Holed up in an abandoned house on a war-torn Somali street, in pain after being shot in the back and surrounded by an unknown number of enemy militia members, it dawned on Chris Faris that he would never see his family again.
“When I accepted the fact that I was going to die in the relatively near future, I was engulfed by the greatest peace and calm I ever felt in my life,” says Faris, now the command sergeant major of U.S. Special Operations Command. “I looked at my wedding band, told my wife of two years and two little girls goodbye and thought, ‘Please God, don’t let them see my body being dragged through the street.’ After that, I was all good.”
That was 20 years ago today. Faris, then a sergeant first-class with the vaunted Delta Force, was one of 78 troops wounded during a two-day fight beginning Oct. 3, 1993, that would see 19 Americans killed. The Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in Mark Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down” and by a movie based on the book, forever changed how and when the United States gets involved in humanitarian disasters.
And it forever changed Faris, who turns 52 next month and now serves as the bridge between operators in the field and Adm. William McRaven, the commander of Socom.
“Accepting my death became the mechanism for me being in combat,” says Faris, who went on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and received more than three dozen military awards and citations, including a Purple Heart and seven Bronze Stars. “In hindsight, I realize that in order for me to maintain that mechanism, I always did keep a degree of separation between myself and my wife and daughters.”
In the late summer of 1993, Somalia was gripped by a brutal two-year civil war that led to one of the planet’s worst famines ever. Efforts by the United Nations to deal with the crisis were disastrous, with 24 Pakistani U.N. troops massacred in a single attack, leading eventually to a U.N. resolution to go after Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, one of Somalia’s most notorious warlords.
Near the end of August, Chris Faris and the rest of his Delta Force squad joined Task Force Ranger, a joint effort between Deltas and Rangers, to hunt down Aidid. They set up shop in a hangar on an airfield at Mogadishu Airport.
“I remember the first couple of weeks was quite boring,” said Faris in a telephone interview from his office at MacDill Air Force Base. “We didn’t have the technology that we have today.”
After arriving in Somalia, the task force went on five or six missions looking for Aidid and his lieutenants. “We got in several firefights,” Faris said. “We got mortared a lot at the hangar.”
On the morning of Oct. 3, there was a heightened sense of urgency.
A source reported that Aidid was going to be at a meeting near the Olympic Hotel. The plan was to “load up, spread out and go do the deed,” Faris said. “It didn’t turn out that way.”
Though Aidid wasn’t at the meeting, the mission went off pretty much as planned initially, Faris said.
“We quickly captured everyone we went to capture.’’
The men were waiting in a courtyard to be picked up by trucks. Then there was a loud boom overhead. “We heard the explosion, looked up and said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look good,’ ” Faris said.
It was a Black Hawk helicopter, hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
As Faris and his team moved to secure the crash site, Somali militia members “unleashed a very well-planned ambush,” Faris recalls. “The majority of casualties were taken when they opened up on us in that first hail of bullets. A guy two or three guys in front of me dropped like a sack of potatoes ... a guy in front of me got shot in the arm.”
Faris said he worked on the wounded soldier, while others were clearing a house to create a safe haven. “That’s when I got shot in the back,” said Faris, flatly, with no hint of emotion. “It was pretty chaotic there.”
Despite the wound, Faris was still able to fight. “The bullet came in at a pretty harsh angle,” he says. “It didn’t penetrate the body armor. I might have been a little crooked, but I was able to function and fight.”
The soldiers settled in the first house they cleared. They had taken a lot of casualties and were low on ammunition and medical supplies. Because of the urban environment, “We didn’t have a true appreciation for how many surrounded us,” Faris said.
It wasn’t until pulling security for a helicopter that was hovering low to drop off supplies that Faris said the men realized how many militia members they were up against.
“When we couldn’t hear the helicopter’s miniguns being fired because there were so many people shooting at it, that’s when I realized, ‘Hey, I don’t think I am getting out of here alive today,’ ” Faris said.
After about two hours, Faris and about 20 other soldiers, most of whom were wounded, moved to another house, giving them a better security perimeter. There they waited, as night set in, for about eight to 10 hours.
“We just had to Alamo up and survive till a relief force could get there,” he says.
Finally, they heard over the radio that a column of Malaysian armored personnel carriers was headed their way. Consolidating the killed and wounded, the plan was to use the armored personnel carriers as cover while they marched out of the neighborhood.
“But then the Malaysians took off like bats out of hell, and left us behind with no armored cover and we had to fight our way out,” Faris said.
Though suffering more wounds, Faris’ team eventually made it out. They would learn that a second Black Hawk crashed. Mutilated soldiers were dragged through the streets. A helicopter pilot, Michael Durant, was captured and later released. Faris spent nearly two days in a hospital.
Two decades later, Faris still struggles to find meaning in the battle. “Because of the way it was han0dled on a policy level after the event, everyone that died there, in my personal opinion, died for nothing,” he said. “We were shut down and didn’t finish the mission we were sent to do.”