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Behind the Scenes of Blackhawk Down
Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell – Special Operations Command
America still has great heroes who have stood in the gap in times of our nation’s peril and critical wartime operations. Probably one of the more well known military operations was popularized by the box office smash hit movie Blackhawk Down. The big screen cinema spectacular told the breath-taking 1993 story of one of our U.S. military tactical operations when then LT. COL. Gary Harrell commanded a small force of specially trained servicemen to surgically remove enemy combatants from the streets and houses of Mogadishu, Somalia.
Due to intense RPG fire, two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down and required an intense coordination of efforts to continue the mission and rescue surviving American servicemen on the ground. Harrell was the Ground Force Commander who hovered in a helicopter above the scene to make critical calls to bring our men safely home. Even though sustaining horrific casualties the men engaged in this battle demonstrated heroic efforts as some of the best trained and equipped military personnel on the planet.
Retired in 2008, as the Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Ft Bragg; Harrell served in pivotal leadership roles in both Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Later he led forces in operations against Drug Lord Pablo Escobar, in support of the Government of Columbia. In 2000, Gen. Harrell assumed duties as Director, Joint Security Directorate, U.S. Central Command responsible for the security in the entire CENTCOM Area of Responsibility which covers parts of Africa, the entire Middle East, and into the STANS with over 26 countries.
In 2002, Harrell was the Commanding General, Special Operations Command Central during Operation Iraqi Freedom where he commanded the largest special operations forces assembled since WWII, consisting of over 30,000 U.S. and Coalition personnel. Then in April of 2005, he assumed responsibility as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations / Commander deployable Joint Task Force, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Response Force in the Netherlands where he was responsible for NATO forces taking operational control of all of Afghanistan.
Now retired as a husband, father, and grandfather, along with his wife, and children, he resides in, Tennessee. Gary is an avid sportsman who enjoys hunting, fishing, and shooting sports
Let’s now ask some professional, career and personal questions to learn more about the life and times of one of our nation’s true national heroes. Gen. Harrell, thank you for your service to our country!
1 – You must have a saint of a wife who has stood by your side, or a least stood by the phone, over the many years of your military service while you followed your assignments around the world. Tell us about the wife of your youth and other family members?
Jennifer was and is my best friend and High School sweetheart. We met in High School and married when we were in college. Our first child arrived after I departed for the Infantry Officer Basic, in Ft Benning GA. I know that I have always asked a lot of her and she has never failed to step up to the task at hand. She often did not know if I would be home that night or off somewhere on a mission around the world where events were playing out on the international stage. Through it all her deep faith and devotion raised our three successful children, and helped keep our family together in spite of frequent separations.
She was the glue that kept our family together while I was gone. Our kids were also active in church wherever we lived and our Christian friends were a big help to Jennifer as well. She never complained. Another critical role Jennifer performed was to always accompany me whenever there was a serious incident or death that required family notification. She was a comforting figure in those situations. In addition, she organized a family support group, the first one in our command.
2 – What inspired you in following the ROTC path through school to eventually join the military?
I had always felt led to pursue a career in the Army. I was torn between aviation and infantry, later special forces. SF won out. The ROTC scholarship also provided additional money to help our family. I actually attended the ROTC brief when it was announced at our school so that I could miss Mrs. Reeds fifth period algebra class. When I heard the Major from East Tennessee State University’s ROTC program telling me that I could get a scholarship to pay for school and go into the Army that I had already planned to join, I was excited and immediately filled out the application.
Interestingly enough, the Major who was talking that day at my high school turned out to be the Uncle of Jennifer, the girl I was to later meet and marry.
3 – Tell us about your early years when you were commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and some highlights about your rapid rise in rank to an exciting and dangerous military career?
I was always fortunate to have superb soldiers that were simply men of outstanding honor and courage. When friends ask me if I miss the military my reply is, “I miss the great friends and teammates, not the bureaucracy”. I was blessed with men that always went above and beyond no matter how hard or dangerous the mission.
