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DECEMBER 4, 1992
TWENTY-NINE PALMS, CALIFORNIA
"I UNDERSTAND THE UNITED States alone cannot right the world's wrongs." President George H. W. Bush was addressing the American people on television, and Marine Corps Sergeant Kyle Swanson listened from his perch on a high stool in a bar in Twenty-Nine Palms, California. An unusual moment of quiet settled throughout the popular watering hole as other strong young men stopped playing pool, clinking beer bottles, and hustling girls. They had all seen the ongoing television reports on the horrors in the faraway African country of Somalia, where life was less than cheap and merciless warlords ruled. A United Nations peacekeeping force had failed to halt the spiral of violence, and talk of possible American intervention had been sweeping through the Palms training areas like a hot desert wind. The president looked anguished, and spoke like he meant business. "But we also know that some crises in the world cannot be resolved without American involvement, that American action is often necessary as a catalyst for broader involvement of the community of nations."
The off-duty marines crowded into the bar cheered. "Damned right!" one called. "Got that straight!" yelled another, and calls of "hoo-ah!" bounced from the walls like excited echoes.
"He's talking about us, right, Sar'nt Swanson?" asked Corporal David Delshay, a chunky sniper who was finishing off a longneck bottle at the little table. Delshay, a Native American known as the Apache, held a pool cue in his free hand, ready to resume his game against Corporal Mike Mancuso.
"Yep," said Swanson. Everyone on the big sandy base in the Northern California desert had known this was probably coming. Somalia needed help, and from the TV that was clamped high above the bar the president was saying that the United States was going to be the lead dog in this hasty coalition. That meant that the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, would be the lead dogs for a 28,000-man U.S. ground force, and Kyle Swanson and his Scout/Snipers would be the lead dogs for the marines.
Big Mike Mancuso, another one of Swanson's sniper team members, looked a little puzzled. "Hey, this dude just lost the election. So how can he send us off to a war?"
"Bill Clinton doesn't take office for another month, you moron," piped a brunette in tight jeans who was leaning against Swanson's side. "George Bush is still president until then. You guys are going on safari."
Kyle gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze. Chicks loved snipers, and Swanson loved them right back. They came and went like tides, and any relationship could end without so much as a telephone call if Swanson was dispatched on a mission he could not disclose to anyone. Four weekend dates seemed like a lifetime. He was satisfied with that arrangement. Ladies around the bases knew the drill.
"Marines go where they are told, when they are told, and fight who they are told to fight," he said.
It was that time again. By the time Bush had finished announcing Operation Restore Hope, a computer was sending out auto alerts and the beeper on Swanson's belt began to vibrate. He turned it off and saw others in the saloon were also touching their own beepers, finishing up, paying their bills, stealing good-bye kisses, and drifting outside, heading back to the base. The parking lot was almost empty within fifteen minutes.
The One-Seven spent the next week packing its gear, then hauled ass out of the States, with stops in Maine and Germany. Sergeant Kyle Swanson was boots-on-ground in the Horn of Africa on Friday, December 11, 1992, just days before Christmas.
* * *
HE SLAPPED ON HIS floppy boonie hat as he stepped to the tarmac of the small airport of Mogadishu, Somalia, and shaded his eyes with his polarized Oakley sunglasses to look out over the tumbledown, broken metropolis that was still steaming and stinking after a rainy-season squall. In his mind, the place seemed to be singling him out, glaring directly back at him, reaching out to stake a claim. The sniper immediately felt an internal surge of adrenaline that meant this was where he belonged. This was new territory, but not new ground to him. Swanson had seen plenty of combat in other rotten places, so while Mogadishu promised to be mean, he knew it was nothing he couldn't handle. He was mean, too. In fact, Swanson, all in all, felt pretty good about being out here, back at the sharp point of the spear. Right where he belonged.
Kyle Swanson shouldered his rifle and joined his company as more planes disgorged more marines into the hot sun. Two thousand were coming in as part of the initial contingent of a military buildup that eventually would rise to tens of thousands of troops from the United States and other nations. Swanson was not here to feed people. His unique task was to hide, to observe, and, when necessary, to kill.
Within a few hours of landing, he was about a thousand meters from the airport, concealed in a jumbled pile of rubble that once had been a building with his right cheek resting comfortably against the fiberglass stock of his Remington bolt-action M40A1, which was loaded with 7.62 × 55 mm rounds and rested on a bipod. He used the sharp Unertl 10× fixed-power scope to visually crawl over the landscape while his spotter, Corporal David Delshay, lay alongside him, doing the same with powerful binoculars. They used a laser range finder to paint distances to fixed objects. It was standard sniper fare. Behind them, more planes landed with the steady rhythm of a metronome, and the anchored ships of the Marine Expeditionary Force off-loaded gear and supplies at the obsolete port. Swanson ignored all of that, for his practiced eyes were pointed the other way, toward the city, and he and Delshay sketched a map of what lay before them. They had only just arrived but were already far out front as a dangerous, but expendable, tripwire. Any offensive move against the airport would have to come through them. Both Swanson and the Apache were cool with that.
