LEVITTOWN, Pa. — Phil Lepre of Lower Southampton came to terms with death 20 years ago Thursday.
By DANNY ADLER
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Oct. 3, 1993. Mogadishu, Somalia. Lepre, a 24-year-old demolition specialist in the U.S. Army, was moments away from bloodshed and death.
Bullets ricocheted off his tank and explosions rocked in the background as he and others moved into downtown Mogadishu to rescue Rangers pinned in the city after a routine mission turned messy when Somalis shot down two Black Hawk helicopters.
Lepre took off his helmet and pulled out a photo he kept there of his 1½-year-old daughter Brittany. He said a prayer and kissed the photograph.
"I hope you have a wonderful life," he said, staring at the image of Brittany from the other side of the world, fully expecting never to see her again.
"I said my prayer and kissed my daughter goodbye," Lepre, now a 44-year-old man with a football player's build, said in an interview days before the 20th anniversary of the mission. "At that point, I didn't think I was making it home that night. I had myself in a different state of mind. I was going to die that night."
BLACK HAWK DOWN
The story of what went wrong in Somalia is well documented in journalist Mark Bowden's popular book "Black Hawk Down," which was adapted into a film of the same name directed by Ridley Scott.
The United States intervened in Somalia in 1992 to stop famine and starvation in the midst of an ongoing civil war in the East African country, according to military historians.
In 1991, "a resurgence of clan violence led to the virtual destruction of any central government and to economic chaos," according to a report titled "The United States Army in Somalia, 1992-1994." It was prepared in the U.S. Army Center of Military History by Richard W. Stewart.
"As Somalia lapsed into sectarian and ethnic warfare, regional warlords drew upon clan loyalty to establish independent power bases," according to the report. The result was a struggle over food supplies.
On Oct. 3, 1993, Army Rangers were dispatched in Black Hawk helicopters to downtown Mogadishu to abduct key lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
Everything changed when the Somalis shot down two of the aircraft that were providing cover for the assault force. The surviving Rangers were forced to fight it out with waves of insurgents trying to get at them before rescue teams arrived to save them.
"WHAT AM I GETTING INTO?"
Lepre, a 1987 Neshaminy High School graduate, joined the Army to get money for college. On his first tour in Somalia, he assisted in the humanitarian effort by delivering food. In his second trip there, he was heading into a firefight.
"What am I getting into?" he asked himself on receiving his orders.
Pakistani tanks transported him and his comrades into the heart of Mogadishu.
"We were dropped into a hornet's nest," Lepre recalled earlier this week. Once they were out of the tank, he and his comrades scattered for cover to avoid the bullets flying past them. "It was like we were in a gauntlet."
At some point, Lepre asked a fellow soldier to trade posts so he could get a better shooting position. Seconds later, that man was shot in the head and killed.
"I felt bad," he recalls. "Here I am telling this guy to take my position and he gets hit in the head."
Medics tried to help the soldier by dragging him to a more secure location. As they did, the man's pants accidentally came down. Lepre tried to sneak out into the open to place something over him. Bullets whizzed by him, forcing Lepre back. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said to his fallen comrade. "I kept apologizing to him," Lepre recalled.
In the gunfight, Lepre fired as many as 600 rounds of ammunition to finally reach one of the helicopters.
"We went in and rescued the Rangers," Lepre said. A demolition specialist, he blew up sensitive items inside the chopper so enemies couldn't get their hands on them.
"MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER"
Thursday is the 20th anniversary of the heroic battle.
"Wow," Lepre said. "To me, it seemed like it just happened yesterday. Not a day goes by that I don't think of what I went through there."
The battle in Mogadishu turned out to be the lengthiest firefight for American troops since the Vietnam War. It left 18 Americans dead and 73 injured, as well as hundreds of Somalis dead.
Lepre, a Bucks County native, was one of the lucky ones. In his Army eight-person squad, he was one of two people not to be wounded in the battle.
"That 48 hours changed my life," said Lepre, who lives at home in Feasterville with his family. "It's Before Somalia and After Somalia. I appreciate every day I wake up."
Lepre finished his second Somalia tour in December 1993. He left the military the next year and enrolled at Bucks County Community College to study business.
In 2007, he opened his own logistics company called All Staffing Warehousing in Bensalem.
One of his employees is his daughter. Brittany, the little birthday girl surrounded by colorful balloons in the photograph that Lepre kissed before the Battle of Mogadishu, is now 21.
"I was very young when I heard the story," Brittany said. "I always tear up when he talks about it, or when I talk about it."
She said she doesn't watch the movie "Black Hawk Down." It's difficult to see and hear what her dad went through.
"I'm very grateful my soldier came home," she said.
Lepre said he will take it easy on Thursday.
"Thursday will be a calm day for me," he said. "I won't schedule anything. I'll sit back, reflect on the last 20 years of my life. Appreciate waking up and having what I have."