In the Lower Shabelle Hoose region of Somalia, outside a small village somewhere between the cities of Qoryoley and Barawa, on February 16 of 1993, I would experience what I now refer to as the ‘The Gift’. As I describe the events of that evening, I am sure you might misconstrue the meaning of this gift. Who the recipient of the gift is. Who the giver is. Maybe you’re more perceptive, and the meaning of the gift is transparent to you. In telling this story, it is my sincere hope that people will get a better understanding of the monumental decisions soldiers are faced with on a daily basis in combat. I want people to see the true nature of the American soldier and that we are unique from most every other military in the world in that we are taught to think for ourselves. We are also taught to do what is right, above all else.
For well over two months now, we have been executing mission after mission, mostly at night. Sleep is something we did in another life it seems. We’ve had our first real taste of combat in the Mogadishu suburb of Afgooye and several surrounding areas. By now, we can easily recognize the distinctive crack made when a weapon is fired directly at us, rather than just near us. It is around this time that our battalion is rumored to have the highest body count in Somalia among the entire Task Force. Many of us eat mostly ramen, crackers, Vienna sausages, Pop Tarts and anything else we can get from home. We’ve only recently been given access to showers. We are on a rotation of doing five to six days of non-stop missions, and one or two days of down time.
By now I have seen people shoot at everything from camels to donkeys and wild boars. I’ve been caught in the crossfire of Somalis, as well as my own friends, and I was nearly wiped out of existence by a Marine Cobra attack helicopter. We have captured countless ‘bandits’ and ‘technicals’, the latter belonging to one of the many factions fighting for control of this godforsaken country. Even the bandits have allegiances, so that distinction is always blurred. We’ve also confiscated an unimaginable amount of weapons caches of every type, even American made weapons. It is a reminder that the U.S. had once sent weapons here around the time the Soviet Union fell, hoping to court this strategically placed country as an ally.
As daylight began to disappear and the afternoon turned to dusk, Corey, Spaceboy and Eddy and I went to the range and sighted in our PVS-4 night vision scopes. Performing routine tasks like this are key in a combat environment. My scope was sighted in perfectly. It was dead center, about an inch below bull’s-eye at 25 meters. The same way I sighted my 270 deer rifle growing up back in North Carolina. The PVS-4 of the early and mid-90’s wasn’t the best scope at long range at a point target. But, within 200-300 meters it was a pretty good scope, and mine was ready for business. Captain Hamill even took a minute to admire the precision I had achieved, which, as I would find out later, likely put me in one of the most difficult, intense situations I’ve ever been in…in my entire life.
The mission seemed fairly simple. Set up an over watch position on the edge of a small town to observe possible technical activity, and engage any hostiles. We were technically going to set up an ambush to get some of the roving gangs in the area. The objective wasn’t very far from our new base in Merca, so we weren’t going in by air. We were to go by vehicle and then infiltrate on foot to our objective. As best I can recall, it took about an hour and a half to get to our line of departure, where we would begin our infiltration. The area was fairly dense with hills in comparison to most of the country, surrounded by barren desert at its outermost boundary, and dense shrubs and vegetation, which mostly consisted of thorn bushes that could penetrate our protective gear. We had previously performed several night missions in the area, including ambushes and reconnaissance.
As the sun disappeared completely, we could enjoy the cooler temperatures and relax a little as we traveled the winding, rolling hills. In the faint remnants of light we could take in some sights on the way. Herds of tiny antelopes, called dik-diks run wildly through the bush, and wild boars, too. Baboons and the occasional giraffe remind me just how far from home I really am. I almost feel like we are explorers on a safari. However, once it was completely dark and we had reached our dismount point and set out to infiltrate on foot, it seemed things were going wrong almost immediately.
After dismounting our vehicles we began crossing the road in pairs to move into our position, when suddenly, a large truck appeared out of nowhere. We tried in vain to coordinate with several of the scouts with and near us to set up an impromptu ambush. This was the exact type of truck that would likely be carrying the very people we were sent to get. But the truck seemed to be on us far faster than we could get adjusted. I ended up trapped on the very side of the road the truck was travelling on, along with about half of our sixteen-man platoon.
Of course my AG (Assistant Gunner) Spaceboy needed a little coaching almost immediately, as the truck rolled near and suddenly stopped. The truck is cutting the platoon nearly in half, each on opposite sides of the road. The truck is completely obscuring our view of each other.
“Shut the fuck up, Spaceboy. And don’t move.” I told Spaceboy.
This sentiment was whispered several times amongst us
. “What the fuck are we going to do?” someone whispered.
The platoon sergeant, SSG Ferriero replied “Nothing. Just sit still and shut the fuck up!”
