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Michael J. Durant Interview: Capture, Survival, Recovery

Obviously you get overrun and you’re taken prisoner. Did you have any sense that you were going to survive it, or were you in your mind making peace with things?

It was minute to minute. I think initially, I thought it was over. I mean, we’d been briefed on what they would probably do. When I do talk about this with people, I compare it to what happened to the Blackwater guys at the bridge in Fallujah. I mean, that’s what they did. It’s the same thing. So, I’m thinking that’s what’s gonna happen and I can’t stop them. I mean, I’ve got no rounds left. I still had my 9 mm pistol still in its holster and to be honest with you, I’ve never been able to explain why I never thought of it. I never even acknowledged that it was there. Don’t know why. I was totally focused on the MP5 and we believe it was a CAR15 that Randy gave me, and when I was out of ammunition in my mind I was out of ammunition. Quite honestly, in looking back, and trying to speculate, I probably would have just gotten myself killed as they came around the corner if I had been pointing a pistol at them. So maybe it was a good thing. Still regardless, I still had the 9 mm and never pulled it out of the holster.

When they descended on me, they had the look in their eyes that they were going to do exactly what I thought was going to happen, because they started beating the hell out of me. They broke my nose, my cheekbone, and my eye socket and they were ripping my gear off and they were absolutely, completely out of control.

 

The classic amok.

Oh yeah. You can just see it in their eyes. They were looking at me like I was the reason that everything bad in their lives had happened. It’s the typical anti-American mentality. We’ve done everything bad to everyone. And even though at the highest level we were there to try to [save] these people from starvation, that’s not the tactical mission in this case. But that’s the overall mission. But they didn’t see it that way, and quite frankly, at that point, we’d lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people. That’s the only conclusion that I can reach. They hated us because we failed to teach them they shouldn’t. There’s no other way to characterize it.

There were absolutely learning points from survival school that I believe helped me get through a number of situations.

Anyhow, it was minute to minute. And then somebody, according to Mark’s research anyway, because I don’t remember this, someone claims they fired rounds in the air and got the people to stop and they had enough supporters with them that they were able to get the crowd under control. They then hoisted me up in the air and at this point, the bone of my femur goes out the back side of my leg, and they started carrying me around through the streets. I’ve got this rag wrapped around my head and they’ve thrown dirt in my face and in my mouth and they’re still out of control, but at least there’s a group trying to keep everyone else at bay. I was still getting hit with bamboo sticks and those sorts of attacks as we’re making our way through the crowd. Again, I had no clue of this until Mark did his research, but apparently an interchange occurs during this movement and I’m stolen by another clan and taken from Aidid’s supporters.

I was held by this clan for about 24 hours, I didn’t know the difference. And then, I’m told Aidid pays a ransom to get me back. So that explains a couple of the moves that occurred. But in the midst of it, it’s chaos, they threw me in a room, they threw me on the back of a truck, they kept telling me they were going to kill me, and through it all, I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get out of there and what’s happening to the other guys from crash site 2.

 

At what point do you begin to consciously react and does your SERE training kick in for you?

Almost right away. At the crash site. I had to recognize the fact that the fight was over for me. It became s survival situation, and …

 

The manila envelope is not going to work for you on this?

No. I was actually helping them get my gear off. Because with the type of flight gear we had at the time, we had  these water ski-like buckles, and they don’t know how to disconnect them. You gotta squeeze it, and they were pulling and pulling. They would have dragged me around the city with that thing. And so I actually helped them take this stuff off. And I realized, don’t attack, don’t antagonize, avoid eye contact. All the stuff that you need to do to keep them from getting any more angry than they already are. I immediately started thinking about those kinds of things, just surviving moment to moment. They were questioning me right there on ground. In that situation, it’s pretty easy to not respond and that’s basically what I did.

 

That said, how well did SERE school prepare you for what you would encounter over the next week and a half?

