For years, Dr. Howard Wasdin lived with chronic pain, survivor’s guilt, and depression. He was haunted by his past—the battle immortalized in the film “Black Hawk Down,” when a small group of U.S. special operations forces faced down thousands of Somali fighters in an effort to rescue each other after a mission went wrong.
For Wasdin, that battle was the end of his career in Navy SEAL Team 6. Three gunshots nearly cost him his leg, and he was cast from being one of the top snipers in America’s elite military force, to being a man injured both inside and out. He describes it as a fall from “rock-star status to rock bottom.”
Yet today, Wasdin tells his story as one of redemption, and through it, he has helped other veterans pull themselves up from the same state he fell into. He now looks back on his trials as a gift that helped him to find peace, and find himself.
“You don’t always see—especially with a tragedy like that—that this is a doorway to something else that God’s got planned for you,” said Wasdin, who has now written about his experiences in several books, including 2014’s “The Last Rescue” and the 2012 New York Times bestseller “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper.”
His trials have taught him to see adversity as a good thing. “Through trial comes enlightenment,” he said, adding, “I can’t show you anybody I know that has character that hasn’t had adversity. I think that’s the character builder.”
SEAL Team 6 was formed in 1980 as a specialized counterterror force, and in 1993, the team was deployed on a special mission known as Operation Gothic Serpent. This mission would send him to Somalia and lead to the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, where 18 American troops lost their lives and an estimated 1,000 Somali fighters were killed, although numbers vary.
At the time, the people of Somalia were dying from famine as factions of rival warlords fought in the lawless state. U.S. Marines were sent to provide aid and quickly ended the famine, yet after they pulled out and U.N. Peacekeepers moved in, one of the most powerful warlords, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, backed by Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist group, began seizing the relief goods, and ambushing and killing those providing aid.
The conflict quickly escalated, and NATO began fighting back. They tried negotiating peace between the warlords, but Aidid refused, and as his attacks became more serious, the United States sent in a team of special operations forces that included the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and the secretive Delta Force to open supply lines to civilians and apprehend Aidid.
The Safe House
At the beginning of the mission, Wasdin was helping run a safe house in Mogadishu called Pasha, and every night, a terrible smell would fill the air. For the men running the secretive location in the otherwise hostile area, this set off an alarm, and they set out to investigate.
It wasn’t long before they tracked down the source: a young boy, around 12 years old, who had stepped on an enemy landmine. His right foot had been blown off, and his left foot was badly injured. His wounds were rotting with gangrene, and each night his family would bring him outside to the porch, since they couldn’t otherwise sleep with the nauseating stench.
The enemy would plant landmines near schoolhouses and areas where children played. The warlords believed, Wasdin said, that “if they could maim them as kids, they wouldn’t have to fight them as fully functioning adults. Think about how sick yet effective that is.”
Wasdin wanted to save the kid, and asked the CIA agent running the safe house to call headquarters and request “compromise authority,” which would clear them for an action that could compromise their mission. The request was denied. “Our mission wasn’t to save a little kid. It was to run the safe house,” Wasdin said.
Yet, one night, Wasdin heard the child’s death moans, and decided he was going to save the kid, with or without approval.
For Wasdin, this was personal. “I was adopted at an early age, beaten and abused as a child until my teen years,” he said. “So having a firsthand account of what it feels like to be helpless and nobody helping you is probably what drove me to help the little kid.”
“People think you become a SEAL because you want to become Superman, or a tough guy, or a badass or whatever, but you really become a SEAL because you want to help people,” Wasdin said. “When I say you want to help people, that means in whatever capacity, whether it’s hostage rescue, helping this little kid, whatever it takes, up to and including dying trying to get the job done.”
They didn’t know whether enemy fighters were also in the home, so moving in required them to handle this as a potentially dangerous mission. Wasdin and other troops put on their night-vision goggles, grabbed their rifles, and entered the home. They had to briefly apprehend the members of the household while Wasdin treated the kid’s wounds—scrubbing off the necrotic tissue, giving him medicine, then bandaging his wounds.
They continued to help the kid on the following nights, and eventually the family was providing them with tea—a gift far beyond their means. Wasdin and the others began bringing an interpreter to help them communicate. As the kid recovered, Wasdin helped him learn to walk again, and soon the situation had changed not just in the home, but also in the local community.
“You would see people coming up to us, touching their heads, touching their hearts, and bowing to us,” Wasdin said. They would say in the local language, “We realize you’re here in our country, risking your lives, away from your families to save us.”
“We got that every day after we started that local project in Pasha, once we were no longer a concealed safe house and started helping everybody,” he said, noting that they also helped teach the locals to purify their water, since many were suffering from cholera.
When the children got off school each day, they would come by the safe house, and Wasdin and the other troops would throw down packages of food to them from their meals. One of the snipers in his unit was a bodybuilder, and when the kids came by, he would playfully flex and kiss his biceps. Wasdin said, “After about a week, all the little kids would come by the house, look up, and lean over to kiss their biceps.”
Yet, in a single day, everything would change.
Black Hawk Down
A faction led by the local warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid was among the key forces blocking any chance of peace in Somalia. The U.S. forces obtained strong leads on the location of several lieutenants of Aidid, and on Oct. 3, 1993, they launched a mission to apprehend the men.