I could hear people dismounting the vehicle. My pulse quickened. My adrenaline was enough to single-handedly crush that truck. I could hear the footsteps on the side of the road, only a few feet away, just above me. I had no idea if they could see me or any of the rest of us. For all I knew someone was aiming at the back of my head. I was stuck facedown and if I moved at this point, I would most certainly be seen. It was completely dark. All I could do was hope that the rest of the platoon on the other side of the road was ready to deal some serious violence on these guys if we got compromised. I was also hoping that everyone else stuck with me, or at least one of them, weren’t stuck in the same stupid ass position I was in…face down. I couldn’t see anything. I just prayed one of us could see what was happening. I was lying completely still, barely breathing. It was nerve racking to say the least.
After what seems like an eternity (but was all of about five minutes) we could hear people piling back into the truck. Then, as quickly as it had stopped, the truck was gone. Breathing again, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
“Were they armed?” someone asked?
“Probably, but I couldn’t tell for sure” someone answered.
It wouldn’t have been smart to engage them in the compromising position they had us in, that’s for sure. Without being able to see each other from opposite sides of the road, we would have most likely have had some friendly casualties in the crossfire.
As the vehicle pulled away, SGT Wasik and SGT Szulwach ran down either side of the road and shadowed the truck, trying to determine if the occupants were armed. Wasik would later report learning a valuable lesson as he tried frantically to get his NOD’s (Night Vision Goggles) on as he ran alongside the truck, a lesson involving preparation. It had been light out when we left and he assumed we’d have a few minutes to prepare ourselves. Enter Murphy. He wouldn’t make this mistake again and says it bothers him to this very day.
With our platoon reunited, we could continue to our objective, which was only another few hundred meters away. Though we were technically conducting an ambush, it was a slightly modified version being that we were in a country where not everyone was an enemy. We moved quickly, silently through the thick Somali brush, keeping the road in sight. Once we arrived at our position I was assigned a sector that pointed down a slight hill, directly into the town. I could see everything perfectly. In a country where daytime temperatures regularly exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it was very common to see a lot of activity at night. This town was no exception. There is a market of sorts, right near a crossroad and down the hill approximately 150-200 meters from me. There is one building that was lit, and there are probably 50 to 75 people, maybe more, gathered in the immediate vicinity. At this range and in this position, I can easily suppress or destroy anything I need to. I replaced my 30 round teaser belt with a full 100 round belt of 7.62mm, and began observing. I had some sense of intense seriousness, responsibility…or maybe importance is the word I’m looking for. Perfectly concealed and armed with the deadliest weapon a light infantryman can carry, I felt my senses sharpen as this feeling grew over me. This mission was supposed to be a sure thing as far as contact. Part of me almost wished something would inflate the situation. No, not almost, I definitely needed things to kick up. I wanted something to happen. I needed somewhere to direct this intense feeling and the massive amounts of adrenaline that I suddenly felt pumping through my veins. I felt my senses sharpen; I could smell the various scents of Somali life I’ve become accustomed to, coming from the market. Shit being one of those smells, along with a sort of burnt charcoal mixed with incents …like everywhere else in this fucked country. People moved freely through the market, likely high on their narcotic of choice, Khat. It seemed as if every male over the age of about 12 was chewing and getting high on that stuff all day long. Especially the “bad guys”. It gave them a feeling similar to that of cocaine, making them feel invincible. This explains why many of those who attack us foolishly often have less than 10 to 20 rounds of ammunition. I was carrying up to 100 times that much ammunition. After a short time, I was definitely ready for something to happen. And it did.
I heard radio silence break, and SFC Jones acknowledging over the radio and then telling me:
“Slane, we’ve got a guy down in the Market who’s got a weapon! The OIC (Officer in Charge – name redacted) wants you to take him out!”
“Roger.” I reply, as I peered through my scope and scanned the market.
“OIC says he’s right in the middle” SFC Jones relayed.
“You got him, Slane?” SGT Wasik asked me.
“Roger.” I replied, still scanning the market intently. Then I thought I spotted him, so I described him as best I could and his location to SFC Jones, who confirmed with the OIC.
“OIC says roger, that’s him. He wants you to take the shot!” SFC Jones said quietly but sternly, and a little excitedly. Which is understandable when you’re about to light up a village market.
“Roger” I replied again.
However, as I was studying my target and about to pull the trigger, I noticed something I hadn’t seen. At first, it did appear he was armed. But now, I am not so sure. He wasn’t handling whatever he was holding like someone would handle a rifle. Not that it mattered, Somalis rarely did anything right with firearms, including carry them correctly, so maybe it is a weapon. I looked more intently, but then was 99% sure it wasn’t a weapon.
