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Michael J. Durant Interview: The Night Stalkers

While Michael J. “Mike” Durant is probably not a household name around the world, he is an indelible symbol and memory for anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s classic war film, Black Hawk Down, based on the book of the same name by Mark Bowden. A native of Berlin, N.H., Durant joined the military in 1979 and was assigned to the 470th Military Intelligence Group in Fort Clayton, Panama. After helicopter flight training, he was subsequently appointed to Warrant Officer 1 and flew with the 377th Medical Evacuation Company in Korea, and then the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Ky., as an instructor. In 1988, Durant joined the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne – 160th SOAR), known as the “Night Stalkers.” Durant served with the 160th during Operations Prime Chance, Just Cause, Desert Storm, and Gothic Serpent.

Durant was the pilot of an MH-60 special operations helicopter, callsign “Super Six Four,” the second helicopter shot down by Somali militiamen during a seizure raid in Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993. Hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), Durant’s helicopter crashed in the city a mile from the raid site, where he and his crew – Bill Cleveland, Ray Frank, and Tommy Field – survived the crash, but sustained severe injuries. Surrounded and unable to escape or evade, two snipers, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, volunteered to drop into the crash site and try to hold off the growing crowds of hostile militia and angry civilians.

During the ensuing street battle, Durant’s crew and the two snipers were overwhelmed and killed. For their extraordinary actions, both Shughart and Gordon were both later awarded the Medal of Honor, the first such decoration since Vietnam. Durant – suffering from injuries that included a broken back, leg, face, and gunshot wounds – was overrun, captured, and held prisoner for 11 days. Later released, he eventually recovered from his wounds and other injuries, and returned to flight status with the 160th SOAR. With more than 3,700 flight hours, he retired from the Army in 2001 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 and master aviator. Over his military career, Durant has received many decorations, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star with Valor Device, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, three Air Medals, POW/MIA ribbon, and others.

Durant is now the owner, president, and CEO of Pinnacle Solutions, Inc., a service-disabled, veteran-owned engineering services company based in Huntsville, Ala. Durant also offers seminars to military personnel about helicopter maneuvering and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) operations. He lives in Alabama with his wife Lisa. They have four sons and two daughters.

In this interview with The Year in Special Operations, Durant shares his experiences leading up to the ill-fated Battle of Mogadishu, his hardships during captivity, and his unlikely survival.

 

John D. Gresham: The Year in Special Operations: How many things had you done in the Army as a pilot before you decided you wanted to do something like flying in “special people?”

Michael Durant: It happened pretty much right away. I was in Korea on [my] first assignment and got wind of the unit and was intrigued by it right away. … I knew the unit was there, so I finally figured out how to get ahold of them and I called them and said, “I’d like to come over to assess.” What happened was I’d already mistakenly signed into the 101st Airborne, which is a fine unit. But because I’d done that, I was already committed to them for a minimum of 18 months to two years, which as it turns out, is probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I had good experience in flying medevac, but I didn’t have a lot of experience in some key areas that I got by being in … an air assault organization, where you’re doing a lot more flight formation, tactical operations, night flying and missions like that. I got a few more hours under my belt, got to know the Fort Campbell area a little bit better, which helped. In the end, it was the best thing for me.

 

What was it like in those days? Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, was one of the founding members of the Night Stalkers, and back then, they actually had to go through the actual Special Forces Q Course in addition to doing qualification within the unit itself. What was it like when you got there?

I was actually part of the first 160th formal Green Platoon class. Before my group, the training was actually being done by instructors taken out of hide from the line companies. They didn’t have a formal course that was established up until the time I got there. With the implementation of the Green Platoon course and the creation of the SOA training company theytook you through [a] several-month program of formal instruction, which included physical fitness and medical training, map reading, and land navigation … all those things – in addition to the basic flight training – were all part of that original curriculum. And we were the test case. It was actually very well done and the final phase also included the SERE course at Fort Bragg.