As well as it possibly could. How realistic can you make it when in the real world, these kinds of horrendous things are likely to happen? I mean, there’s only so much you can do and I think they did a pretty good job of it in training. The one thing, and they’ve changed it since, the whole curriculum was really structured around a legacy scenario like prison camps and things we haven’t seen for quite a while now, and I think they’ve changed how they handle some of that stuff, because the POW from OIF and I did not experience that.

 

You had the distinction of not becoming the prisoner of a state player.

Right, right. So, it’s a different scenario, but most of what they taught you fundamentally was still valid and I used it. Would I have survived anyway? Who knows? But I will tell you, there were absolutely learning points from survival school that I believe helped me get through a number of situations.

Michael J. Durant

Durant is transported across the flight line on a stretcher at Ramstein Air Base after his release. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Jeril Mullen

 

Where did the idea of using your Bible as an intelligence gathering and repository tool come from?

I don’t know. I think you read about ideas like that quite regularly. Not everyone uses their Bible, but everybody’s trying to come up with something like that.

 

It just happened to be the implement at hand for you.

Yeah, I recognized pretty early on they were religious people. They’re Muslim. But what I saw… they respected my religion. With this particular group, even as anti-American as they had gotten, when I had the Bible and I was reading the Bible, they respected that. And I used it to my advantage. But I will also tell you that part of the lesson learned from survival school was, if you want to be respected, you show respect. And when it was prayer time, they were doing it right there in the room with me. They’d get the mats out and when they did their daily prayers, I was quiet. I was respectful. So it was a two-way street.

 

How early did this kind of bonding between you and your captors begin?

It occurred … I think the turning point, quite frankly, was the second move … I’ll tell you, I was in so much pain, it was to the point I don’t remember consciously thinking this, but an easy way to characterize it is that I wanted to die. You know what I mean? It was just …

 

Tylenol® 800 was just not gonna do it?

No, this femur fracture was just over-the-top painful and what they did, they had stuffed me into the back of this car, threw a blanket over me, and then sat on me.

No, this femur fracture was just over-the-top painful and what they did, they had stuffed me into the back of this car, threw a blanket over me, and then sat on me. Because they’re not just trying to avoid Americans, they’re trying to avoid other clans. So they don’t want anyone to know I’m in this vehicle when they’re driving me through the city. I’m hyperventilating. I’m perspiring like someone’s pouring a water hose over my head. And I think the head guard, seeing how much pain I was in, I think it affected him. He realized I was his enemy but I’m still a person. He seemed to care more for me after that. I mean, he almost felt sorry for me. And part of it, I guess, is because I wasn’t screaming at him. I was dealing with it the best I could. Maybe that was part of it, I don’t know. But he did some things in the next couple of days that, quite frankly, I was amazed at. I ended up getting some kind of intestinal problem from drinking something. In my physical condition, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get off this thing I was lying on, and he cleaned me all up. I mean, it was pretty amazing.

 

At what point do you begin to know that: one, you’re not going to get left behind, and, two, that you’re going to get out of this somehow?

I never thought I’d be left behind. To me, that’s just not done. So I never even really considered that a possibility.

 

The story of the PSYOP ship going over and saying you won’t be left behind … is true?

That is true. It was a helicopter and the guy that was the voice, I’m going to see him tomorrow night. What a tremendous emotional impact to hear that. I never doubted it, but to hear it is certainly a means of reinforcing that. But as far as making it out of there, I always tell people in the discussion of how to make it through any challenging [situation is], you do it in small pieces. There were times when I wanted to make it through the next five seconds, and at the time, that was all I was concerned with.

 

Literally minute to minute, hour to hour, or day to day.

Absolutely. You never want to think, not even consider the thought of, “Can I make it six months?” You will lose that psychological battle. You’ve got to think, “I’m going to make it through today. And when tomorrow comes, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do then.” You’ve got to have more of a strategic plan, I suppose, but you can’t think of your survival in terms of “Can I really make it through these long periods of time?” Because you just don’t know and it can seem overwhelming.

