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Courageous Leadership Series Brings ‘Black Hawk Down’ Veteran to Post

Jeff Struecker Speaking

Struecker speaking Jan. 30 in Marshall Hall, VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. VMI photo by John Robertson IV.

“Loyalty is the currency that allows a leader to lead with courage on the battlefield,” said Jeff Struecker, speaking to a packed house of cadets and area residents Jan. 30 at VMI’s Center for Leadership and Ethics. Struecker was speaking as part of the CLE’s Courageous Leadership series. The CLE selects an annual leadership theme, explained Col. Pat Looney, CLE deputy director, and further selects speakers whose message fit the yearly theme. “[Struecker] is a former military guy with combat action, and we thought that would resonate with the Corps of Cadets,” said Looney, who also noted the CLE’s funding comes from “very generous” alumni gifts.

From his on-the-ground experience in Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 – more commonly referred to by the movie and book titled “Black Hawk Down” – Struecker has the experience and the authority to talk about courageous leadership. The title refers to the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that were shot down during the Oct. 3, 1993, Battle of Mogadishu.

The task force, comprised of elite forces from across the U.S. armed forces, arrived in Somalia in August 1993 with the aim of capturing clan leader and warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. On Oct. 3, the task force began their most dangerous mission yet: In broad daylight, dropping Rangers and Delta Force troops into Aidid-held territory to capture some of the warlord’s top leaders. “We knew this was a really, really dangerous scenario,” Struecker said.

The operation was a multipronged coordination: Delta Force operators were dropped from MH-6 Little Bird helicopters directly onto a building in Mogadishu to apprehend Aidid’s men, Rangers fast-roped down from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to provide security around the building and a 12-vehicle convoy of Rangers to pick up those captured and the forces who had been inserted by helicopter. Above all this, helicopters provided intelligence via radio. Shortly after the mission began a young ranger, Todd Blackburn, missed the rope and – instead of sliding down the rope and landing on the street below – fell 70 feet, sustaining serious head and neck injuries. Struecker, who was part of the convoy, was ordered to return to the compound with Blackburn. Struecker’s small convoy consisted of three HMMWVs: Struecker’s, in the lead with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the top; the middle vehicle – lacking any heavy weapons – carrying Blackburn; and bringing up the rear, another HMMWV equipped with a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher.

Minutes after departing the attack site with Blackburn, Struecker’s convoy began taking intense fire “from about 200 different directions.” The fire ranged from RPGs and grenades, some from rooftops, to small-arms fire “on full auto.” En route back to their compound, Struecker’s gunner, Dominick Pilla, was shot and killed. Struecker, trying to give an accurate picture of what those moments were like, said the movie Black Hawk Down actually “downplays some of the violence.”

“I’m not ashamed to admit at this moment, I started to get terrified for my own life. And started to think about my men: Uh-oh, we’re all going to die in the next few seconds,” Struecker said. He had to tell himself, “You better get yourself under control if you want to get your men under control.”

When Struecker’s convoy arrived back at the task force compound, the “scene was total chaos.” People were running to and fro, helicopters getting ready to fly out and a loudspeaker was squawking. In the midst of this was a man who was an oasis of calm, Struecker remembered, and asked if the man was present. The man, Dr. Rob Marsh, was in the audience. When he stood, Struecker credited him for saving the lives of not only Blackburn but countless others, and the audience burst into applause.

The small convoy had made it back to the base but a more difficult task still lay ahead for Struecker and his men. At this point, two Black Hawk helicopters had been shot down, and someone needed to go back into the city to secure the sites and rescue the personnel who had been onboard. Someone was Struecker, and his men. As he was cleaning his soldier’s blood out of the back of his HMMWV, he remembered thinking, “Jeff, if you go back out there, you will die tonight … If you drive your men through what you just went through, every one of your men will die tonight. If we go back out into those city streets, all of us are going to die.”

One of Struecker’s soldiers, Spec. Brad Thomas, came to Struecker and voiced exactly what Struecker had been thinking, telling Struecker, “I can’t go back out there. I have a wife at home. And if I go back out there, I know I’m going to die.”