 

Right.

That was the piece where we would join in with the students who were in the SF Q-Course and we’d do that phase with them.

 

And of course the piece you ended up having to use under a very poor situation.

There’s always room to get better.

As it turns out, I’m the first person who had the opportunity to apply what I learned there in the real world. There are now two of us, I believe. Dave Williams was the other one, the Apache pilot shot down during the early stages of OIF.

 

Interesting. OK, so you actually began flying and went with the unit operationally about in what time frame?

I completed Green Platoon and SERE training and reported to the unit in January of ’89.

 

Where were you assigned at that point in time?

At Fort Campbell. Delta Company, 1st Battalion.

 

You were flying the MH-60s?

Right.

 

How would you have characterized yourself as a pilot about that time?

I would say, reaching the top of my game. Not there yet, but getting there, if that’s what you’re looking for. I think when you’re at that stage in your aviation career, you think you’re better than you are. In fact, you’ve done enough things to make you feel confident, which is what you want, but you don’t realize there’s a lot out there you don’t know and haven’t experienced yet. As you gain additional experience and you gain more flight hours, you begin to realize that. There’s always room to get better.

Michael J. Durant

Mike Durant in the cockpit of an MH-60 in Somalia. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Durant

 

Can you talk about some of the other people you were there with? What kind of people were you flying with in the 160th at that point?

I’m not sure the average person understands we’re not talking about an organization with different people rolling in every couple of years. I think that’s something else that’s unique about SOF. You’re talking about the same people. You’re talking about organizations that are employed in combat at almost every turn. There are very few examples of things we’ve been involved with as a country in the past 20 years that SOF didn’t have a slice of somewhere. And what people don’t necessarily understand is that it’s the same people. There are people who have experience in six or seven different combat environments in their special operations careers. And that’s true for the ground force guys as it is for the aviation, probably even more so.

 

So, you’re literally talking about a small family sized unit?

It truly was a family.

Absolutely.

 

Not many people talk about the 160th as a social organization. What kind of a family is it?

Well, I know it’s changed. Things are never, after 10 years, the way they were when you were there or like you remember they were. But when I was there, we were very close. I mean very close. When you went on extended deployments with people, you’d learn more about them. You’d become closer to them than anyone. And meanwhile, your families are probably back socializing as well, and you’d think that when these deployments would end, the last thing we’d want to do would be to spend more time together. But, in fact, we did. So, it truly was a family. No doubt.

 

And are these people who you’d generally gone to work with throughout your time in the unit from the time you first came in to the time when you mustered out?

Yeah, pretty much. Some came earlier, some came later, but from that era, we were together for a very long time, and for many we’re still in close contact.

Mogadishu

A UH-1 “Huey” flying over Mogadishu gives some impression of the tight maze of streets and buildings. U.S. Department of Defense photo

 

What was happening with you over the next couple of years before you went to Somalia? What kinds of things were you doing at that point?

Well, I was involved in Operation Prime Chance in the Persian Gulf, Just Cause in Panama, and went to Desert Storm as well.

 

The question that comes up is obviously you did Desert Storm, you were knocking around a little bit after that. Then comes ’93 and the summer. And this thing called Task Force Ranger is formed. What are your recollections of how that came to be?

Well, initially this was going to be a low-profile mission with not a lot of assets involved. And I was not a part of that initial team. That sort of stuff happened all the time and we would spin up and spin down constantly, so nobody got too worried about it until we actually got deployment orders. In fact, on that one, they came back home because we weren’t going to go. And then as things continued to develop in Somalia, we spun up a larger, more capable force involving the Rangers and more helicopters.…

 

And other professionals from other organizations?

