Manatee, Sarasota audience riveted by ex-Army Ranger's experience, insight

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 8, 2013 

BRADENTON -- The battle was unlike anything Keni Thomas and the 75th Ranger Regiment had seen.

"Other than in movies -- and that's before they even made the movie," he said, referencing the 2001 hit "Black Hawk Down," to his rapt audience at Thursday's Legacy of Valor Celebration Luncheon at Dolphin Aviation.

What had begun as a precision operation in October 1993 to capture a Somali warlord and his ringleaders turned into a well-chronicled 18-hour street battle in Mogadishu after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.

Now a 48-year-old country singer, Thomas recreated the deadly drama for 500 listeners.

"It was so crazy and over the top," the Nashville, Tenn., resident said. "So many gun rounds going down the street. So many aircraft doing gun runs. Bad guys shooting from everywhere."

Yet from that maelstrom -- U.S. forces suffered 18 dead, 80 wounded and one helicopter pilot captured -- Thomas and his men not only survived, but emerged with life lessons he shared with the luncheon crowd.

"Why do we fight?" he said, "It's for this guy and that guy. I'll be damned if something happens to my men. This guy here is taking care of this guy here and that guy and so forth down the line."

Leadership and teamwork saved them and they remain keys to success in civilian life, he said.

"Some of us are stronger than others, but you will never get to the top alone," Thomas said. "You've got to have people around you. People to the left and the right. They're counting on you and you're counting on them to move forward."

Mimi Sheffer hoped the message sunk in with the folks who turned out for Thursday's event, co-sponsored by the Junior Leagues of Manatee and Sarasota.

"What people hopefully took away from this is we can all be heroes in our everyday lives," said the Manatee Junior League past president. "We can all be leaders, find our gift and better the world."

Thomas' words carried weight with the many veterans in attendance.

Bill Hilton, who served with the 101st Airborne, was one of them.

"Integrity and commitment. No compromise," the longtime fitness trainer said of Thomas' speech. "It's what I was taught and I think people grasped that."

Cynthia Fluck, an Annapolis graduate and former Naval aviator, certainly did.

"It's always motivating to hear someone who's been there talk about what it's really like and the meaning behind all of it," Fluck said. "I think so many Americans miss the point. People need to realize people are counting on you."

Thomas' talk also resonated with civilians such as Carol Russ.

"Helping each other is the biggest thing, being able to give of your service, your time, your knowledge, especially as you get older," she said.

Marjorie Singer, donor relations manager at Southeastern Guide Dogs, agreed.

"There's is something everyone can do," she said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service