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Black Hawk copter pilot details lessons learned in Somalia, tells vets to never give up

By KBell
Nov. 17, 2011 at 5:17 a.m.

Michael Durant is the Lyceum Lecture speaker at VISD Fine Arts Center on Thursday.  Durant was a pilot of a black hawk helicopter in Somalia and was captured for 11 days. His story is what the movie "Black Hawk Down" is created from.

If he had it to do over again, he would.

A broken femur, crushed vertebrae, shattered cheek, 11 days captive - and that's just what Army veteran Michael Durant could fit into an hour-long talk at Victoria College's Lyceum Lecture Thursday night.

"My opinion is, we've learned from this. It's a tough price to pay, but if that's what it took to set us up for success in Iraq and Afghanistan, then sign me up," Durant said at the end of his presentation about his experiences in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Durant was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot sent in to the African nation that had been at civil war for 10 years. A U.N. relief operation to bring food to the nation's people had just been upgraded to a manhunt for the Somali leaders who were hindering peace.

Durant detailed the lessons learned from what would turn out to be the inspiration behind the movie, "Black Hawk Down." The movie chronicles the crash of two Black Hawks shot by Somalian rocket-propelled grenades.

Years of hindsight later reveal what went wrong in the Somali mission that killed 18 Americans. For one, the military was sent on a low-probability mission, Durant said, unlike the one that killed Osama Bin Laden in May.

After months of the government stalling the Army Ranger's mission, the United States had lost its element of surprise. They were only 1,500 troops trying to disarm a city of 800,000 people and trying to capture fighters who had already moved underground.

Plus, Washington denied the soldiers in Somalia access to an armored tank, fearing it would send the signal that the mission in Somalia was slipping away.

"We were denied for political reasons, and that's what should get your blood boiling," Durant said. "We don't have the things we need, but we have a mission to do, so we go anyway."

During Durant's fifth flight into the city, the tail of his helicopter was struck with a grenade, spinning him into the crossfire on the ground.

The fall broke his femur, so Durant fought from the cockpit, eventually supported by two Delta snipers.

Within 15 minutes, Durant was the only U.S. survivor, and he was taken into captivity.

There he was beaten, his cheek bone, nose and eye socket broken.

He relied on his survival training and took tactical notes in a Bible, hoping they'd be of use when he was released.

"A little peek into where I was mentally - the biggest challenge is to try to stay positive and live through it. My day one was exactly the same as everyone else's day one. I didn't know how long I was going to be there," Durant said.

Despite his injuries, his positivity and training kept him alive until he was released to the Red Cross 11 days later.

Martin Garcia said Durant's personal story probably resonated with the many veterans in the audience.

"It motivates veterans. We know exactly where he's coming from," Garcia, 65, said.

Garcia is a Marine veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. Though he tells different stories, Durant's message of never giving up is one that he can identify with, Garcia said.

"We have something in common. We stick together," he said.

Durant's story wasn't over when he came home. He was told he'd never fly again, so Durant made it his goal to run a marathon six months after his leg healed.

He finished the race, and the Army signed a waiver to let him back into a Black Hawk.

"Five more years, I retired on my own terms, not when somebody else told me I could do it," Durant said. "And that's what you have to do to succeed."



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