Right. And we went to Bragg and we started going through the plans again because this thing is a lot more complicated now. We had more moving pieces. And then again we got spun down. We were told we were not going. And I actually flew all the way to Fort Hood and then got a call out there just after arriving that said, “OK, plans have changed again. You need to fly back to Fort Bragg.” And so we flew all the way back to Fort Bragg again, and with that event, we were locked in and realized, OK, we’re probably going for real this time, and as a matter of fact we did. Within maybe half a day, we were out of there.

And we arrived on the scene. To be honest with you, it seemed fairly benign. There didn’t seem to be much going on. I would say the potential for violence and combat losses viewed by most of us was low probability. But as you know if you’ve read the story, by Oct. 3, things had deteriorated significantly, and it got more and more violent and the enemy more and more aggressive. In fact, there was a Black Hawk from the 101st that was shot down in early September. When that happened, we realized that this was for real.

There’s evidence that shows that al Qaeda was involved in helping get some of those resources in there, so what we didn’t know was they had plenty of them and due to the sheer numbers, they were more of a threat than we thought they were.

 

This was no longer a permissive environment.

Right, right.

 

Over what time frame had you been over there during those six prior missions?

I think we got there on Aug. 28 and the Black Hawk Down mission occurred on Oct. 3.

 

And the rest of those missions went pretty much to template? Nothing too terribly exciting on them? You did your job, brought them out, and everything was fine?

That’s pretty much it. We didn’t lose any aircraft. A couple of folks got wounded, but it was minor. The most excitement was on one mission, when we did grab the No. 2 guy and he was successfully turned over to the U.N. And on that mission, they started firing RPGs at us, so that raised it up another notch.

 

Without getting into threat assessments and other things, had you guys looked seriously at the threat from the RPG? Had it really come on your scope as something that was a potentially serious threat in the environment and the way you were working the birds?

Well, it’s always a threat. I think we understand that much more so now than we did then. But even then, we viewed it as a threat. The problem with that weapon is that there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You have to use cover and concealment and that’s about it. We were told they didn’t have all that many of them … which turned out to be false.

 

[Laughs] I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh, but it’s funny how they were saying there weren’t many, and they were selling them for how much on the dollar down in the marketplace?

Well, I don’t think anyone knows even today how many there actually were, but there’s evidence that shows that al Qaeda was involved in helping get some of those resources in there, so what we didn’t know was they had plenty of them and due to the sheer numbers, they were more of a threat than we thought they were. And there’s some evidence they were being shown how to use them effectively against helicopters.

Well, there had been people a few years earlier doing it over in Afghanistan.

And being trained by the best.

 

[Laughs] Don’t you love it when professionals network with professionals? What was life like there for you guys? I mean obviously, you, the Rangers, and some of the other professionals were operating in a fairly small airport in an interesting environment. What was it like?

Well, it was OK. It was as good as it could be. Some of the folks were living in the hangars. We flight crews, they tried to take better care of us and we actually had these trailers that were previously used by U.N. flight crews, and it was fine. You know, we got to eat fairly decent food most of the time, got to work out, run around the airfield, and play volleyball to kill some time. There were some training missions thrown in there. Most people, most nonmilitary people, don’t realize that even in war, you have to train and we would go out and do some of those training hops; fairly straightforward.

 

Were you building a certain amount of cohesiveness with the people you were working and flying around with?

Oh, yeah. Now I, personally, got moved to the flight lead position for our element. So I flew with one particular group of Rangers for probably the first six or seven weeks, then I bumped up to the lead position. I ended up with Capt. Steele and all his guys on my aircraft. But even having flown only a couple of missions with those guys, I got to know them pretty well.

Task Force Ranger 20th Anniversary: The Battle of Mogadishu, Oct. 3, 1993

By – June 4, 2013

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Durant was captured by the militia forces, survived 11 days of captivity, and was eventually released to the Red Cross.

The Rangers pulled back and established a defensive perimeter inside buildings as night began to fall. After nightfall, a rescue convoy of 10th Mountain troops, backed by Pakistani tanks and Malaysian armored vehicles, was assembled. It took hours to put together, and the trapped soldiers in the city were forced to fight all night, supported by AH-6 Little Bird strikes at “danger-close” ranges, along with drops of ammunition and medical supplies.

