‘Black Hawk Down’: Jones shares memories at 25th anniversary eve

 Standing next to the heroes for whom the training center is named, Jones speaks at the ceremony at Fort Polk, La., Wednesday.
Staff Writer

Friday was a normal day for West Point City Manager Randy Jones — work, meetings, e-mails to check and answer.

But even a normal day isn’t always normal, not the way the human mind works.

Wednesday, Jones was at Fort Polk, Louisiana, speaking at the 25th anniversary ceremony of the Battle of Mogadishu, the battle in Somalia made famous by the 2002 movie “Black Hawk Down.”

A major training center at Fort Polk, a center designed to train soldiers to fight in urban landscapes, is named after two of the Army Rangers killed in that battle 25 years ago on Oct. 3, 1993. Jones and his fellow soldiers were unable to save them.

A total of 18 Americans died over the two-day conflict.

“I guess I think about it every day. It’s just your approach to it,” Jones said at his desk in City Hall Friday when asked about his emotions when the issue comes up or he is at ceremonies like the one Wednesday.

“I was in a meeting today and someone talked about how hot it is is Yuma, Arizona. I thought to myself, ‘I can tell you about hot,’ referring to the tropical climate in places like Somalia and other areas of the Middle East and North Africa.

Later in the morning, he got a message from retired Air Force Gen. Paul Hester, a West Point native and Ole Miss grad who is Jones’ age.

“He sent me a note thanking me for my service,” Jones noted.

Many Americans only memory or knowledge of Mogadishu is the movie, which came out nine years after the actual battle.

Jones spent almost 18 hours in the air over the urban battlefield providing cover from his “Little Bird” helicopter for the downed helicopter crews and rescue teams.

“You watched some good guys die, some get overrun,” he said matter-of-factly Friday.

"There were 150 guys who took the same chances I did," he said, "and some of them paid a lot higher price than I did."

Jones had flown assault helicopters in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Panama and Grenada before the Somali mission. In Mogadishu, his Cayuse helicopter was the lead. All the other helicopters followed him to their objective.

His call sign was "Barber 5-1,” a coincidence that provided an emotional link back to his hometown. His father, George Jones, has been a barber in West Point.

Even more coincidentally, one of Randy Jones’ two sons, Michael, was a sailor on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off the coast of Somalia at the time.

The assault helicopter pilots provided not only cover fire sometimes within a few feet of their own soldiers, but also important information about the Somalia insurgents.

“Chief Warrant Officer Five Jones flew seventeen and one-half hours providing close air support fires for a pinned down friendly ground element. He weathered intense enemy fires, often firing within fifteen meters of friendly troops to halt a determined enemy from overrunning their positions. Chief Warrant Officer Jones' extraordinary valor and courage reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army,” the Army citation for his Silver Star states.

Five years after Somalia, he retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 5, a rank similar to colonel.

He and his wife, Winnie, live in the house where his grandparents once lived.

“I’ve been involved in and seen some pretty gruesome things. At the same time, if I chose to think about them all the time, I can’t help but think that’s not good for you,” he said of the approach he takes to his decorated military service that includes being a member of the Army Aviator Hall of Fame, and winner of the Special Ops Aviator of the Year and U.S. Army Aviator of the Year awards.

“I am an optimist. I choose to look at the good things. There’s plenty in this world to have negative thoughts about,” he described.

“My training, my personality, all those things probably have helped me avoid the PTSD that so many soldiers suffer. I’m just blessed to be here.”

At Fort Polk Wednesday, he was with kindred spirits, even if many of them weren’t born 25 years ago. And he reminded them of what that day stood for and what they stand for today.

Army Delta Force snipers Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. First Class Randy Shughart were killed defending a downed Black Hawk surrounded enemy fighters. With no back-up of their own, they managed to save the pilot's life. They were the honorees Wednesday.
Jones knew the men.

"I had a vantage point over the top of that whole thing," he said. "Mogadishu, Somalia the population is roughly a million people. I witnessed the odds that day were at least 100 to 1. These soldiers did not back up one foot until they were ready to,” Jones told the crowd at Fort Polk.

“During times of need in this great nation, there have been men like Randy and Gary who have stood in the way of harm for their fellow men. I was truly lucky on that mission day, we were 148 strong. Eighteen were killed in the skirmish, and we lost another Soldier shortly thereafter. There were 78 Purple Hearts,” he continued, listing off the 41 Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and two Medals of Honor awarded for service those 25 years ago.

“The reward for those awards is that we are all here today, in America, free to do what we want. I truly miss each of these young, brave soldiers, and I pray for their families and children…it’s been a long time since I’ve had this many brothers in arms around me,” he concluded, standing beside two large photos of Shughart and Gordon.

Sitting at his desk two days later, a visitor can tell Jones still processes the moments, then and now.

“You are just heart-broken for the families,” he recalled of his thoughts Wednesday.

His military service and returning to events like the one at Fort Polk also give him some perspective, saying patriotism and support for the military has grown “exponentially” since the years after the Vietnam War.

“I don’t see corporate America and individuals today looking at things or going back to the days of looking at things as an ‘evil war’," he concluded.