Bold leadership

Cato veteran uses the Battle of Mogadishu and ‘Black Hawk Down’ to inspire

By Patrick Smith

For the soldiers of Operation Restore Hope, the morning began with the promise of a day off. Then the orders came. Troops would converge on the Olympic Hotel in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia, capture the accomplices of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and return to base. But missions don’t always go as planned.

During the expedition, Somali militia shot down two Black Hawk helicopters. The resulting mission to secure and recover the crews of both helicopters turned into an overnight standoff.

Trapped in a hail of gunfire on the streets of the Bakaara Market, U.S. Army Ranger Keni Thomas had his moment of epiphany. Sgt. 1st Class Earl Fillmore had been shot. Thomas saw that the sergeant needed to be evacuated and went to radio for assistance. When he returned seconds later, Fillmore, a Delta Force operator, was dead.
“When the first guy gets hit, it snaps you into a whole new level of reality,” says Thomas. “Now, I knew what my mission had become. My mission was not about the crash site, or the greater glory of the Ranger regiment, or the medals, or the CNN headline story — my mission became making sure my team survived.”

By the end of the assault that began Oct. 3, 1993, 18 Americans had died, 73 were wounded and one helicopter pilot was captured. The heroic actions of Thomas and his fellow soldiers were immortalized in the book and movie, “Black Hawk Down.”

Today, Thomas can list many titles after his name. Songwriter. Author. Minister. Analyst. Singer. Pilot. Actor. Counselor. Veteran. But the calling keeping him the busiest is gifted motivational speaker.

While some may struggle to move past a horrific experience, Thomas hasn’t let it define him. He describes the battle in speeches across the country. In the 22 years since the bloodshed, Thomas crisscrosses the country, preserving the story of his fellow soldiers and honoring the memory of those who died.

Becoming a ranger

When Thomas graduated from the University of Florida in 1989 with a degree in advertising, tensions between the United States and the Middle East were heightened prior to the Gulf War.

Thomas started visiting recruiters, hoping to become a pilot. But since being a pilot is a coveted position, there was a waiting list. Eventually, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Army and chose to follow in the footsteps of his father, pursuing a path as a Ranger.

Two years after enlisting, Thomas experienced what became one of the most debated military operations of the 1990s, due in part to conflicting motivations as to why the U.S. was involved, and the resulting military and political fallout.

But regardless of the national ramifications, Thomas focuses on the men who he fought beside for 18 hours. He chooses to emphasize the qualities of character that create leaders. “I think about that battle every day, and I constantly think, ‘Did I do the right thing?’” said Thomas, during a recent speech to educators at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. “Because when it’s your time, you want to know you did everything right. You don’t want to have regrets. And if you sent me back in, given the same circumstances, I promise you, I would do everything exactly the same. Because you train as you fight, and you fight as you train, and you lead by example.”

After the battle, Thomas received several honors, including the Bronze Star for Valor. Before his military career was complete, he totaled more than 400 parachute jumps, earning his Master Parachute wings and the rank of Staff Sgt. But prior to leaving the military, during his time stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, Thomas began pursuing another passion: music. Thomas had promised himself if he could pay the rent with money from music, he would pursue it full time. By 1997, it was time to get out of the military.

Actor, musician, speaker

Accompanied by his band, Cornbread, Thomas hit the road touring. It wasn’t always glamorous, but he found recognition as a performer, and his music resonated with audiences.

Following the success of the Mark Bowden book “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War,” Thomas was asked to consult for the film adaptation. The Hollywood script features a conglomeration of actual events and words, melded into the characters viewers see in the 2001 movie. The character playing Thomas in the movie isn’t an accurate portrayal of him on the battlefield, but he doesn’t mind. Turns out, the movie helped set a new course for him as a public speaker.

“The story just kept resonating with people, and I learned how to tell it better,” says Thomas, who often spends time at his small farm near Cato, Tennessee. “Today, the story isn’t about ‘Black Hawk Down’ anymore. It’s just a story of people taking care of each other in extreme situations.”
A charismatic personality with the ability to weave humor, humility and gravity into his speeches, Thomas is a born motivational speaker. Themes like planning, training, leadership and teamwork are repeated in his speeches to thousands of people each year.

In his life outside of speaking, he’s seen success as both a musician and actor. He’s played at the Grand Ole Opry. His song “Not Me” charted on the Billboard 200, and he’s made appearances in a handful of movies and television shows. Yet, despite his success, Thomas remains humble and is aware of his duty to honor those who served.

On Oct. 28, 2009, Thomas was chosen to open the first game of the World Series by singing the National Anthem. He performed flawlessly in front of a sellout crowd of more than 50,000, and millions watching at home.
Then, just a few days after singing in New York, Thomas stood in front of a small gathering of veterans at a bank in Lafayette, speaking about his time in the military.

“The only way I know to help people deal with their service is to speak about my experiences,” says Thomas. “WWII veterans deserve our help. All veterans deserve our help. And the reason why most veterans will never say no is because we know at the drop of a hat, that it could have been us.”

This November, please join NCTC in thanking all the veterans of the community, not only on Nov. 11, but also throughout the year.