Mogadishu medals of honor president clinton

Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart and Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon, who were killed on Oct. 3, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia, while serving as sniper team member and leader, respectively, with U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s Task Force Ranger, were posthumously awarded Medals of Honor. Shughart’s widow, Stephanie (pictured left), and Gordon’s widow, Carmen (pictured with their 3-year-old daughter, Brittany), accepted their husbands’ awards from President Bill Clinton. DoD photo

“If you poked your head out, shots would hit,” Thomas said. “And they would fire RPGs at us every now and then. But the helicopters made runs all night and kept everybody away from us. They could see people moving on our positions, and flew tirelessly – keeping us alive.”

By 0200, the multinational convoy reached the trapped Rangers to extract them to the Pakistani base at the Mogadishu stadium. Some of the Rangers and operators were forced to run the “Mogadishu Mile” to the stadium, after which silence fell over the battered city.

 

Aftermath and Costs

During the operation, 18 TF Ranger soldiers were killed, and 84 wounded. One Malaysian and one Pakistani were killed, and a number wounded. An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 SNA militiamen participated in fighting; at least 500 Somalis were killed (some estimates are much higher), with more than 700 wounded. On Oct. 7, President Bill Clinton announced his intention to withdraw all U.S. forces from Somalia by March 1994. But in the meantime, heavy units including the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) carrier battle group and two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) would deploy to provide enhanced presence and “force protection.”

“I tell this to everyone: The reason we didn’t lose more people that day was because of how well trained we were and the increased level of training that we did every day in the sand dunes. We fired so many live rounds, and we fired every weapon system available – 203s and pistols and shotguns. Firing became second nature; we just got very good at what we did. It came down to our basic infantry skills, you know? We just were so good at it that even in the face of the numbers we were up against, the training got us through.”

Today, we probably know more about the Oct. 3 Battle of Mogadishu than any other small-unit engagement of the late 20th century, thanks to the brilliant journalism of Mark Bowden, whose 1999 book, Black Hawk Down, was adapted into a successful 2001 film by Ridley Scott. Remarkably, Bowden was able to capture at least a part of the Somali side of the story, as well as the experiences of the Americans. Somali critics panned the film for its “brutal and dehumanizing” depiction of their people, but war was brutal and dehumanizing long before Hollywood ever shot a frame. Reportedly, when the film was shown in Somalia, young men cheered whenever an American was shot. Additional depth and detail is provided in the firsthand accounts by the men of TF Ranger in the book The Battle of Mogadishu (2004), edited by Matt Eversmann and Dan Schilling.

Mogadishu former hostage Durant transported

Former Somalian hostage Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant is transported across the Ramstein Air Base flight line on a stretcher. An ambulance waited to transport Durant to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center for a one-night stay while en route to the United States for medical treatment. DoD photo

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t, at some point in the day, think about being in that battle,” Thomas said. “And it just makes me more grateful for the men that were to my left and my right. You know, we basically fought to bring each other home, to get each other back. And that’s the thing that sticks with me now. I’m grateful to the guys – and especially the ones that I am still friends with – that we are still here.”

Soldiers do not make policy. Whether the policies are wise or foolish, the duty of soldiers is to carry out the missions assigned. TF Ranger did this with all the professionalism and courage Americans have come to expect from their military. The tragic paradox of Somalia is that a series of interventions intended to do good and relieve suffering usually only made things worse, while incurring painful losses.

Diplomats and officials are bound by a professional code that demands all people must be organized into nations that behave according to the norms of international relations. For the past two decades, Somalis have been having none of it, defying the “international community” to come and make them. If Somalia’s terrible problems are ever solved, it is a fair bet that outsiders will not be the ones to solve them.

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,...