“OIC wants to know what the holdup is.” SFC Jones asked.
“I am not so sure that’s a weapon.” I replied.
“OIC says it’s a weapon and he wants you to take the mother fucker out!” SFC Jones relayed, getting more excited as the voice on the other end of the radio became more animated.
“What do you see, Slane?” SGT Wasik asked as he peered through his night vision.
“Sergeant, I don’t see a fucking weapon anywhere down there. Definitely not on that guy.” I replied.
“OIC says take the shot, Slane!” SFC Jones said.
Several more exchanges of “take the fucking shot” and my reply of “fuck that” occurred.
Believing I would be left with no choice but to pull the trigger, I paused. The voice on the other end of the radio was impatient and seemingly angry. I was wondering how I could make this shot and only hit the guy in question while he stood in a crowd. After remembering how I sighted in my scope just hours earlier, I opened the feed-tray of the M60 and removed the belt. I then broke off one single round, seated it, and then closed the feed-tray.
“What are you doing?” SSG Ferreiro asked quietly.
“This is a fucking machine gun, not a sniper rifle. That guy is surrounded by tons of people. If I shoot with the belt I will kill him, and everyone anywhere near him. This gun has a nice long barrel and shoots a 7.62. It will function perfectly as a sniper rifle like this and ensure that I only kill him, not everyone else.” I explained.
“I think that should work. Good thinking.” Wasik replied.
No one said anything else for the moment. I went back to studying my target while the OIC grew more agitated. Now I am 100% sure this isn’t a weapon.
“OIC says shoot the mother fucker!” SFC Jones relays.
“NEGATIVE. HE’S NOT FUCKING ARMED.” I replied, adding, “IT LOOKS LIKE A FUCKING STICK!”
“Hey, Slane says there’s no weapon, there’s no weapon. I don’t see a weapon either.” SGT Wasik said in my defense.
“This is fucking retarded!” I said.
At this point, I could hear the OIC screaming into the radio. I felt like the entire planet was crushing me into the dirt…but I repeatedly I continued to refuse the order. The ordeal carried on for another ten to fifteen minutes while not ONE single person in my platoon uttered a single word. Not one. At this point, SFC Jones was ignoring the OIC, laughing nervously, clearly frustrated.
”SHOOT THAT MOTHER FUCKER GODDAMN IT!” the radio echoed.
“Fuck that. He’s not armed. I’m not taking the fucking shot.” I said.
“What the fuck? He said the mother fucker isn’t armed, Sergeant.” SSG Ferriero exclaimed.
“Hey, SGT Jones, the guy isn’t armed and Slane isn’t taking the shot” Wasik said almost at the same time as Ferriero and I.
“NEGATIVE. FUCK THAT. HE ISN’T TAKING THE SHOT. HE SAYS HE’S NOT ARMED, OVER!” SFC Jones replied into the radio.
Now I’m (thankfully not alone) cussing at an officer while refusing his direct order. In combat. I haven’t even been out of basic training for one year yet. Who the fuck am I? I was sure the OIC was asking himself the same of me at this point. I studied the target one last time. Nothing. There wasn’t a single weapon in sight anywhere in the market, especially not on this guy. Everyone is cussing, everyone is heated and pissed off.
By this point it could have been construed that I was violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for failing to obey a direct lawful order. And also Article 90 of the UCMJ for failing to obey the direct lawful order given by a superior officer in my chain of command, an order appearing lawful on its face (to almost everyone except me), while in combat, which is punishable by death. Not that I really knew either article very well at the time, but I was almost certain I was in trouble. I was sure he was unarmed, therefore any order to kill him would be illegal, and I stood my ground.
I raised the feed-tray again and slide back from my weapon a little. I was expecting something to happen at this point. I was wondering what was going through the minds of everyone with me. Did they doubt me or my judgment? My mouth was so dry I felt like I was eating sand; I doubted any amount of water could quench my thirst at this point. I almost started to question myself. But, I was sure. I knew I was right. He didn’t have a weapon.
“Fuck it.” I said as I made it abundantly clear I wasn’t taking the shot.
“You did the right thing, Slane” Wasik assured me while Ferriero echoed the same sentiments.
You hear wild stories like this where people get killed in combat for refusing orders. Was someone going to put a bullet in the back of my head? I did honestly wonder. Then, I realized that not one person had said anything to contradict or challenge me. Still…. nothing.