The plan was simple: Four Army Rangers would fast rope from hovering Black Hawk helicopters and form a perimeter, while Delta Force operators would infiltrate the building from Little Bird helicopters and arrest Aidid’s lieutenants. A convoy of nine Humvees and three trucks would follow on the ground to transport the team and their prisoners back to the base.
They planned to be in and out within 30 minutes—the amount of time it often took Aidid’s forces to respond.
The mission went infamously wrong. Aidid’s militia formed barricades that delayed the ground convoy, and an Army Ranger missed his fast rope and was critically injured from the fall. The force of 160 U.S. troops would soon find themselves surrounded on all sides by 4,000 to 6,000 enemy fighters.
Wasdin was in one of the Humvees during the incident, and while evacuating the forces and prisoners at the compound, he was shot in the knee. He said, “In all humility, I will tell you the first thing that went through my mind when I got hit with the first bullet was disbelief. I couldn’t believe that I got shot.”
Soon after, an enemy fighter shot down one of the Black Hawk helicopters with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and not long after, more fighters managed to shoot down the second Black Hawk. The mission turned from being focused on capturing the enemy lieutenants to rescuing the men in the downed helicopters.
This was no easy task, however. The convoy was taking fire from all directions, and men in the convoys were being killed and wounded by enemy fire. While exchanging gunfire, Wasdin was shot again, and while the assailant was killed, the shot had nearly torn Wasdin’s leg off. As they drove further, Wasdin was shot again in the same leg.
For Wasdin, this changed him. He said being shot “killed the perception—or the misperception—of who I thought I was.”
He said, “I had literally gotten to the point where I felt like I was more than just a mere mortal. I was highly trained, I was versed in many things. I was a jumpmaster, I was a dive supervisor, I had at that point over 750 parachute jumps and never so much as a sprained ankle. I had people get hurt and killed around me, and I never got a scratch.”
After being shot the third time, he said he realized, “well, I guess when it’s all said and done, I’m just flesh and bone, too.”
“I think God’s got a way of getting your attention when he wants to get it. And I think that my misperception of who I was, it was just time for him to bring it down a notch, if that’s a good way to put it—to show me I really was human and he had a bigger plan for me,” he said.
With casualties mounting, the convoy was ordered to return to base, and as they were making their way back, Wasdin’s Humvee hit a landmine. The armored floor saved him and others inside, but the vehicle was destroyed.
The convoy kept moving, and Wasdin and the men with him were left behind. They were low on ammunition and enemy fighters were moving in on them. Wasdin was beginning to go into shock from loss of blood. It was at that moment that he accepted the idea that he was likely going to die. Yet, just in time, a rescue team sent from the U.S. base managed to pick them up and transport them back to base.
The mission was technically successful, although at great cost. As Wasdin was lying on the runway, waiting to be flown for medical treatment, the CIA agent who ran the safe house with him came and asked if there was anything he could do. Wasdin said the parallel of him nearly losing his leg reminded him of the boy next to the Pasha safe house. He asked his friend to get the kid a wheelchair. He said that about two weeks later, he got a message “that they had delivered a wheelchair to the little boy and that he was doing well.”
Wasdin’s leg was saved by a doctor, but coming home was another battle.
For Wasdin, being forced from the job he loved was among the hardest things he had to face. The pain came from many directions. He had been a Tier 1 operative in one of the world’s most elite fighting forces, and losing that was difficult. On top of it, he suffered from chronic pain and survivor’s guilt, with thoughts of, “Why was I allowed to live, and better people died?”
“I had to get past the point where I was blaming God for everything bad in my life,” he said, noting, “Getting to that dark spot is a gradual process, and it’s so gradual that you don’t realize it.”
He said he came to realize, however, that “the light didn’t move away from me—I moved away from the light.”
Eventually, Wasdin was saved in his own way. He found love again, got custody of his son, and rediscovered his faith. Gradually, he was able to open up about his experiences. “Especially after Somalia, it took me 17 years to really talk about it and get it out,” he said.
After pulling himself out of his despair, Wasdin was able to find relief from his chronic pain by visiting a chiropractor, and this inspired him to go back to school and also become a chiropractor. Over the years, he found that many other veterans were in the same state he was in, and he has managed to help others by sharing his story in presentations.
Wasdin said, “I had a Vietnam veteran come up to me and hold onto me and sob after a presentation, and tell me that he now knew that it was OK for him to talk about what he had been through, because if I could do it, being a Navy SEAL, then he could, too.”
The pain comes in other forms, he said. After his experience in Somalia, former President Bill Clinton pulled the U.S. forces out of the country, which left him and others feeling that their mission and their sacrifices were for nothing. Wasdin said many veterans have felt this same pain seeing the battles they fought ridiculed and the values they lost friends to uphold criticized.
Today, when veterans ask him why they fought, Wasdin said he tells them, “The reason I did what I did, and the reason I would still do what I did, is for love of God and country.”
He believes that “we’ve forgotten how to love our country.”
“We’ve forgotten how to love each other,” he said. “The simple fact is, we’ve got to learn to love each other again and get back to our core principles.”