interviews: Sgt. Keni Thomas

Sgt.Thomas was a US Army Ranger, 1991-1997. He was squad leader on Chalk III -- Super Six Six. He roped in to the street corner by Olympic Hotel. At the time of the 1993 Mogadishu firefight, he was 27 years old.

The briefing you had before you went to Somalia, [you say] it was made clear Aidid was the prime target. Why?

He was the guy running the whole thing over there. The US went over to Somalia as a force to provide aid. We accomplished that. And all of a sudden United Nations forces, they're being shot at..... person that was responsible for that, and everyone knew who that was, was Mohammed Aidid. General Howe and General Montgomery actually put out a reward for the capture of Aidid. So suddenly the mission has changed over there for the United States. We're trying to get this guy.

That day, October 3rd, before you got to your target, they saw people with heavy weapons going into the building?

In and out, right. They were telling us a large caliber machine-gun was being moved in.

How did you feel when you heard that?

Be on your toes. You gotta remember, we were Rangers -- best-trained people in the world, and you are superior to any force there is. And this is what's drummed in your head. You can't go in there wondering -- well, I wonder if I'm better than that guy? You have to have absolute faith in your leaders, in your equipment...

Describe roping in that day, October 3rd.

The brown-out was just incredible. The birds are coming in at 30 or 40 feet.... that dirt's all kicking up and I'm looking out through the windshield...hanging out looking outside the aircraft, trying to spot where were going to rope down,

As we roped in everybody hits the ground...and then we moved to where we were supposed to be... depending on which direction you stood, you had fire coming from every direction, basically.

Gunfire almost straight away?

They were taking fire from the cross street, we were taking fire from the street behind us, and then if you were out on the intersection where the helicopter dropped us you were also taking fire.

At first the volume wasn't bad. But there were people firing at you, and so you had to be really aware of where the enemy was. And you're also very aware there was no cover. And your first instinct is to clamber up against a wall. But as anyone will tell you, the walls are not where you need to be, because bullets follow walls and I learned that. I think one ran down the wall, and came off and hit me right in the magazine pouch, and knocked me back on my butt. I looked down and the magazine wallet's smoking and I was like whoa--and I pulled this out and the one magazine just crumbled and the other one had a clean bullet hole all the way through it.

Could you actually see the people who were shooting at you?

Yes. 30, 40 meters, with people. Targets. I know it sounds awfully cruel and it's something you gotta deal with, later on in life, but at the time -- I didn't shoot a man who was running across the street who probably has a family at home. I shot a man who had a weapon who was pointing it at me or at one of my friends.

And your reaction when the first helicopter went down?

I don't think you'll get a different answer from anybody. The reaction was, 'Well let's go get it.' And that's what you would do.... And I remember it being an eternity to me..... you're just angry for the situation. Why aren't we going? And I guess they were waiting for the clearance and there's a lot of communication snafus going on. Things are getting transmitted through people and it was taking time.

But when we picked up and started heading for the bird, it was about three blocks down the same street that I'd been looking down. And my squad -- and Sgt. Watson and I -- took up the rear. Delta -- the assault force -- went, and then we brought up the rear. And it was time to make the left turn to go to the crash site. [That] is when things started bogging down. Because when that first element of people in that line of guys heading down the street made the turn, the volume of fire picked up and all of a sudden they're taking fire, and so the front guys had to stop. And then we're all crunched up in the back, and if you looked back down the street, you could see those muldoons moving in and out of the buildings, following us up, shooting right behind us.

But then there was also a lot of just yahoos--'Wow, I've got this weapon. I can point it.' And we saw kids, and what are you supposed to do? There's nothing nice about any of it. There's nothing nice about looking up and seeing a little kid running out in the middle of the street, and look at you, and lift it up at you and what are you supposed to do? What do you do when you see some lady jump out in the street and then run back behind the thing....

Of course your immediate reaction was to go and help at the crash site.... But when a crew crashed two weeks before, what happened?

One of the other helicopters from another unit had gone down. And the Somali crowd had gotten hold of the crew that had crashed before anyone could get to them, and totally dismembered their bodies. Cut 'em all up. They got pictures, you know they're standing around jumping on this helicopter like it was a trophy. Like a giant beast that they killed or something and toting body parts around.