This was a “leadership challenge,” Struecker said. “Because I [had] all of the authority with my position and with my rank to order this man to get back on the HMMWVs and to drive back out into those city streets. But I knew ordering him to do it might be counterproductive.”

Struecker paused, looked at the cadets in the room and asked, “Those of you who are about to become combat leaders, those cadets in this room –What moves a man to get back on those HMMWVs? Is it raw power? Is that going to move a guy to get on those HMMWVs and to give his life if necessary?”

The answer is not the flag or patriotism. Thomas voluntarily joined the Army and voluntarily entered one of the Army’ most difficult career paths when he became a Ranger. Unquestionably, Thomas “is a patriot,” Struecker said.

Glory and awards are also not enough motivation, Struecker said. “Awards and glory doesn’t move a man or a woman to do some selfless act that will probably cost them their life,” he said. “The part that I don’t think that a lot of leaders in America understand is that the thing that will move a man or a woman to do something like this is love. … It’s love for your buddies.”

After a short conversation with Thomas, Struecker got into his HMMWV and prepared to re-enter Mogadishu, unsure if he would return alive. In the rearview mirror, Struecker saw Thomas pick up his weapon and get in the last HMMWV.

“Not once but multiple times and spend all night long doing it expecting at any minute that he would get killed for going back out there, but willing to do it. Because he loved those men,” Struecker said. “[He was] willing to exchange his life for theirs.”

From that love, Struecker said, comes loyalty. It’s not just on the battlefield, or related to physical feats of valor.

“The thing that is much more powerful than leading people out of fear … is leading people out of love. Love buys loyalty and loyalty is the currency that allows you to make bold, courageous decisions,” he said. “Love will move people farther than fear will ever move them.

“When I talk about leadership courage, it’s not just your willingness to stand up and to face the bombs and the bullets on a battlefield. Sometimes the greatest courage is to stand up and confront somebody,” Struecker said. “This is the essence of leadership courage. And my challenge to all of you, no matter what walk of life you come from, is: Be the kind of man or woman that the folks that who are following you say, ‘I will follow that man. I will follow that woman, even to my death, because I believe in them.’”

Struecker illustrated his point by describing a confrontation between two powerful men in 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proposed large cuts in the military. Gen. Douglas MacArthur felt what he described as “paralyzing nausea” when facing the president – but still knew he needed to say something. Even knowing he would likely need to tender his resignation after speaking, MacArthur still defended the military. FDR soon stopped the direction the Army was going, and also did not accept MacArthur’s resignation. Following the conversation with FDR, MacArthur exited the White House and promptly vomited – the aftereffect of the “emotional fear” he felt confronting the president.

What Struecker meant for the audience to grasp was the difficulty – for MacArthur and anyone else – to be a courageous leader.

The day following the battle, Struecker started down the path toward a different sort of leadership and service. He was well-known among his peers for his faith. Following the battle, he was barraged with questions from fellow Rangers about that faith. Soon after, he began serving as an Army chaplain. “I really felt God tugging me toward the ministry,” Struecker said.

Struecker finished his Army career as a chaplain, deploying nearly every year for the decade following the Battle of Mogadishu and serving men in some of the Army’s toughest units – including the 82nd Airborne Division and the 75th Ranger Regiment. From his personal experience, Struecker brought a unique point of view for soldiers: “The ability to say, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through, because I’ve been there.’”

Cadets Adam Josephson ’19 and Karl Skerry ’20 were among the many cadets listening to Struecker. Both will commission in the military following graduation: Josephson as an Army infantry officer, and Skerry in the Marine Corps. They wanted to attend the talk to hear Struecker’s perspective as a veteran of a high-profile combat engagement.

“I really wanted to get into more of the aftermath about how he dealt with his troops. His whole company got torn apart. They were left with nothing, and as a leader that’s a really tough task,” Josephson said.

