On October 3, 1993, Task Force Ranger conducted a raid in the Black Sea neighborhood of Mogadishu, Somalia to capture high-ranking lieutenants of the Aidid militia. The task force was an all-star special operations team composed of elements from the 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st SFOD-D, 160th SOAR, Navy SEALs from DEVGRU, and PJs and CCTs from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
As Nightstalker MH-6 Little Birds inserted Delta Operators on the target building, Rangers fast-roped down from MH-60 Blackhawks to the building’s four corners to secure a perimeter. During the insertion, Pfc. Todd Blackburn missed the rope and fell to the street below. Undeterred, the rest of the Rangers fast-roped out of the Blackhawks to establish security. The last Ranger out of the Blackhawk in front of Blackburn’s was team leader Sgt. Keni Thomas. As he reached for the rope, Thomas turned to the Blackhawk’s crew chief who yelled to him, “NO FEAR!”
“SCREW YOU!” Thomas responded as he dropped into the gunfire below. In his mind, it was easy for someone to say “no fear” if they’re the ones that get to fly away from the bullets. But Thomas was a Ranger, one of America’s elite, highly trained warriors. He led his team and maintained the perimeter around the target building from the Somali militia who were shooting at them, but mostly missing by his account.
Thirty-five minutes later, the target individuals were secure, loaded up on the trucks, and everyone was ready to return to base. With everything looking good, Thomas’ thoughts drifted as he thought about how he was now a bona fide combat veteran and could qualify for a VA loan. It was then that CW3 Cliff Wolcott and CW3 Donovan Briley’s Blackhawk was shot down. What was supposed to be a quick mission on a day off had turned into a battle against an entire city; after all, an American Soldier will never leave a fallen comrade.
Super 61 went down about five blocks from the target building. As the Rangers stepped off to secure the crash site, Thomas’ squad leader was shot in the neck. As the medics treated the squad leader’s neck wound, the platoon sergeant came up to Thomas and told him, “You’re in charge now.”
“What do you mean I’m in charge sarn’t?” Thomas asked, not wanting the increased responsibility.
“Hey, hey, sarn’t Thomas,” Sgt. Watson snapped his fingers to focus Thomas’ attention. “You’re in charge.” It was then that Thomas’ NCO training kicked in and he rogered up. Taking his squad leaders’ radio, he reassigned positions in his own team and took lead of the squad. The Rangers continued to make their way to the crash site as they took fire from unseen enemies.
Suddenly, one of the Rangers spotted a hostile Somali. “He’s in the tree sarn’t! He’s in the tree!” Pfc. Floyd, Thomas’ SAW gunner, yelled out frantically.
“Well if you see him, why don’t you shoot him?” Sgt. Watson responded self-evidently. It dawned on Floyd that he had, in fact, joined the Army and was allowed to shoot at people who shot at him. But rather than firing in 3 to 5 second bursts, Floyd proceeded to let out a constant stream of cyclic fire until Thomas hit him and told him to stop.
With the barrel of his machine gun glowing from the heat, Floyd stood up, lifted his goggles, and asked naively, “Did I get him?”
As the tree fell over, cut down by Floyd’s gunfire, Thomas said sarcastically, “Floyd, I don’t know if you got him, but you got the whole tree.”
Thomas and his squad continued to fight their way to the crash site and defended it until the bodies of the crew were recovered the next day. Incredibly and in spite of their casualties, their chalk was the only one to return with everyone alive that day. Thomas credits this accomplishment to the skill of their medic and the leadership of Sgt. Watson.
After Somalia, Thomas went on to serve in the Ranger recon teams. He ended his military career in 1997 as a Staff Sergeant, having earned the Master Parachutist Badge, the Military Freefall Parachutist Badge, the Special Operations Diver badge, British and Belgian jump wings, and a Bronze Star for Valor with a “V” device.
Thomas served in the Army with distinction (Photo from KeniThomas.com)
Upon leaving active duty, Thomas worked as a youth counselor and eventually became a motivational speaker, drawing on his experiences in the Ranger Regiment. He also served as a consultant on We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down where he was portrayed by actor Tac Fitzgerald. However, it was Thomas’ passion for music that he focused on most after the army.
Thomas formed the country music band Cornbread and began his music career by performing in and around Columbus, Georgia. By the late 90’s, the band started to make a name for itself, playing shows on college campuses like Auburn University. In the 2002 movie Sweet Home Alabama, Thomas and Cornbread perform a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama as the movie’s featured song. To date, the band has released three albums as Cornbread and four under Keni Thomas’ name. Thomas has also performed several times at the prestigious Grand Ole Opry, with his most recent performance in May 2014.
Though he’s broken into the country music world, Thomas has not forgotten his military roots. He has performed overseas on USO tours during which he takes the extra time to connect with each servicemember that he meets and exchange stories. His favorite venues are the remote outposts where he performs for groups as small as a platoon. He also donates some of his proceeds to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a non-profit that provides scholarships and financial aid to the children of wounded or deceased operators.
Thomas performing in Kuwait on a USO tour in 2006 (U.S. Navy photo)
From the streets of Mogadishu to the music halls of Nashville, Thomas has lived up to both the Soldier’s Creed and the Ranger Creed in never leaving a fallen comrade. He continues to tell the stories of his fallen brothers in his music and his motivational talks. Rangers like Thomas lead the way…all the way!