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Exorcising Somalia

The U.S. Army Rangers Sought Redemption in Afghanistan as They Embarked on Their First Combat Mission Since the Tragic 1993 Battle That Killed 18 Soldiers in Mogadishu.

July 07, 2002|Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy is The Times' Seattle bureau chief. She last wrote for the magazine on the murder of gun control advocate Tom Wales.

For military aviators, there are two kinds of darkness. There is the night of a luminous moon and the patchwork carpet of sleeping cities, nights where targets are easy and the runway is near. And then there is the Afghanistan night during a new moon, so dark it seems to suck up the starlight. The blackness below might shroud a desert plateau, or the sharp edge of a mountain, or a small figure aiming an antiaircraft gun at the sky.

These are the things that go through men's minds when they ride in on those nights, huddled in the belly of an MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft. That their paratrooper pack is strapped on and ready. That their wife seemed to hold on for an extra moment when they left her a few weeks before. That the plane seems to be slowing and it's almost time to get hooked up and ready to jump. That the Taliban probably has a few Stinger missiles. That when it's time they'll line up at the door and leap into the void, counting out the seconds before they can expect the invisible ground to pound into their feet. Run through the script: 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 25 seconds, contact! Find your buddies and start moving. Once again: Hook up, line up, jump, count, hit, move. That outside the cargo door that just opened there's a great big, windy patch of night, and Jesus never made a night so black.

It is 10:45 p.m., Oct. 19, somewhere over the desert of southern Afghanistan. The new crescent moon is still lodged under the horizon. In unison, over the roar of the MC-130's big engines, the men begin to shout the creed of the U.S. Army Rangers:

I accept that as a Ranger my country expects me to move farther, faster and fight harder than any other soldier. Never shall I fail my comrades .... Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle, for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy .... Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.

"One minute, thirty seconds," the pilot radioes into Staff Sgt. James Anderson's earpiece. Just ahead is a Taliban airstrip with a complex of buildings, one of which has been identified as a military barracks for a small guard force. The buildings are aflame from a barrage of U.S. preassault airstrikes launched moments before. The mission for these 200 men of the 75th Infantry (Ranger) Regiment of Fort Benning, Ga.: take over the airstrip, kill any Taliban still resisting, gather intelligence documents from the complex, secure the buildings, then get out again.

"Target in sight," Anderson shouts over the roaring noise of wind and engine coining through the open doors. "Thirty seconds."

Ten seconds out, Anderson steps back and thumps the first two jumpers. "Go!" he screams. From all four planes, two jumpers exit each second, and soon all 200 are suspended in the Afghan night, gliding down through the terrible no man's land between aircraft and ground, between safety and peril, between what has already happened and what is going to happen next.

Contact! Look for your buddies in the dark. Move.

Before this raid on the airstrip near Kandahar that night, the war in Afghanistan was a 2-week-old air campaign, conducted by remote control from planes that dropped bombs and broadcast the results on video screens. When the night was over, the Americans had conducted their first full-fledged ground assault, and even the oldest, gruffest generals back home could call what was happening in Afghanistan a war. American troops had landed. They had been shot at, and shot back, and heard the screams of dying enemies. A combat squad had walked into a Taliban outpost, keyed the mike on the radio and declared, "Clear."

It was not a huge battle--about 20 Taliban died, most from preassault airstrikes. The American casualties came not from enemy fire but from a helicopter accident, and legs broken when they landed hard oil the desert floor. There was no new front line established -- a few hours after the Rangers landed on the airfield, they left again.

But the raid marked a crucial turning point in the new war, not only for the military strategists who demonstrated the U.S.' ability to strike deep within enemy territory, but for the Army Rangers themselves, who that night launched their first major combat mission since the 1993 quagmire in Mogadishu, Somalia -- the miserable street battle that left 18 soldiers dead and inspired the recent Hollywood release "Black Hawk Down."

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