Keni Thomas is the lead singer of Cornbread, a country-rock band from Columbus, Georgia. But his musical career differs radically from his previous life. In 1993, he led a squad of elite Army Rangers that was deployed to Somalia. There, he found himself at the center of an intense firefight in war-torn Mogadishu that left 18 U.S. servicemen dead, prompted the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia and inspired the recent movie, Blackhawk Down.
Keni, 36, strums a guitar at his home in Columbus. Several large dogs lie about on the back porch where a gentle breeze blows on a mild spring morning.
But life was not always so peaceful. Mention Somalia and the date October 3, 1993, and his eyes grow distant.
A contingent of Army Rangers and Delta Force members was sent to a thug-ridden section of lawless Mogadishu to apprehend warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Among them: Keni Thomas. The raid netted a gang of Aidid backers, although not the warlord himself. Getting out proved to be a nightmare. What had been planned as a two-hour operation turned into a 17-hour death match. "In about 45 minutes the mission was done," he said. "Delta [Force] had gone into the buildings; they had pulled the prisoners out. We had secured the perimeter. That was when the first Blackhawk helicopter that was flying over us in a support position got hit and crashed about five blocks from where we were. The mission changed at that point. One hundred fifty of us that were on the ground picked up and ran by foot to go secure that crash site."
Surrounded by hundreds of Somali combatants, Keni Thomas and other U.S. troops fought their way towards the helicopter, drawing heavy fire and suffering casualties along the way. The group eventually found itself pinned down and took refuge inside a building to wait for a rescue convoy.
Unbeknownst to them, a little over a kilometer away, another desperate situation had developed when a second Blackhawk was shot down. Two Delta Force members died trying to protect its crew. "They fought until they ran out of ammunition," reminisces Thomas. "It was crazy how many people were moving in on their positions. [They were] hugely outnumbered, and they held them off and held them off and held them off. And we did not have the resources to get anybody in there to help them out. That is a hard thing to accept. You think, 'Man, how did that happen to United States Rangers and Delta [Force]? How is it that we did not have something [to use] to get in there?'
Estimates of Somali dead range from several hundred to more than 1,000.
Keni Thomas' experiences in Somalia left him deeply saddened, but he stayed with the Rangers for three more years.
Keni Thomas says he, like many who leave the military, faced a dilemma: how to match the exhilaration he had experienced as a combat soldier once he rejoined civilian life. For inspiration, he turned to a childhood love: music.
He started the band known as Cornbread, which was Keni Thomas' nickname as a Ranger. He says the discipline and restraint he was taught in the armed forces have served his musical career well. "The things that I learned in the military, the work ethic, how to lead the way, have helped me in the music business," he said. "Because when I felt like giving up, I did not."
With hard work has come success. Cornbread is close to signing a major record deal, and several of the group's songs were recently featured in the movie Sweet Home Alabama.
The band is releasing a song that Keni Thomas originally wrote as a tribute to his fallen comrades in Mogadishu, but which is equally appropriate today as U.S. troops fight in Iraq. Called Hero, it tells the story of a young soldier who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his country. "Tomorrow, there are going to be children in this country who do not have a dad because of what is going on over there [in Iraq]," he said. "And the next day, and the next day someone is going to be notified that their husband, father, brother, son; somebody is not coming back. That is the hardest part [of war]. It is not so much [a tragedy] for any of the guys that die, because, honestly, you get killed in a battle, you are gone and it is done. But for the families, their lives are shattered, ripped apart."
Keni Thomas says proceeds from Hero will go his favorite charity, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which benefits surviving family members of Special Operations troops who are either killed in training or in combat. He says the fund has great relevance today, as Special Operations forces take a leading role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Keni Thomas says all who fight for their country deserve recognition, including the U.S. troops that took part in the 1993 operation in Somalia. He says he felt a sense of validation in the late 1990s with the publication of a book, Blackhawk Down, that detailed the mission and its tragic ending. A movie based on the book appeared in theaters last year, and Keni Thomas spent time with several cast members.
He says the past and present of his life are intertwined, and that he is blessed that they complement each other.