So you move quickly up to the helicopter crash site and you form a perimeter. And now you start to come into some really serious fire. Describe what's happening.

By now the search and rescue had already come in and dropped off a bird full of people and they were down there, making an immediate perimeter around this helicopter. And you also had Lieutenant DiTomasso's chalk who was on the same street... so now we got people in the immediate area helping out. A little bird pilot had even come in, and landed--if you can picture landing a helicopter in the middle of a street -- it's the size of an alleyway, and the rotors are just barely missing the buildings.

And the pilot jumped out and grabbed two of the wounded and put them on the skids.... At the same time the other pilot's got his foot on the pedals and his hands on the collective holding the bird steady on the ground with his hand out the window with an MP5 shooting down at the crowd coming at him. I heard they made a new air medal for those guys. That's incredible. They didn't have to do that -- that wasn't their job, landing the helicopter. I was surprised the pilot even knew how to shoot an MP5.... And by now the helicopter crash was secured....

And there's a lot of fire coming at you now...?

You can see people sticking their heads out around buildings... sticking their faces out of windows. You can see women jumping out from behind the buildings, see people running a couple of feet down an alleyway.... And we needed to put our guys into positions now. Sgt.Watson gets called -- 'Ok hold up, we're kinda backed up.' Across the street there's Lt. Perino's chalk, and he's taking casualties and I can see his guys. Things are starting to get serious, people getting wounded, one of the [Delta] operators right across the street from me starts screaming, and I look and he's been shot in the head... and one of his men yelled across at me, 'hey we gotta get him, medevaced he's been hit, he's shot in the head.' And I go back to Sgt. Watson, and said, 'We've got guys hurt, we need to get him evacuated outta here.'

But they couldn't land a helicopter in there because the helicopters are getting shot down. I said 'Why don't we get the humvees.... And when I looked back....he's dead ' And it really hit me, he's dead. So I went back and told Sgt. Watson he was dead.... And now my mission in life was -- all right, none of this was going to happen to my three guys. I went to each one of 'em and said 'you're gonna be on your own, you know what the right thing is. Do the right thing... and we will get through this.'

And probably right around then Nethery, the machine gunner, started yelling -- so I ran over to him and Doc Strauss was already pulling him out of the street. Michael Kurth was there and he was at a corner of a wall shooting, only a good 30 meters away. He got hit, and they pulled him over and his whole bicep was gone. It was just laying over on its side, a big gaping hole through it. I was surprised how calm I was in such a weird situation. But I think even if you're totally intimidated or nervous you maybe just act like you're not. And no one will ever tell the difference. And that goes with anything in life I guess. And I'm looking at Pete and I said, 'Man does it hurt?' And he goes, 'It hurts like hell -- you know what, Sergeant? I believe in God.' And I'm like --'And God believes in you, too.'

So we pulled him over, and then I took Errico, he was a SAW gunner, and he was the next logical person for me to replace the 60 because that was the next concern. Now our biggest casualty-producing weapon is unmanned. [So] let's put him on there. I don't think that I got five feet away from Errico and he started screaming. He was hit in the same place. Right in the arm... and I threw two grenades at the guy -- I saw where he was. Errico had pointed him out to me prior to that. So I threw two grenades at him. There was still fire coming from the position. I know I got behind the 60 and shot it for a while. We ran out of ammunition, it was underneath Pete, he was laying there. Because he was the original gunner, and we shot up some of that. And then [I said] 'does anyone have any more grenades?' That's when Sgt.Watson was yelling -- I think Randy probably told you this story -- 'Use the LAW on your back!' And I'm going ohh---I had a LAW on my back and had completely forgotten! I'd done so many missions with it and never used it, and just forgot and I pulled that out and fired...and....I was impressed that it went where I wanted it to go.... You kind of point and shoot but you also have to be able to judge the distance you're shooting it... but I think that took care of that problem for a little while.

And what did you see when you fired it?

It moves pretty slow in a way. A white trail, just a little rocket. It went right in and, explosions aren't like in the movies -- not this big giant huge fireball, kaboom! It's just a big grey pheww like that and stuff flying everywhere and then when you looked over there there was a big hole in the wall and you could see part of the gun that had been there, so I knew the gun was out of commission. I didn't see the person. Sometimes you saw the person fall, more often than not you didn't. You know you hit 'em because you saw their body movements totally torque or change or something.

