Since surviving Somalia's “Black Hawk Down” carnage in 1993, decorated Army veteran and University of Florida journalism school grad Keni Thomas has had one of those marquee careers that raises logical questions about destiny and fate.
By Billy Cox
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Having recorded with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill and performed original country songs that have scaled the Billboard charts, Thomas is a regular Nashville fixture. You may have caught the occasional foray into Hollywood (cameo singer in “Sweet Home Alabama,” a Reese Witherspoon vehicle) and television (FX's “Louie,” with comedian Louis CK). Or the “National Anthem” MLB warmups, most notably in the 2009 World Series.
But inevitably, all those paths are informed by Thomas' participation in the bloody, 18-hour shootout in Mogadishu that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead, 73 wounded, and uncounted hundreds of Somali casualties. On Nov. 7, the Task Force Ranger veteran and Bronze Star recipient will speak in Sarasota to share some of the leadership lessons he carried away from that violence.
As part of The Patterson Foundation's Legacy of Valor campaign to honor veterans, the Junior League of Sarasota and the Junior League of Manatee County are hosting Thomas at an 11 a.m. luncheon at Dolphin Aviation in Sarasota. Patterson's Legacy project hopes to draw attention to veterans issues and Sarasota National Cemetery, where construction work on Patriot Plaza will turn the memorial into a national showcase.
On Oct. 3, 1993, Thomas was with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment coordinating with Delta Force operatives to capture Somali militia bosses gathering in the nation's capital. The targets had been attacking United Nations peacekeepers and sabotaging humanitarian relief efforts.
The takedown went according to plan, but the operation jumped the rails when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by heavily armed street fighters. The Army's ensuing efforts to rescue the stranded pilots amid swarming gun battles were immortalized in author Mark Bowden's “Black Hawk Down” and Ridley Scott's 2001 film of the same name.
Thomas, who retired with staff sergeant's stripes in 1997, returned to Mogadishu this year with former Army colleague Jeff Struecker to get another look at Bakaara Market, where some of the most horrific action unfolded. For comparison, he asks outsiders to imagine tooling down Bourbon Street in a Humvee during Mardis Gras and getting shot at from every door and window along the way.
“I had forgotten how narrow the streets were, how close all the fighting was,” recalls Thomas, 47, by phone from his home in Nashville. “We were good, but not that good. I could see God's hand in it.”
Mogadishu appears as hopeless and desperate today as it was 20 years ago, but Thomas declines to focus on the politics of the mission. “For me, the place is not important,” he says. “It could be Gettysburg, it could be Normandy, it could the Ia Drang Valley. The stories are always the same whenever you send American men and women into combat.”
And yet, he says he's puzzled by enduring interest in the mission that went haywire.
“I mean, it was only one battle. I can guarantee you, as a kid growing up, nobody talked about Vietnam,” says Thomas, whose father served in Vietnam as a Ranger. “Vietnam was ancient, ancient history. I'd like to think, as Americans, maybe we're more appreciative of things than we were back then.”
After leaving the Army, Thomas rejoined his band, Cornbread, but thought about using his military skills to combat the poaching of African wildlife. “Then I realized there weren't any jobs for anti-poaching teams over there.”
Thomas went on to take a job as a counselor to troubled youth and kept playing music in relative obscurity until the “Black Hawk Down” movie broke. “Then things just started happening. 'Hey, Keni, can you come talk to our school?' or 'Hey, Keni, can you speak to our reserve unit?' ”
Thomas' gifts as a storyteller — whether on the printed pages of his 2011 autobiography “Get It On!,” through his songs, or exuberant public speaking — often focus on leadership. “I guess one of the things Mogadishu taught me was that there's nothing I can't accomplish.”
But Thomas' messages can be most poignant when they focus on the limits of human ability. A ballad called “A Fight I Couldn't Win,” for instance, deals with standing up to a classroom bully, and the futility of trying to save a wounded veteran's life. Another tune deals with leadership by default, “when someone steps forward/when they'd rather say 'not me.' ”
“We forget how important we are, and we tend to sell ourselves short,” he says. “You're an extraordinary individual to the people around you, and it doesn't have to be in combat. You don't have to have a medal pinned on your chest. What we do matters, who we are, the jobs we do, and people need to understand that and live up to it.”
For Thomas, an avowed Christian who frequently tours the USO circuit and makes pitches for veterans charities, nothing gets accomplished in a vacuum. He discovered that when he attempted to adjust to the “new normal” of civilian life after combat.
“Oh, you can try and do it on your own and you can get really far with it,” Thomas says. “But let me tell you something, you can't climb Mount Ranier all by yourself, you can't make it to the top. Not without help. The only thing that worked for me was faith."