 

The event horizon has to be reasonable for you?

Michael J. Durant

Then-Night Stalkers Commander Col. Rick Bowman (left) presents The Honorable Order of St. Michael to Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4) Michael J. Durant (right), Task Force 1-160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), at his retirement ceremony. U.S. Army photo by Marshall Woods

Yeah. I deliberately forced myself to think that way. In fact, the day I was told I was going to be released, I just took a nap. I just said, you know, I’m not gonna get focused on this. If this happens, obviously, slam dunk, high fives all around, but if not, I just gotta make it through another day. And when the Red Cross doctor came, they had to wake me up. So to me, this is the only way you can get through these kinds of things mentally.

 

How long between the realization that you’re back in friendly hands and you’re being loaded aboard the bird and headed to Landstuhl?

A couple of days. They did some surgery on me. They wanted to do some surgery right away, because there was some infection going on and they wanted to clean the wounds and didn’t want to waste any more time. That was the hardest part, that’s when I find out. ….

 

All the other people?

Yeah.

 

And you really hadn’t had a sense of what the casualty counts on that mission had been like?

No. I had some sense. I knew [at] Crash Site 2 what the outcome was, because I actually had a radio in captivity. They gave me a radio, the Somalis did. And I was listening to BBC. And over time, there were remains turned over and identified. So I was hearing what I suspected all along. I was hoping someone had hidden in the tail boom of the aircraft. It was always one of those things I thought of in captivity, sort of a Trojan Horse solution. Hide everyone in the tail boom of the aircraft, and maybe they won’t look in there. Your mind comes up with things you wish might be the case but I knew there was no way anyone was going to get out of there.

 

You come home, obviously. You go through a certain amount of rehabilitation. Your injuries were such that you couldn’t remain on active duty any further?

No, actually, I did. I fought the battle and won. One of the funny stories I tell is about being grounded. They offered to reclassify me. I didn’t want to be grounded, so I ended up training for the Marine Corps Marathon and the goals I had for that was to finish, first of all, so I could say, “Hey, I ran a marathon. Why can’t I fly your helicopter?” And when all was said and done, I ran it in 3 hours and 37 minutes.

 

Very impressive.

I didn’t want to be grounded, so I ended up training for the Marine Corps Marathon and the goals I had for that was to finish, first of all, so I could say, “Hey, I ran a marathon. Why can’t I fly your helicopter?”

I got the waiver approved and I got back on flight status, and I stayed in the 160th for five more years.

 

Do you wish you’d stayed in?

Well, you know, you feel like you’re on the bench. They’ve had an incredible run over the past few years. I’ve only been getting bits and pieces of what they’ve done, but it’s phenomenal. The professional special ops part of me wishes I was out there. But I also have six children and it’s probably best left to the younger and stronger, and better I guess.

 

Well, you … still contribute.

Well, that’s the way I look at it. The things that we did, the technologies we developed, the tactics we refined, and the lessons we learned all fit into why they are as good as they are. I think all of us who came before share in that entire legacy.

 

Do you have the sense of being a touchstone? Because the guys I talk to from the regiment talk of you in that fashion.

I don’t know. I’m definitely an oddity. That’s the one thing I regret about it. It put me off in my own little world. And if you’ve been in a community like this, you don’t like that. You want to be one of the guys. And I’ve not been since. It’s just because I can’t be. It was such a radical thing that happened, and I ended up in this whole different environment. I can’t ever leave that behind. But I’m still one of them.

 

Nobody ever takes that away. You just have the difficult experience of being the sole survivor of a massacre.

Yeah, I am, and I can’t ever shake that. I just deal with it and understand it and don’t let it get to me. I appreciate the fact that I am still alive, and that I can be here for my family and contribute. I have much to be thankful for. I’ve done some things since that I feel are valuable and that I’m proud of. Hopefully, when we look back at the company I just formed, we can say the same thing about it. In the end, it’s all about getting customers on target, plus or minus thirty seconds.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...