HURLBURT FIELD, Fla --
Oct. 3, 1993, Mogadishu, Somalia. The U.S. Special Operations forces of Task Force Ranger had been operating in the city for several months as part of the U.N.'s Operation Restore Hope, bringing relief to the war-torn nation. Task Force Ranger's specific mission was to hunt down Somali warlord Muhammed Farah Aideed and his lieutenants, who were accused of confiscating U.N. food supplies intended for starving refugees and perpetuating strife for personal gain.
On this day, the task force's target was in the Bakara Market area of Mogadishu, a stronghold for the Aideed clan. The mission, already off to a bad start when a Ranger missed the fast rope and fell from the helicopter to the ground, turned really bad when one of the mission's Black Hawk helicopters, call sign Super 6-1, was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG).
Another Black Hawk, Super 6-8, raced to the scene carrying the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) team, including pararescue jumper Master Sgt. Scott Fales and fellow PJ Tech. Sgt. Tim Wilkinson. It, too, became an immediate target, coming under intense ground fire and volleys of RPGs that forced an immediate change in tactics for the CSAR team.
"Normally when you assess a crash site, one of our tactics is to turn hard over the top of the site and look down to see exactly what you have," Fales explained. "You then come back and set up on an approach and either land or fast rope to the crash. In this particular case, brownout was very bad, the enemy situation was very bad, enemy fire was very high, to include lots of RPGs being fired at the helicopter. It was clear we were only going to have one attempt. So we basically flew straight to the vicinity of the crash site."
Despite the danger, they knew they had a mission to accomplish. "At one point, I distinctly recall looking at Scott as we sat opposite each other in the cabin," Wilkinson remembered. "As we were moving and gyrating, getting ready to come in with the flare and posture, we just looked at each other, made eye contact and nodded, 'Okay, here we go.'"
They didn't even make it all the way to the ground before Super 6-8 was rocked by an RPG hit to the engine. The pilot managed to hold the bird steady until the rescuers were all the way to the ground before limping to the airport for a hard landing. The PJs had fast roped into basically a big brown dust cloud kicked up by the Black Hawk's rotors.
"You couldn't see anything," Fales said. "As we collected at the crash the enemy zeroed in on our location and steady rifle fire increased."
During those initial moments, Fales was hit in the leg. With the help of a Ranger, he limped back to the crash site and dressed his own wound. While Wilkinson worked on freeing the bodies of the pilot and copilot, both killed in the crash, Fales set up a Casualty Collection Point and started performing triage on wounded Rangers and helicopter crewmen.
At the same time he continued to provide suppressing fire as Wilkinson and others worked inside the downed Black Hawk. At one point he had to give himself an IV to avoid going into shock and was ordered onto a stretcher, where Rangers tied him down to prevent him from compounding his injury.
Little good it did. Fales untied himself and quickly got back into the fight. The battle, begun in the late afternoon, stretched into the night. A beleaguered group of Rangers took shelter in a building, where they were subjected to intense fire from swarming Somali gunmen. At one point those fighters moved up a heavy machine gun, which began blasting large-caliber rounds through the walls.
In a June 1994 interview for Air Force magazine, Fales said, "As these tracers [went] through, it lit the room up like a flashbulb going off."
He recalled that scrambling Rangers would appear frozen and debris suspended in the air each time a strobe-like tracer round flashed through the room. Eventually, as the sun rose the next morning, a rescue force made its way to the Americans. As the Somali fighters melted away into the labyrinth of streets around the battle zone, Fales and his fellow Americans were evacuated.
That fight came to be known as the Battle of Mogadishu and was recounted in the book Black Hawk Down and a movie of the same name. For his actions that day Fales received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Wilkinson received the Air Force Cross.
There were hard lessons learned that day, but they would provide the foundation for future CSAR equipping and training.
"I can tell we had not done an engagement like that, at that time in 1993, since Vietnam," Fales said. "We had not done any urban CSAR, a real close quarter urban CSAR, a downed helicopter being swarmed by enemy personnel. It was a tremendous amount of lessons learned and it drove training programs for us for a long time."
"What I saw with Scott was he continued to look at that Mogadishu mission and how we could improve the CSAR mission," said a retired PJ, Chief Master Sgt. Mike Lampe. "He really focused on and reassessed the Search
kits. The original system had equipment carried by ambulance crews to deal with car crashes--things like the Jaws of Life. They found on that day in Mogadishu that those tools were not conducive to getting through helicopter debris."
Another retired PJ, Chief Master Sgt. Rex Freriks, remembered, "That really impacted Scott. He realized that we as a unit did not have the training, the tools, or the know-how to address a situation like that. So we went out, found the tools, got the training, and figured out and trained for how not to let that happen again."