Skerry and Josephson were both struck by Struecker’s humility. He opened the night by saying that he was a “huge fan” of VMI and had been hoping to speak at the Institute for two years. Struecker brought a wealth of experiences and accomplishments – Ranger, Best Ranger, combat experience and a doctorate – but was “extremely humble,” Skerry noted.

Both cadets also expressed their thankfulness to be attending an institution like VMI. “To be part of a school that would attract people like [Struecker]. He said he was excited to come and talk to us. To be a part of something like that is pretty special,” Josephson said.

Jeff Struecker Interview

2 minutes, 27 seconds

From his on-the-ground experience in Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 – more commonly referred to by the movie and book titled “Black Hawk Down” – Struecker has the experience and the authority to talk about courageous leadership. The title refers to the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that were shot down during the Oct. 3, 1993, Battle of Mogadishu.

The task force, comprised of elite forces from across the U.S. armed forces, arrived in Somalia in August 1993 with the aim of capturing clan leader and warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. On Oct. 3, the task force began their most dangerous mission yet: In broad daylight, dropping Rangers and Delta Force troops into Aidid-held territory to capture some of the warlord’s top leaders. “We knew this was a really, really dangerous scenario,” Struecker said.

The operation was a multipronged coordination: Delta Force operators were dropped from MH-6 Little Bird helicopters directly onto a building in Mogadishu to apprehend Aidid’s men, Rangers fast-roped down from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to provide security around the building and a 12-vehicle convoy of Rangers to pick up those captured and the forces who had been inserted by helicopter. Above all this, helicopters provided intelligence via radio. Shortly after the mission began a young ranger, Todd Blackburn, missed the rope and – instead of sliding down the rope and landing on the street below – fell 70 feet, sustaining serious head and neck injuries. Struecker, who was part of the convoy, was ordered to return to the compound with Blackburn. Struecker’s small convoy consisted of three HMMWVs: Struecker’s, in the lead with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the top; the middle vehicle – lacking any heavy weapons – carrying Blackburn; and bringing up the rear, another HMMWV equipped with a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher.

Minutes after departing the attack site with Blackburn, Struecker’s convoy began taking intense fire “from about 200 different directions.” The fire ranged from RPGs and grenades, some from rooftops, to small-arms fire “on full auto.” En route back to their compound, Struecker’s gunner, Dominick Pilla, was shot and killed. Struecker, trying to give an accurate picture of what those moments were like, said the movie Black Hawk Down actually “downplays some of the violence.”

“I’m not ashamed to admit at this moment, I started to get terrified for my own life. And started to think about my men: Uh-oh, we’re all going to die in the next few seconds,” Struecker said. He had to tell himself, “You better get yourself under control if you want to get your men under control.”

When Struecker’s convoy arrived back at the task force compound, the “scene was total chaos.” People were running to and fro, helicopters getting ready to fly out and a loudspeaker was squawking. In the midst of this was a man who was an oasis of calm, Struecker remembered, and asked if the man was present. The man, Dr. Rob Marsh, was in the audience. When he stood, Struecker credited him for saving the lives of not only Blackburn but countless others, and the audience burst into applause.

The small convoy had made it back to the base but a more difficult task still lay ahead for Struecker and his men. At this point, two Black Hawk helicopters had been shot down, and someone needed to go back into the city to secure the sites and rescue the personnel who had been onboard. Someone was Struecker, and his men. As he was cleaning his soldier’s blood out of the back of his HMMWV, he remembered thinking, “Jeff, if you go back out there, you will die tonight … If you drive your men through what you just went through, every one of your men will die tonight. If we go back out into those city streets, all of us are going to die.”

One of Struecker’s soldiers, Spec. Brad Thomas, came to Struecker and voiced exactly what Struecker had been thinking, telling Struecker, “I can’t go back out there. I have a wife at home. And if I go back out there, I know I’m going to die.”

This was a “leadership challenge,” Struecker said. “Because I [had] all of the authority with my position and with my rank to order this man to get back on the HMMWVs and to drive back out into those city streets. But I knew ordering him to do it might be counterproductive.”

