Getting Out Alive
IT WAS A MOMENT MICHAEL DURANT thought he would never live to enjoy. Settling into a chair recently at the local hair salon in Clarksville, Tenn., he held his 14-month-old son, Joey, on his lap for the youngster’s first haircut. As the stylist snipped away, Mike slipped Joey M&M’s every time he squirmed, and spoke soothingly to him. “It was one of those father-son things,” says Mike, 32, still savoring the moment.
Even now, Durant, the Army helicopter pilot shot down and held captive for 11 days in Somalia last month, has trouble grasping that he is back home and able to experience such simple pleasures. “There are times when I wonder how in hell I did not get killed,” he says. Everyone who saw the news footage from Mogadishu, including the shocking spectacle of the body of an unidentified American soldier being dragged through the streets, has at one point or another wondered the same.
Durant’s ordeal began the night of Oct. 3, when he was ordered to transport a unit of Army Rangers bent on apprehending lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. Hovering in his Blackhawk helicopter over the skies of Mogadishu, Durant suddenly felt a hit. A rocket-propelled grenade knocked off the tail rotor, and the chopper began a spinning descent. “I couldn’t see anything. It was all a blur,” he says.
The Blackhawk crashed in a heap, and when the dazed Durant regained consciousness, his whole body throbbed in agony—the result of back injuries and a broken bone protruding from his right thigh. For the next 30 minutes or so, he and a handful of fellow air crewmen and Rangers shot it out with Somali gunmen. One by one the Americans were picked off until only Durant, who had run out of ammunition, remained. A grenade landed next to him; he knocked it away with his gun before it exploded. “The most terrifying sound I’ve ever heard was when the firing stopped and the mob started to come near the aircraft,” says Durant. “Everybody’s yelling and screaming, and I knew they were going to be on me any second.” As Durant lay helpless, one man bashed him in the face with a club. Then he was picked up and carried shoulder-high by the howling mob through the streets of Mogadishu to a hideout, where he was held captive. But he was one of the lucky ones. In all, 18 soldiers died during the ill-fated mission.
When Durant first got the call to head overseas, on Aug. 11, his elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment gave him only 15 minutes at home in Clarksville to say goodbye to Lorrie, 27, and Joey, who was to celebrate his first birthday on Aug. 18. “To be honest, I didn’t want to go,” says Durant, a 14-year Army-veteran who saw action in Panama and the Gulf War. He was afraid he might miss Joey’s first steps and first words. “You might not hear from me for a while,” he told Lorrie.
In fact, on the day of the failed mission, Lorrie at first heard only sketchy news reports that two Blackhawk helicopters had crashed in Somalia. She guessed they might be from Mike’s unit, and so she began fighting back the fear common to all military wives—that men in uniform would pull into the driveway, heralding a condolence visit from base officers. “We’re drilled on this,” says Lorrie. “If he’s injured, they call you. If he’s missing or dead, they come to see you.” Her worst fears seemed confirmed when, at 6 a.m. the following morning, a soldier and a chaplain appeared at Lorrie’s front door and told her Mike was missing. In a panic, Lorrie all but lost hope. “I honestly thought it was just a matter of time before they would find his body,” she says. Hours later, though, her heart jumped when a friend called and told her that Mike—battered and bruised but alive—had just appeared on CNN. While she waited anxiously, Lorrie, who didn’t have cable, kept Joey occupied by continuously playing a tape of Beauty and the Beast.
Durant’s captivity proved nearly as terrifying as his capture. Those who had seized him “were all out of control,” he says. “Anything could have happened.” He did receive food and rudimentary medical care, but then at one point a gunman stormed into the room where Durant was being held and fired a shot in his direction. The bullet ricocheted and lodged in his left arm. He removed it by hand. In his sleep he was tormented by nightmares. In one, says Durant, “I dreamed that American troops had accidentally destroyed the house where I was being held.” In another, he says, “I was supposed to be rescued by a helicopter, but I couldn’t find the pickup zone.”
In what warlord Aidid called a gesture of goodwill, Mike was released on Oct. 14. Two days later, after a tearful reunion with Lorrie in Landstuhl, Germany, he flew back home. “The biggest impact,” says Mike, “was seeing Joey.” Between the long absence and all the bandages, it took his son a few days to warm up to him.
Lately, Mike’s nightmares have started to subside, though he still feels a deep sense of loss over those soldiers and the air crew killed in the raid. He has already undergone four operations, and doctors say he should be fully mended in a year. At this point, Mike intends to stay in the Army, a decision Lorrie accepts. “The worst has happened,” she says. “I thought he was dead. I don’t think anything else could happen that I haven’t been through.”
AMY ESKIND in Clarksville