And I think by about that time someone had made a decision we needed to move inside these buildings. And we started getting a Casualty Collection Point going, because casualties were collecting fast. We took Errico, Nethery, Lieutenant Lechner -- he started screaming he was outside... and after we put everybody inside of this building I ended up being right outside of this little tin wall.

....And from that point I held that position. I'm looking down an alley to my front and looking back at the place I'd just shot... So you had people shooting at us from around the corners of buildings, you had people behind you sticking their weapon over a fence, and... I had some rocks here in front of me, but I didn't want to lie down behind the rocks and be covered to my front, because there was a guy right behind me down the street... sticking up over a fence shooting. So I was just trying to keep myself, keeping a tree in-between me [and him]....

And I'm watching leaves from the tree right over me as a bullet goes doosh over my head. This guy was shooting high and I've watched the tin wall right next to me, hole, ting, ting, ting -- 'How come this guy's not hitting me?' someone please get this, because I'm more worried about people coming down the alley. And you can see 'em moving down the street. Well, the decision was made we're gonna bring everybody inside now. And Randy Ramaglia -- I could hear him over everything... he totally took charge, he was a team leader. And his squad leader I guess was incapacitated or something happened, and Randy took charge of that whole side of that street and he was making stuff happen. It's time to get everybody inside so we're gonna bring 'em all over through me, and I'm gonna guide them through this little hole in the wall and get them into the Casualty Collection Point. Well, now it's starting to get dark and the firing's still going on.

It's frustrating now because we're in a defensive position. And our whole existence was always be the aggressor. Attack. You get ambushed, you attack it. You get a direct contact walking through the woods, you get shot at, you attack it. Ok, here I am sitting behind rock and a tree, and I got people moving into the positions. You could hear 'em, it was dark. Talking, moving in ching, ching, you hear the rifles. And I'm thinking to myself, Sgt Watson said 'You guys stay out here and make sure everybody gets in.' So Randy, myself and my machine gunner stayed out there. And De Jesus got behind that tree and he covered that side, and Randy covered this side, and I covered down there so we had everything.

Well, you could start hearing people coming into that little position and I'm going -- 'this is nuts, man.' I was starting to get really angry for the situation that we were in. Why haven't we gotten the pilots? I didn't know the pilots were stuck yet. And Randy was just... the, the character that he showed, just keeping everybody at ease, you know. And the three of us were sitting out there and we didn't want to fire at 'em because now it was dark and probably one of the biggest mistakes that we did was we thought it was a daytime mission, we didn't bring our night equipment with us, every other mission had taken one-two hours max. And that was a mistake. But we didn't have our night vision equipment and the moon wasn't up yet. So you could see the shapes, you could see them moving. But I didn't want to start shooting because that gives away our position and we had no cover, and they could have just started massing fire on wherever they saw that muzzle flash.

So, when they started getting too close we started shooting 'em. I'm looking at Randy and I'm like 'what are we doing? why don't we just go get 'em?' He's like, "this is nuts.' And, that's the polite way of what we were saying (laughs). And I can't remember whether I was on my knees or lying down behind these rocks but I was getting up to go move down this alleyway. Thinking like, 'I'm gonna be able to go and save the world I'm gonna go down this alley and shoot these four guys that are sneaking around, and then I'm gonna come back around and I'm gonna get all these dudes who are over here too. Because I can do that, you know I'm a Ranger and I donít miss.

And I know what I'm doing.'

And you know I was, and I think I said something to De Jesus--and yeah, I'm gonna go. He looks at me and that great Randy grabbed me, and I remember he threw me to the ground and a grenade went off. Someone had thrown one of those I think it was a World War II grenade or something. I guess he saw it coming through the dark, and we were lying down on the ground, looking at each other -- 'What do you say we go inside?'-- he's like -- 'I think that's a good idea'. So we crawled inside and I started realizing how short of people we were. We had a lot of wounded guys in there.

Describe the scene, inside the Casualty Collection Point

It was dark and hot. There was a family in there, and the family was scared. We help move the family that was in this front room -- she's crying and pregnant-- to the back room because I fully expected to be sitting there in the dark and seeing RPGs just come ripping through that wall.