Struecker paused, looked at the cadets in the room and asked, “Those of you who are about to become combat leaders, those cadets in this room –What moves a man to get back on those HMMWVs? Is it raw power? Is that going to move a guy to get on those HMMWVs and to give his life if necessary?”

The answer is not the flag or patriotism. Thomas voluntarily joined the Army and voluntarily entered one of the Army’ most difficult career paths when he became a Ranger. Unquestionably, Thomas “is a patriot,” Struecker said.

Glory and awards are also not enough motivation, Struecker said. “Awards and glory doesn’t move a man or a woman to do some selfless act that will probably cost them their life,” he said. “The part that I don’t think that a lot of leaders in America understand is that the thing that will move a man or a woman to do something like this is love. … It’s love for your buddies.”

After a short conversation with Thomas, Struecker got into his HMMWV and prepared to re-enter Mogadishu, unsure if he would return alive. In the rearview mirror, Struecker saw Thomas pick up his weapon and get in the last HMMWV.

“Not once but multiple times and spend all night long doing it expecting at any minute that he would get killed for going back out there, but willing to do it. Because he loved those men,” Struecker said. “[He was] willing to exchange his life for theirs.”

From that love, Struecker said, comes loyalty. It’s not just on the battlefield, or related to physical feats of valor.

“The thing that is much more powerful than leading people out of fear … is leading people out of love. Love buys loyalty and loyalty is the currency that allows you to make bold, courageous decisions,” he said. “Love will move people farther than fear will ever move them.

“When I talk about leadership courage, it’s not just your willingness to stand up and to face the bombs and the bullets on a battlefield. Sometimes the greatest courage is to stand up and confront somebody,” Struecker said. “This is the essence of leadership courage. And my challenge to all of you, no matter what walk of life you come from, is: Be the kind of man or woman that the folks that who are following you say, ‘I will follow that man. I will follow that woman, even to my death, because I believe in them.’”

Struecker illustrated his point by describing a confrontation between two powerful men in 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proposed large cuts in the military. Gen. Douglas MacArthur felt what he described as “paralyzing nausea” when facing the president – but still knew he needed to say something. Even knowing he would likely need to tender his resignation after speaking, MacArthur still defended the military. FDR soon stopped the direction the Army was going, and also did not accept MacArthur’s resignation. Following the conversation with FDR, MacArthur exited the White House and promptly vomited – the aftereffect of the “emotional fear” he felt confronting the president.

What Struecker meant for the audience to grasp was the difficulty – for MacArthur and anyone else – to be a courageous leader.

The day following the battle, Struecker started down the path toward a different sort of leadership and service. He was well-known among his peers for his faith. Following the battle, he was barraged with questions from fellow Rangers about that faith. Soon after, he began serving as an Army chaplain. “I really felt God tugging me toward the ministry,” Struecker said.

Struecker finished his Army career as a chaplain, deploying nearly every year for the decade following the Battle of Mogadishu and serving men in some of the Army’s toughest units – including the 82nd Airborne Division and the 75th Ranger Regiment. From his personal experience, Struecker brought a unique point of view for soldiers: “The ability to say, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through, because I’ve been there.’”

Cadets Adam Josephson ’19 and Karl Skerry ’20 were among the many cadets listening to Struecker. Both will commission in the military following graduation: Josephson as an Army infantry officer, and Skerry in the Marine Corps. They wanted to attend the talk to hear Struecker’s perspective as a veteran of a high-profile combat engagement.

“I really wanted to get into more of the aftermath about how he dealt with his troops. His whole company got torn apart. They were left with nothing, and as a leader that’s a really tough task,” Josephson said.

Skerry and Josephson were both struck by Struecker’s humility. He opened the night by saying that he was a “huge fan” of VMI and had been hoping to speak at the Institute for two years. Struecker brought a wealth of experiences and accomplishments – Ranger, Best Ranger, combat experience and a doctorate – but was “extremely humble,” Skerry noted.

Both cadets also expressed their thankfulness to be attending an institution like VMI. “To be part of a school that would attract people like [Struecker]. He said he was excited to come and talk to us. To be a part of something like that is pretty special,” Josephson said.

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