I looked over at Mangold, who had relayed some of the shouting match between the OIC and I at first, before SFC Jones just took the radio from him. He had that “Fuck yeah!” smirk on his face. I could tell Mangold believed in me. He knew if that guy had been armed, he’d already be dead. It was reassurance that I really needed at that point. I shook my head and tried to smile. Under my breath, I tried to explain myself.
“It’s an illegal fucking order. I have the right to refuse an illegal order. I’m not about to shoot some unarmed mother fucker. Fuck that.” I said, talking into the air.
I didn’t have to explain myself. And I was being a little dramatic it seems, though quietly. But I would come to realize, that no one else there wanted to be in my position. I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone. And if I do have to eventually, it wouldn’t be to these guys. They had my back, and I had theirs.
“OIC says he’s sending a squad in to take the guy down.” SFC Jones relays.
Several more minutes pass and radio silence is once again broken.
“Roger!” SFC Jones says, and then tells us “Officer in charge said it was a cane! The guy didn’t have a weapon. He had a fucking cane! Good call, Slane!”
The whole situation had played out for 30 minutes. Though it seemed an eternity.
I don’t know if I’ve adequately conveyed the immense pressure I had felt to this point, or the atmosphere. But if I could have, I would have laid there and laughed or cried for a few minutes. Maybe both. I had so much fucking adrenaline going through me, I had to do something. I’m pretty sure a tear of relief fell from my eye, unnoticed by anyone but me. It wasn’t because I didn’t know I was right. It’s because until this point God and I were the ONLY ones who knew that I was right. And now, finally, everyone else knew I was right too. Maybe a few in my platoon doubted me, but I will never know. If they did, they were at least respectful enough to not say anything out loud. However, I honestly don’t think any of them doubted me. This highlighted to me the immense amount of trust and respect we had built together as a group. I felt safe in this moment, in a way I cannot describe. That respect and trust endures to this day.
Twenty-one years later, a one-time platoon leader of mine would come to tell me that he used this story as an example of moral courage and ethics in war. He said he had always hoped my actions were the norm in combat zones, but that he found out that wasn’t always the case. As I read his email to me, I was amazed at what I was reading, almost dumbfounded by the magnitude of what he had told me. I replied that I wished I had been with him later in his military career, but after thinking about, it appeared that I actually had been in a sense. I realized the truth in what I had replied, because I too have carried with me all of these people through all of these years. I think of them like brothers, and I recall their stories, their deeds often. I realized how much we each impacted each other in the military, and as it is now apparent, generations of soldiers to follow. The military is like a family. No, it IS a family. A family with an ongoing lineage of honor and courage. It is full of parents and siblings, teaching each other, learning from each other, taking care of each other. Each lesson is passed down to the next generation and one man’s actions can shape soldiers he will never even meet or know. I don’t know exactly who Lt. Kreyling may have passed this story on to, or to how many, but I hope it served a good purpose for whoever heard it, because it obviously impacted him enough to repeat it and then tell me after all of these years.
Have you decided what exactly the gift is? Who its recipient is? It is clearly a gift to the man that I didn’t kill that night and to the people that might have died with him. His life almost ended abruptly and violently. His life could have potentially ended with several other lives in one violent act at the hands of someone ‘just following orders’. However, the gift is actually mine. The gift is my own soul. If I ever need reminding that I was born with a purpose in this life, all I need to do is remember this night; a night when we saved at least one innocent life, without that person ever knowing how close they came to dying.
As the Somali sun rose the next morning, I could feel its warmth bringing me back to life. While we were loading back into Humvees to go back to the base in Merca, this incident had become all the talk. The entire battalion got to hear about it-because Mangold had dropped his hand mic in the back of the Humvee as people were talking about how dumb it was of the OIC had been to insist on my killing this guy. They called him a dumbass for not just taking my word that he wasn’t armed. They praised me for having the balls to not pull the trigger. A few minutes into the celebratory talk, Captain Hamill strolled over to the Humvee and asked that Mangold remove his foot from the hand mic so he could stop broadcasting the fact that the OIC was a dumbass to the entire battalion. This moment, for an instant, became the second most intense moment of my life. But, Captain Hamill just walked away seemingly not to care. Someone had made a mistake, and I nearly compounded that mistake.
I hear people brag about killing people in combat. I usually wonder if they’re just full of shit and never killed anyone at all, or if they’re really that stupid. But, pardon me while I tell you about a couple of us getting a medal for NOT killing someone….and while repeatedly refusing orders to the contrary. I think it takes infinitely larger balls. And I think I can say that situations like this are more the norm on the part of the American Soldier than the media ever hears about or reports.
Two days after this mission, our battalion scouts killed two Somali militants in the same area. Both were armed.
Copyright© 1993-2016 by Bravo Charles/Steve Slane