Twenty years ago this week, former Army Ranger Jeff Struecker made his peace with death while fighting in the Battle of Mogadishu – better known as Black Hawk Down, which led to a popular book and movie of the same name.
Struecker was part of a mission to capture lieutenants of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. But a bloody two-day street fight erupted in which the roughly 120 elite U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force troops were vastly outnumbered by Somali gunmen. In the end, 18 soldiers were killed, 73 were wounded and two Army Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.
The American military's role in Somalia originally intended to support U.N. humanitarian operations, but the Pentagon made a quick exit after that battle -- which became of the most famous in recent decades and helped shape U.S. foreign policy and military strategy.
Earlier this year, Struecker and fellow Ranger Keni Thomas, now a country musician, returned to Somalia – still an extremely dangerous place – to revisit their bloody encounter with Somali militia fighters and film a documentary about their experience.
“Kenny said: ‘I'll go if you go.’ I said: ‘I'll if you go,” Struecker said.
Their film "Return to Mogadishu," which you can watch above, was released last month.
Struecker, who also served many tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army chaplain, spoke with America Tonight about the battle that changed his life, what it was like reliving it and why he doesn’t think he’ll ever return to Somalia.
What pulled you back to Somalia?
We wanted this documentary to be real and very gripping. Originally we had a studio set in California [to film reenactments]. Keni Thomas and I said to the production team it would be real emotional if we did this back in Mogadishu. I don't know what kind of emotions though. It could be bad.
I'm clearly a different man. Mogadishu had a very significant impact on me. Keni remarks something similar: “I'm almost incomplete.” I think it was part of trying to bring some closure.
How did that battle change you?
I had a very strong Christian faith before joining the Army. It gave me this overwhelming sense of peace when most people were around me panicking. The next day, many people were asking me how I kept it together. God was leading me. I became an Army chaplain. It was directly a result of the day after this battle in Mogadishu.
How did your experience in Somalia shape your work as a chaplain?
Many of (the soldiers) are familiar with the book and the movie “Black Hawk Down.” That gave me some instant credibility with a lot of soldiers. Most of those years I served with rangers. I could look them in the eyes and understand what they’d been through. I could say: “This is how my faith would sustain me.”
What were your emotions like when you returned to Mogadishu?
I remember very vividly most of the events of Black Hawk Down. I always have. When I got back to Black Hawk Down, emotions flooded back the whole time I was there. I also didn’t realize how far disconnected I was from Black Hawk Down emotionally.
Was that freeing or traumatizing?
I relived the emotion of it, which was intense. I understood myself a little better.
Do you see going back yet again?
No. It’s a beautiful city. I harbor no hate in my heart. But until there's some peace and stability in the country, I don’t see myself going back there.
What's next for you?
I became a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga. I'm going to stay where I am and stay involved in the lives of the people at Fort Benning. God has really captured my life.
Is there anything people don’t understand about Black Hawk Down?
The movie and the book have been incredibly successful. It has better visibility than any operation the U.S. has done since World War II. It has shaped U.S. foreign policy and rightly so. There have been good benefits. U.S. special ops forces (in different military branches) have been forced to worked together. They’re much better coordinated. A lot of the success of special ops forces can be traced back to those days in Somalia.
Do you follow news developments in Somalia such as al-Shabab and piracy?
I pay attention to it. I still have a fondness in my heart and want to desperately see that country get their feet under them.