And then they made a decision that they want to get everyone together -- consolidate. And so somebody had to go outside and go down the street, and it really only made sense that it was me because I had been at the lead of our squad when we came round... I think they sent some Delta guys out, and as soon as they ran outside, they just came clambering back in because it was like ca, ca, ca, ca, ca, ca, ca. And then the pieces of wall are falling off and they come running back in--whoop, not going out there--everybody knew where we were now.

So it was -- 'Sgt.Thomas, you need to go out there and see if you can figure out where the people are and we're gonna guide you, you're gonna guide us up to'em.' 'No problem. ' Hey Suranskey we're going outside. 'Excuse me Sgt.?' (laughs) 'Come on man. ' You can do it, and, David Floyd--he was one of my privates and De Jesus and I thought -- should I go first, you know, you see these are things that you thinking about because now you've got other people's lives in your hand, and you carry that weight, that yeah people's lives, you're responsible for them, so I'm thinking -- do I go out the door first, because they probably'll miss me because they won't expect me coming. And then they'll hit the second guy. 'Ok, Floyd you go first.' This is the way I was thinking now. And, we went out... It was more I had a faith that they were all bad shots.... And if we got out the door quick enough, they weren't ready.

And they were firing at us, and we got out and, I looked back and Sgt. Watson had come out with us. And I think he was thinking the same thing maybe that I was thinking,'how do I send these guys out to do this, and I don't go with 'em?'

And the only cover that I could find at the time for Floyd was this dead mule that was right in the street, so I put him down -- 'Floyd get down behind that mule.' And we both lay down behind it and I looked at him and I'm thinking, this is almost comical again. And we ended up going back into the courtyard, we waited there most of the evening, things had slowed down. We waited until the reaction force showed up.

Were you hearing on the radio that there were attempts by the relief convoys to get through and they were being forced back?

What we were hearing on the radio was they're on the way. Ok, great. We were getting water back and forth, taking care of the wounded. I remember a lot of the wounded guys were in really great spirits. Mike Goodale had gotten shot in the butt. He was over there joking about it. But bless his heart the man was still on the radio making things happen.

And what was happening was they sent the Reaction Force out when they assembled it at the airfield, and people have made a big deal about how long that Reaction Force took. The deal is, we had that situation well under control by now. There were no more casualties being taken at that site. General [Montgomery] decided -- 'I can take this extra time and make sure everything is right, and get it outta there.' Perhaps had it not been a conglomeration of Pakistanis and Malaysians, and we hadn't had to go to UN troops, it could have taken us a shorter amount of time, but it wouldn't have taken a whole lot less. Because [Montgomery] still would have taken that time to make sure that he had the right plan. The time factor was not a factor. And it upsets me about Smitty, because Smitty bled to death and I feel if we could have gotten him outta there much sooner, that he would not have died. But his femoral artery wasn't just cut, it was blown apart, the medics there with their hand in his leg pinching off the artery and trying to keep him from bleeding...

And, you know if we could have gotten Smitty outta there I know in my heart that was a casualty that we probably shouldn't have taken and I think that his father, in all these talks and things that he has done, has every right to be upset about that.

Returning to the you're holed up there. And the sun is setting. And there's a long night ahead of you, the little birds are flying overhead a lot. What are the little birds doing?

Those guys are flying non-stop for us. They were doing gun runs. They were dropping in resupplies. Spotting positions . When I told you earlier that Sgt. Ramaglia and De Jesus were outside of this building, and you could hear the people moving into the positions ahead of us. Well, right before that grenade had been thrown at us, little bird came in right over our heads and let the mini-guns rock. And it's like a jack hammer many times over, and like a lion's roar, it's just crazy. It's like a Rrrrrrrrrr, it just up with his guns going. He was right over us. In fact casings were falling on our k-pots, you know, ting, ting, ting, ting... And then we got that grenade and we went back inside.