I also had outstanding leadership, Garrison, Boykin, Fry, Redman, Schoomaker, Franks; just to name a few. My leadership was comprised of professionals who always set the example and enforced the highest standards. Leading by example is the best form of leadership. You don’t always have to be the best at anything you or your men are attempting, but don’t be last!
4 - What were some of the most difficult obstacles in realizing your military career path, or were you just subject to the orders of your superiors with no input into choosing your direction?
I never had much of a problem with my “Military Career Path”, I did what I thought was right, often against the direct guidance from the machine in the Pentagon. I was once told that if I accepted another Airborne or SF assignment I would not even make the rank of Major. I chose the SF path before it was “cool”; what a great learning experience for a young officer, with all those superb NCO’s and Officers. There is no substitute for experience and getting that first hand from so many professional soldiers was a daily learning adventure.
Along the way I racked up several decades on Airborne status, became a military diver, learned to HALO (skydiving with large military packs and gear). Winter warfare operations found us skiing through majestic mountains with rucksacks and weapons at the ready. We trained in locations around the world to be ready for any situation that might threaten our great Nation.
5 – During the 1985 invasion by the United States into Panama against Noriega’s forces you were involved in a very strategic U.S. citizen hostage rescue mission. Tell us some of the details and describe why it was necessary for you as the only officer to enter the Medello Prison where the hostage was being held?
My troop’s mission was to enter the Modello Prison and rescue an American citizen being illegally being held there by Noriaga, where else would the commander be than with his men?
6 – Then in 1992, you commanded a squadron deployed in Columbia responsible for capturing the Drug Lord Pablo Escobar, in support of the Columbia Government. Why was the U.S. military engaged and did we have any help from other governments during the operation?
I was sent to Columbia to help their government forces deal with the drug Lord Pablo Escobar. We provided training and advice that resulted in the capture mission that resulted in Escobar’s death.
7 – Tell us about your involvement in Mogadishu, Somalia, regarding the operation that was later featured in the movie, Blackhawk Down?
I was the ground force commander for the mission to capture Mohamed Fara Aideed. We were sent there to help the poor people of Mogadishu throw off the yoke of a very cruel, oppressive leader
8 – Was the Blackhawk Down movie an accurate depiction of the real occurrence?
NO! if you are looking for accuracy, Hollywood is probably not a great place to look. In all fairness, they are in the business to sell movies, not necessarily to tell the most accurate version of the story. I did not like the fact that the movie put families that had lost loved ones through the nightmare all over again.
In addition, the movie portrayed a group of highly trained professional soldiers as a bunch of individuals instead of the team that they were. Nothing could be further from the truth.
9 – Describe for our readers some of the more vivid memories during the direct assault during the Somalia encounter?
Hours orbiting over the city constantly under RPG fire, trying to insure that I kept track of every man, and complete the mission. We went in that day for four of Aideeds top officers and came out with twenty some of them. They were captured as prisoners and returned to our base during the battle. The leadership from Gen. Garrison and Col Boykin was simply superb.
I also remember the suffering of the Somalie people and the outrage I felt when I saw our men being drug through the streets. The incredible bravery and raw courage of our fighting men where some one hundred or so Americans took on 10,000 Somali forces and fought them to a standstill in the incredible mess that was the capital of Somalia.
10 – Since the recent Benghazi debacle under the U.S. State Department the public has learned that oftentimes military commanders are forced to stand down on occasion when such inaction may not be in the best interests of those soldiers directly engaged. Were you ever in such a predicament and are you at liberty to share any specifics with us?
I always worked for leaders who were outstanding commanders who did not know the meaning of “stand down” especially when others were in peril. The Obama administration should be held accountable for failing to respond to those on the ground who gave their all for our Nation that night. We had forces that could have responded in time to reduce the number of dead and extract the rest.
11 – How were you injured during that Somalia operation and what was the extent of the damage?
I was struck by a round from a 60mm Mortar that landed about 6 inches from my right foot, immediately killing Matt Rierson, an outstanding team leader who happened to be standing there talking with me and injuring a large number of other men. My femoral artery was severed, right femur fractured and left tib, fib was fractured with lots of holes and fragments throughout my body. I cannot explain why I did not die immediately, right there, but the only thing I know is the Good Lord must have said “not tonight” and spared my life.