The sniper team stayed out all day, immobile while in the scorching sun and drenched by an afternoon deluge. Swanson saw plenty of enemy soldiers running around with guns, but the rules of engagement kept him from firing unless they shot at him first. He prayed that they would, but they didn't. It was hard not to pull the trigger on the thugs that were the reason he was here; they stole everything they wanted, beat people mercilessly, and used starvation and disease as weapons.
When the sun finally went down on that first day, the two weary snipers returned to the air base, where more marines had arrived. The place was filling up fast. Swanson cleaned his weapons, pulled fresh supplies, had something to eat, washed his face and hands, and immediately fell asleep amid the noise. For now, Somalia was home.
By Monday, the secured area was bursting at the seams, and still more soldiers came in by planes every hour: mean-looking Turks and solid Saudis, laid-back Canadians, chatty Pakis, French soldiers, and Kenyans, and ever more marines, until hundreds of troops were penned like cows at the port and airfield. Swanson and his sniper teams extended their overwatch out to two thousand meters and began providing protection for foot patrols that probed into the built-up areas. The newness of being in a foreign land had already worn off, and they settled in for what had all the markings of being a long haul.
* * *
BY THE END OF his first week, Mogadishu had him. The place the marines now called "the Mog" hit him in the face the moment he opened his eyes every morning and rode him like a broken-down horse all day. If he got up to pee at night, it was still there. His morale sank almost with every passing hour as his world became all Mog, all day. When he turned on the radio, the Mog topped the BBC World Service. The feeling of despair was fueled by the heart-rending sights of hunger and deprivation all around, and even that grew stale. There was just too much misery out there for any individual to assimilate. It sapped the energy and soul. Staying sharp and keeping his snipers alert was getting harder to do. There was very little fighting beyond the warlords dealing with each other's forces at night, as if a little secret war was going on right under the nose of a giant.
Political wrangling had staved off open confrontation, and he could see the bad guys; he just couldn't shoot them until they were dumb enough to shoot first. It was frustrating. The obviously outmatched gunmen of the warlords in Mogadishu avoided confrontation in the city and spread like rats to seek weaker prey elsewhere. In response, the operations people of Task Force Mogadishu at the airport fanned troops into the countryside as fast as they could to counter the moving bands of thugs.
The tedium finally broke on Sunday morning, December 20, when Swanson was called to the battalion headquarters tent and told to draw equipment and pick a half dozen of his snipers. An American army unit in the town of Afgoye, twenty-five miles west in the Shabelle Valley, was receiving intermittent gunfire and wanted help. Kyle turned out his marines, and they sailed off in a pair of Humvees, all of them happy to get away from the Mog for a spell, and maybe even find a fight.
They rolled into an oasis of peace, a lush green belt of mature agriculture that followed a river. The army officer in charge told Kyle that shots had come from a stand of trees that walled the western side of the town, so Swanson and his men spread into the area with their weapons hot. Nothing. People were going about their daily routines, and the crowded refugee feeding station was running like a machine. Army troopers were relaxed in the shade with their equipment scattered on the ground. Nobody was shooting at anybody. Swanson went back to the officer in charge.
When the major insisted that there had been an attack, Kyle went up to a rooftop to get a better angle into the jungle. He discovered a half-dozen American women soldiers sunbathing in bras and panties. They were very unhappy that he had invaded their private space on a Sunday morning, and he was equally unhappy that he and his team had rushed twenty-five miles to answer a false alarm. Seeing the near-naked bodies of the G.I. Janes did not impress him at all. Swanson stalked back downstairs, barked a bit at the officer about lax discipline, and took his snipers home, back to the big city.
Mogadishu had waited patiently while Swanson was gone and was ready for another round when he returned.
* * *
SWANSON MET THE ENEMY face-to-face two days later on a dawn patrol that went into the city. By then, the foreign armed forces had grown to become the biggest gang in town, and more marines and U.N. troops were still arriving. They owned Mogadishu.
The marines followed a familiar street to a private compound, and the sergeant leading the patrol winked at Swanson. "You get to do the honors. I did it yesterday. He's getting annoyed." Swanson knocked on a door of hard dark wood. It was exactly seven o'clock in the morning on Tuesday, December 22.
It was opened by a slim man with graying hair and a mustache, sleep still in his eyes. The warlord General Mohammed Farrah Hassan Aidid was consumed with obvious frustration. The marines had come by at this time every single morning for the past week, demonstrating that they could do as they wished in an area that he had supposedly controlled.
