Call of Duty

For West Point’s Randy Jones, “Black Hawk Down” was more than a Hollywood blockbuster

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Tens of thousands read the serial account of the 1993 “Battle of Mogadishu” by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mark Bowden.

Hundreds of thousands read Bowden’s 1999 book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, a chronicle of the raid on a rebel stronghold in Somalia, which claimed 18 American fatalities and 74 wounded. Millions watched the 2001 Academy Award-winning Ridley Scott-directed movie based on the book.

But relatively few lived to actually witness the events of Oct. 23, 1993. And fewer still were start-to-finish witnesses of the grim conflict between fewer than 200 U.S. military personnel and roughly 10,000 armed Somali rebels.

Randy Jones is one of those few.

On a warm spring afternoon, Jones apologizes for the state of his West Point home.

“You caught me in the middle of spring cleaning,” he says. “Next time you come back the porch will be cleaned and the grass will be cut.”

It has been almost a quarter of a century since that dramatic firefight staged more than 8,000 miles from the 1880s home Jones now occupies.

Jones has moved on. Since retiring from the army with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer in 1998, he has pursued a second career as West Point’s city administrator.

While his home is decorated with mementos of his Army career — “29 years, 8 months,” he notes — details of his decorations don’t come with the tour. They have to be extracted.

An hour into the conversation Jones mentions off-handedly that he managed to acquire a few commendations during his long Army career — a Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart.

On the afternoon of Oct. 23, when the mission was to seize a handful of key rebel leaders at a U.N. compound in Mogidishu, there were few better choices to lead the raid than Jones, who had been named the Army Aviator of the Year a year earlier, an honor rarely accorded to helicopter pilots.

All these years later, he recalls with clarity the events of that day, now recorded on page and film.

“We got the word of the mission at 2 p.m., and I was going to be the flight leader,” he remembers. “We were in the air by 3. I had eight Black Hawks and four light assault helicopters (AH-6s, also known as Little Birds). I was in the first AH-6 and everybody else followed me in.”

Jones was the first to arrive at the scene. His mission was to hit the landing area first, take out any enemy guns, then establish a perimeter as the mission continued.

“It was quiet when we got there,” Jones says. “We didn’t see anything, didn’t take any fire.”

That changed. For the next 17 hours, as Jones maintained his perimeter — flying back and forth to reload and refuel, he was witness to the tragic events that unfolded. Two Black Hawks were shot down during the siege and the following rescue operations.

It was, he said, the worst firefight in his combat career, which began in Vietnam at the age of 21.

By the time of the Mogadishu mission, he was 44, a seasoned veteran.

“You know, it’s kind of a funny thing,” says Jones, now 67. “When you’re in a firefight, you’re not really aware of all that’s going on. It’s hard to explain. You are so focused on what you’re doing — your mission. You hear the fire and see the flash of the guns, but somehow that’s not what you’re thinking about. You don’t think about that stuff until it’s over.”

Five years later, in 1998, Jones retired, returning to his native West Point and beginning a second career as city administrator.

When the movie, “Black Hawk Down,” hit the theaters 15 years ago, a few folks who knew Jones’ connection to the event asked him about what happened.

“There were some people who knew I was there,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But I didn’t make a big deal about it.”

He was, after all, a soldier doing a soldier’s work.