In addition, I had some of the finest trained Special Operations Soldiers and Doctors working on me almost immediately. All were working to save my life. I flew across Mogadishu on the first Med Evac bird with Dr. Phil Volpe lying across my body to protect me from the ground fire and manipulating my femoral artery with his hands inside my thigh up to his wrists to prevent me from bleeding out or loosing my leg.
12 – Were you a follower of Jesus Christ during the Somalian engagement when you experienced the near death injuries? Tell us about the recovery and what was going through your thought process from such a close encounter with your Maker?
YES, I was a follower of Jesus Christ. About halfway through the ordeal that night, I realized that one of two things was going to happen to me: 1. I would die and go home to my Heavenly Father, or 2. I would get better and go home to my loving wife and children. When I realized that, I felt the Peace that passeth all understanding (Phil. 4:7). I cannot explain that experience but when I came to that realization, I calmed down and waited to see which way I was going.
I could talk for several hours about the miracles that God worked as He brought me back home to Jennifer and the kids at Ft. Bragg. The outstanding Doctors, the perfect timing, the highly trained nurses and medical personnel who worked on me throughout the entire ordeal, the many family and friends who were praying for me on their knees back home, for Jennifer and the kids and all the other men who were also wounded in that battle.
13 – How did the loss of men under your command impact you personally? Did your friendship with those who made it out develop deeper over the years and how?
Of course any commander who looses men in combat is greatly impacted by the loss. These men weren’t just soldiers who worked for me, they were also close personal friends. That impact cannot be explained. I think there is a very close bond among those men who fought there and survived. Nothing is ever said but you can always tell when two men who were there meet they will shake hands and exchange a big hug. Is that a big deal, no but I think they are always remembering those long hours and those who did not come home.
14 – Were there any memorable times within your tours overseas when you and other servicemen were able to hold regular bible studies and pray intensely for assignments, safety while on missions or otherwise stand together when approaching eminent danger? Please elaborate?
There were always a lot of prayer, there are not many atheists in foxholes. When you live on the edge, you know that the Grace of God is all that gets you through some of the tough calls. I always liked to run the tough missions on Wednesday or Sunday night because I knew that there were more people back home praying for our safety on those nights
15 – What are some of the life issues that military personnel struggle with when deployed abroad and separated from family and loved ones especially for long periods of time?
It is always difficult to be separated from those you love for long periods of time. A strong faith in God helps that time to pass more quickly and the love and prayers of family and strong Christians helps to keep the families going. Having a wonderful wife waiting at home, praying for her husband and his men to come home safely, was always essential to a strong marriage and a happy family. Our Christian family at church and in the unit were also instrumental in supporting family members back home.
16 - We sometime hear of servicemen making foxhole conversions when in direct combat but do you believe that soldiers who experience such encounters become more spiritual or, alternatively, desensitized to the draw of God’s Holy Spirit?
I think they become more spiritual. Combat is difficult at best and God’s Peace is sometimes the only relief.
17 – How can Christian sportsmen and others concerned about the future of the United States military effectively pray for servicemen and their tenure in protecting our citizens from corrupt powers abroad?
Pray for our Nation, our National Leaders, and everyone in our Military, Law Enforcement, and all first responders on a daily basis. Those that are in the forefront of protecting our Great Nation.
18 – Leave our readers with any favorite quote or scripture verse that has inspired you and your long term commitment to our U.S. military?
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” Then I said , “Here I am! Send me.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
The Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
His understanding is unsearchable,
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength;
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
But they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles;
They shall run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint
Thank you General Harrell for investing time with us to answer some deep and even personal questions into your life and times within the military and certainly insights as an accomplished military leader and great hero in the Christian faith. You are one of God’s great Trophies of Faith!
Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell is scheduled during the annual NSSF Shot Show to serve as the CSF Master Sportsman keynote for the 2017 Las Vegas Sportsmen’s Prayer Breakfast to be held on January 16th at the Gilley’s Restaurant on Las Vegas Boulevard on the Strip. Reserve your table today while tickets remain available at www.christiansportsman.com .