"Good morning, General," said Swanson, removing his sunglasses to give the Somali warlord a good look. He controlled a desire to smirk, and spoke with an even, polite tone. "We are just checking in with you. Is everything okay here today, sir?"
The warlord whined through gritted teeth, "Each morning you people do this to me. Why? Why is it always me and not the others?"
Kyle ignored the comment and touched the brim of his helmet with a mock salute. "You have a good day, sir. Please let us know if we can be of assistance."
The patrol moved out, leaving the warlord standing alone in the doorway. The sun rose to scald the earth, was followed by the usual afternoon rains, then a night of gunplay downtown.
* * *
GENERAL AIDID WAS NOT helpless, although he was being forced by circumstances to bide his time. The morning call by the marines was bothersome, but it was just another part of the greater game.
Intel sources at the airport had been receiving reports that he had been stockpiling weapons within a walled compound during the ceasefire, in violation of the truce agreement. That the warlord had lied surprised no one; the big question was whether he would fight for the arms stash. The marines decided to seize those guns.
The day after he had knocked on the warlord's front door, Kyle Swanson and two of his teams went out before first light on Wednesday, December 23, and wiggled into a watch position at the walled enclosure. They were glassing for threats, and after they reported all was still at the site, a full marine platoon came in, shepherded by helicopter gunships and modified Humvees that bristled with firepower and were known as combined anti-armor teams, or CAATs. The big force that appeared as if out of thin air looked unstoppable to Swanson as he watched through his scope from a thousand yards away.
Only it did stop-right in the shadow of the front gate. The buck lieutenant leading the patrol was brought up short by the challenge of a single Somali policeman in a light blue shirt and cap, dark slacks, and desert boots. The cop stood there with his hands on his hips, shouting that the area was private property of General Aidid and was therefore off-limits to the marines and everyone else. Swanson couldn't believe it. The momentum had been checked and all the implied power was nullified. The gunships above did figure eights and the CAATs idled on the fringes.
The lieutenant had been a stateside substance abuse counselor and was new to the field, but Swanson believed that was no excuse not to have blown right through this single cop. And the veteran platoon sergeant with him had let it happen!
Swanson erupted out the hide and stormed forward, arriving almost out of breath after running the thousand yards. He ignored the reasonable lieutenant and the temporizing sergeant and yelled for the marine squad leaders to get their men going, to get inside of that walled compound with weapons ready and their eyes up. This was no friendly visit.
A pickup truck rushed through the gate, and General Aidid jumped out and began shouting at the lieutenant while Swanson screamed for the platoon to get inside. Only when the marines started moving again did Kyle turn to where Aidid was snapping at the twenty-two-year-old lieutenant. The platoon sergeant was standing back with his thumb up his butt.
There was a flash of recognition when Aidid saw the face of Swanson, who had awakened him only a few days earlier, and then the sniper snatched the general by the shirtfront and threw him to the dirt.
"Down on the ground! Get your ass down there! Now!!" Swanson bellowed.
Omar Jama, who had driven the pickup truck, had stayed with it as he watched his general screech at the lieutenant, but when the other marine came up and abruptly flopped Aidid onto the ground, the Cobra broke into a run. Swanson saw him coming, dodged with a hip fake, and kicked the Cobra behind the knee as he went by, then shoved with a hard shoulder. Knocked off-balance, Omar Jama felt his collar being yanked, and then he also was chewing dirt. "You get down there, too. Both of you stay down!!" Swanson snarled as he pointed his M-16 rifle at their backs.
Other Somalis in and around the compound watched in disbelief as their leaders sprawled ignominiously in the dirt. They were unused to any challenge, and this was unthinkable. But any idea of doing something brave vanished as the marines stormed into the compound and grabbed them, the big CAATs closing in tight and the helicopters hovering with cannons and rockets at the ready.
The argument was over. The Somali militiamen, their toppled warlord, and his fearsome bodyguard, the Cobra, had their wrists lashed with plastic cuffs.
Swanson took a knee beside Aidid and leaned on his rifle. "You listen to me close now, General," he said. "There is no government in Mogadishu, but there is a new sheriff in town-and it is the United States Marine Corps. Best that you understand that right now."
Aidid exchanged a sharp look with the Cobra. The two powerful men had been disgraced in public, rendered helpless in mere seconds, and that rough handling might have planted seeds of doubt among some of their fighters, who either had seen or would hear about the episode. Such a disgrace could not be tolerated. This man would have to pay.
They had read the black letters stitched to the name tag sewn on the tunic of the marine-SWANSON-and they silently vowed to remember this particular invader. When the chance came, their lost honor would be redeemed in his blood.
Swanson knew they would hate him. He did not care.
Copyright © 2015 by Jack Coughlin with Donald A. Davis