had conducted rehearsals and eventually developed Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) constructing a template for a very rapid mission profile. After some time had passed, they found themselves, 450 Army Rangers and Delta Force operators, in Mogadishu, Somalia, August of 1993, Arsdale said.
“It was a country in name only,” Arsdale said. “There was no central government. It was a clan-based society and each clan had a well-armed militia and these militias were fighting for who takes control of the country, and who gains supremacy, so it’s not just a matter of deploying somewhere and thinking your going to overwhelm the enemy, you’re going into a hornets nest stirring it up just by your mere presence and then you have to go out and conduct your mission.”
Concurrently, Eversmann learned, while conducting his mission, that war was unlike how he imagined it would be. He had no idea he had a minute-and-a-half to go over a hand drawn map and make quick decisions, as a staff sergeant, that would help influence the outcome of the mission, Eversmann said.
“Everything that I thought about war was wrong,” Eversmann said. “The way war was planned and executed was all wrong in my head, initially. I thought ‘Oh, Jeff go ahead and lead the trucks and they’ll magically get (to its destination), or Lee will execute his mission plan effectively.’ I just thought everything would work really well and it just didn’t.”
Perino understood, as well as Eversmann, how strategies don’t always go according to plan as the sharp cracking gust of rounds whizzed around him. He was on one knee talking with his forward observer as the mayhem of battle swelled around them. Next thing he knew, the forward observer had been shot, he said.
“Your world just starts to close in on you very fast,” Perino said. “Most of my platoon is pretty much wounded or I’m separated from them. I only have three or four guys with me nearby and across the street and we’re holding our own taking cover behind a corner. Then I see Cpl. J.D. Smith wounded next to me and we’re treating him until he passes at 0830, and boy that was one of the hardest calls I ever had to make.”
After 54 days of arduous combat, Operation Gothic Serpent had finally ended. Unequivocally, one of aspects of the mission that day was to capture two of Aidid’s key lieutenants and the U.S. Armed Forces did that. However, many strategies didn’t go according to plan during the mission. In fact, too often in the Army, many tactics and strategies do not go according to plan, Arsdale said.
“It’s important to understand that a loss of life does not equate to mission failure. With that, the reporting on everything from Somalia (when he returned from the mission), to me, was unprofessional and wrong. There were no journalists at Somalia. It was too dangerous for them. And so, the Pentagon press pool got reports on the morning of Oct. 4, 1993 that some American Soldiers had been killed in combat. Their default position was who screwed up and who do we blame,” Arsdale said. “The follow-up reporting reflected that mindset. Most of the reporting was about failing to capture Mohamed Farrah Aidid. American Soldiers were killed therefore the mission is a failure. Well, by that definition, the Normandy invasion is one of the biggest failures America’s ever had.”
Following the panel’s testimonials, the questions and answers segment began. Class of 2021 Cadet Andrew Bowlus asked “When faced with the imminence of your own death, how does a Soldier deal with the likelihood of the end?”
“I never even thought of any consequence other than we had to get in here and get the job done,” Wood said. “It’s like jumping out of an airplane. Your anxiety level might go up a little bit, but once you pass the door, just go, just do it. During the mission, we just made sure that we were prepared to do what we needed to do, without having any fratricide issues. We were focused on getting the plan in place and executing.”
Class of 2021 Cadet Ryan Johnson said, based on a quote from Friedrich Wilhelm Von Stueben, “The American Soldier always wants to know why and so, at any point, did your Soldiers lock up and ask why they were there and why they were fighting the Somalians, and if so, how did you deal with it?”
Struecker addressed the importance of a Soldier trusting his leader. If a leader has done enough to gain the trust of his Soldiers, it’s more than likely the Soldier will not pose the question.
“I never heard that from my men during the mission and the answer is easy: that’s what we’re here to do, we’re going to do our job,” Struecker said. “It’s because of the trust that we have for our leader. So, if my commander says the Rangers need to go over here and do a job, then we’re going to said location to do a job and I don’t need to know all the geopolitics it’s just, ‘what am I going to do boss,’ because he wouldn’t commit to this course, if he didn’t need us for the mission.”