And I didn't think anything of it until later on when we got back to the States we went to one of the Air Wings' memorial service in Kentucky. And I was talking to one of the pilots, and I was telling him 'you guys were our heroes, the stuff that you did for us was just amazing.' He goes -- 'We were just so worried and you guys were the ones...I don't think you realize how outnumbered you were.' Because from the air he could see all the movement and he had all the night vision equipment. And he said at one point in the night, around the crash site somewhere..... they had like 30 guys moving in on 'em from the front. And like 15 from their side, and he says -- 'and I came in I did one gun run on 'em, and I swung back around and then a gun-run on them again as they came out to pull the guys outta the streets that I'd hit. And then I was out of ammunition, and I went back to go reload and when I came back, the Rangers were gone, and I was so worried about that.' And I said, 'Hey Randy, come over here!' Because that was us he was talking about, you know!

And what were they dropping in, how did they do that?

Fluids, IVs for the wounded... some of the gunners got night vision equipment and ammunition. It was basically a resupply right there.

Tell me what happens when the Malaysians' APCs finally show up....

You could hear 'em coming all night, once they finally got moving in the city. We heard 'em come once and then it stopped. Because they had met a lot of resistance. I think that they were going to the second crash site, Durant's crash site, and when they found out there was nobody there alive, they pulled 'em back, and reconsolidated it at the airfield. And then when they finally got to us, there was still the matter of getting the pilots out [at the first crash site]. We didn't have the equipment to cut through that kevlar in the helicopter, so basically... they just tore it apart and got 'em out. But when they finally got to us it was another four hours before we picked up and started moving out of the city.

And we loaded all the casualties onto the Malaysians' armor and they took off. And it was like, 'Hey wait a minute, I thought we were going with you guys?' So we were pretty much left to move out on our own. And this was the point where I started getting a little concerned, running across the street, waiting to get hit. Because I just saw things that were starting to happen now... and how in the hell has it come to the point where we have to run out of this city on our own? But I didn't realize how long it had taken to get those pilots out, and that's why we stayed there.

And things that you've learned that you don't do were starting to happen. Things were starting to break down just a little bit... We're still covering each other, crossing the street... covering by fire -- I saw people shooting on the run. We don't do that. You are not gonna hit anything.I don't know who you think you are if you think you're gonna be able to hit a target while you're moving. So, people were shooting, dropping their empty magazines onto the ground, and taking off.... And it was just sort of controlled panic to me....

I remember that morning. Right before the APCs pulled up and we jumped in and got a ride. I'm looking around and it's daytime, and there was just -- carnage is such an ugly word, but there were bodies everywhere. There was Rangers with blood on their uniforms, people looking tattered.... And I looked across and there's still gunfire going off. People shooting at us from windows and everything.

And I look across the street, and there's this old Somalian guy, must have been like six foot or more, with a robe on, just walking and he's got a kid slung over his shoulders. Maybe it's his grandson or someone, dead. Just walking through the street, oblivious to everything. There were a couple of bodies on the ground next to him, just stepping over 'em like he had walked around the city and found his son who'd died in this, or something. And I thought about this. That is something I'll always remember. That was when I thought about, 'Jesus, man, how many casualties did we inflict on their side?'

How many Somalis do you think were killed?

The Red Cross came in and said well over a thousand. Think about that -- a thousand people from what? 20 guys that day?

Did it take you a long time to come down from this whole experience?

Kinda seeped out [at] weird times. Driving up the road to Atlanta or something. And you hear a song on the radio that doesn't even have anything to do with that... some lyric or something, and all of a sudden my eyes just start welling up. When you think about it, war and combat and fighting, none of it makes any sense. There's really no purpose to it, and you fight it because you have a sense of duty. And when it comes down to it that's what you're fighting for. You're not fighting to be a hero, you're not even thinking about that. You're thinking about my sense of duty, and the man next to you, and fighting [to] keep yourself alive.

And what do you mean by the cost?

The cost to other people. The families. I know the Joyces. I loved Casey [Joyce]. And I've heard his dad wrote in the papers, 'Did my son die in vain?' And I can't accept that he did. Absolutely not. In the big scheme of things he may have died in vain but then what the hell is combat? What purpose does it ultimately serve in the end? Did we really have to have World War II? Did we really have to have Vietnam? Did we really have to have Somalia? I don't think you really have to have any of that, but it happens in this world. He died for what I find important which is sense of duty, and the man next to you.

Maybe Todd Blackburn wouldn't be here today if Casey [Joyce] hadn't been there. Maybe that was his purpose, maybe that was his reason. But if you say that anybody died over there in vain, you're invalidating everything that we fight for and everything that we believe in.

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