Poncho is my brother and he is my hero. That is the first description I always give when telling people about him. I know his squad mates call him the same, and always will. Hailing from Texas, Poncho and I first met as members of the same platoon in Basic Training. The first thing that stuck out about him to me was that he was the epitome of coolness under fire, something that was apparent just by the way he handled himself in front of our screaming drill sergeants.
Once we arrived at our permanent duty station, our cohort was divided amongst the companies in the battalion. To my dismay, Poncho and several others from our Basic Training Platoon went to Charlie & Bravo (no relation) Company. With the constant training and deployments, we rarely had opportunity to see each other prior to Somalia. During our first year, many of us had our first exposure to Northern Warfare Training, did rotations at NTC (National Training Center in Death Valley), participated in the Hurricane Andrew Relief, and did MOUT training at Ft. Bragg, NC. My company’s deployment to Somalia was executed as a Quick Reaction Deployment; we were literally locked down and gone within a day.
Poncho’s story and that of his platoon is without question one of my biggest motivations behind writing this book. As a member of an M-60 machinegun team in Somalia, Poncho was “Behind the Gun”, along with his gunner “Arch”. And when it comes to the “who’s who” of M-60 teams, as cocky as I was (and am), here I yield. This team was the best of the best. Recognizing the greatness in others where appropriate always trumps self .
After years of watching our Battalion being ignored by history, I finally started to write our story. Poncho was among the first five people I was able to track down, and I couldn’t have been happier to have found him after all these years of searching. It was in the announcements section of a Texas Veteran’s flyer that I found a reference to him. I promptly emailed them giving them my contact info and asking them to pass it along to him. Within a few days, he emailed and we’ve talked regularly ever since. He’s read along as I’ve written the book, sharing this journey and its joys as well as hardships every step of the way.
Now that we’ve established why I call him brother, let’s look at what makes him a hero. On September 25th, 1993, a Black Hawk helicopter was downed in Mogadishu at approximately 0200 hrs (2 AM). I refer to this as the “Original Black Hawk Down”, a story next to no one on earth knows about.
Poncho and his squad were part of the QRF that responded to rescue the downed pilots, and ultimately recover the bodies of the deceased crew members. The resulting rescue and recovery mission ultimately turned into a 5 hour firefight that left two members of the squad, including Poncho, and a third soldier in the QRF, wounded. Poncho was wounded while going to the aid of his gunner, Arch. That detail in itself makes his sacrifice that much more heroic. Poncho’s wound was so severe, it’s truly a miracle he survived. Its also a testament to his squad members such as Long, who disregarded his own safety to get the medic, and the first man to provide aid to Poncho, his Squad Leader, Rossman. His gunner Arch was wounded just minutes later.
Poncho was taken first to Germany, then stateside, and finally accompanied back to his hometown in Texas by our Battalion Commander, LTC Sullivan, who then spent a week at Poncho’s bedside. I believe that fact speaks volumes about the true dedication of a senior leader towards one of his soldiers who paid an extremely high price for us all.
For Poncho, the real war began the instant he was hit. The tenuous path and his amazing perseverance on that path are yet another reason he is my hero. Learning to live and ultimately enjoy life as a quadriplegic, he serves as an inspiration and a reality check to me every time I find myself whining about my own ailments. He is, without question, the strongest man I know. His outlook on life is awe inspiring. If you feel sorry for yourself to the point of being pathetic in his presence, he will be the first to slap you with reality.
Poncho’s story also serves as another reminder when it comes to recognizing Somalia and it’s warriors. Often times while at the VA for routine care, his caretakers will ask where he was wounded. When he replies “Somalia”, they basically shrug their shoulders, having no idea at all about the conflict. Another interesting fact is that he wasn’t officially awarded his Combat Infantryman’s Badge nor his Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal until twenty years after he had given America his all in Mogadishu. When I asked him if he also got his unit award, he didn’t even know he had one.
After reconnecting with Poncho and before I had written more than a chapter or two, the scope of my book took on different meaning and scope. I couldn’t possibly tell the world about my company, without telling the world about the rest of my Battalion and men like Poncho and the rest of his squad and company. After September 25th, they went on to fight in the Battle of Mogadishu. Their part in the rescue of TF Ranger is covered in “Behind the Gun” in a chapter called “Honoring the Creed”; I want the world to know about all the other warriors that Hollywood chose to cut out, as well as what was going on in Somalia from day one.
Nowadays, I often joke with Poncho about how much better shape he is in compared to myself, though I really am not joking. He’s been cycling a lot for exercise and enjoys fishing, shooting & hunting, as well as just being outdoors in the mountains as much as possible.
There is no finer hero amongst us, not in any sense of the word. Valor and sacrifice, that’s what defines Poncho; a testament to the epitome of a soldier.
Copyright© Bravo Charles & Behind the Gun 2016