Cleo Riley is far from the dusty, battle-blistered landscape she surveyed as an MP in the US Army. Today she sits at home popping medications to counter her anxieties, while that city, a half a world away, continues to be wracked by tribal violence, despondency – and a constant shortage of things like food, medicine and clean water.
Cleo Riley, now 37, served not in Baghdad but her fate was met in Somalia, 15 years ago during a US “peacekeeping” mission that ended with the death of 19 American soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu.
I interviewed Riley for my current piece on Women in War for TAC. She was among the first female MPs on an overseas mission since the Army opened up a broad swath of new positions to women in the early 1990’s. Her time in Africa was not uneventful. Serving as a Guard where US forces were headquartered at Mogadishu University, Riley said they took nightly sniper fire. Children, orphaned by brutal violence in villages nearby would beg at the gates by day (and sleep on pallets outside at night if they could). Leaving the camp brought more uncertainty – ambushes by tribal fighters were not uncommon, she said, as her American unit guarded food convoys to “the middle of nowhere.”
Riley didn’t fare so well when she got home, a few months before the aforementioned October 1993 “Blackhawk Down” incursion, in which bodies of US soldiers were dragged through the streets by militiamen and civilians. She has tried killing herself. She wrote a book, A Soldier’s Journey and the Battle Within and still complains that the VA in Phoenix has yet to set up group therapy for women with combat-related stress, despite the number of women coming home from Iraq (more than 36,000 have sought VA care nationwide since coming home from the war).
She never questions why she was in Somalia, though today it looks much the same as it did a decade ago, like she and her team were never there:
From the The New York Times 3/28 — They say Mogadishu is more capriciously violent than it has ever been, with roadside bombs, militias shelling one another across neighborhoods, doctors getting shot in the head and 10-year-olds hurling grenades. Police officials said that many insurgents were actually hungry children paid a few dollars for their work…
“It’s like ‘Mad Max’ out there,” said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large, pointing from the presidential palace north toward the expanse of huts and ruins stretching into the distance.
Humanitarian aid groups are threatening to pull out, saying it’s become too dangerous to operate.
US involvement is much different today. It supports African Union peacekeepers there to protect an extremely brittle transitional government (which most experts on the region recognize doesn’t have a proverbial chance in hell of succeeding long-term), but stops short of endorsing UN troops on the ground. Besides making it impossible for the transitional government to function, Islamist insurgents have — in the past, and making some inroads today – taken over entire towns with a combination of force, fear and promises to restore order and provide social services (sound familiar?) Apparently abandoning an earlier plan to back unpopular warlords against the Islamists, the US has turned to chasing down individuals from the sky over Somalia. It’s engaged in four air strikes against suspected terrorist targets since January 2007, reportedly killing more civilians than actual terrorists. Administration supporters nonetheless continue to describe the strikes as part of successful GWOT strategy:
Charles Krauthammer, Fox News, 3/8 — We have not had an insignificant attack even on our embassies abroad. And I think it shows that this overall strategy is succeeding, despite the claims of Democrats that we are losing the war on terror, or al-Qaeda is stronger now than at any point since 9/11.
It is very weak, scattered, and hiding in places like Somalia.
But not so weak, it seems, that the State Department felt the need to declare the Islamist al-Shabab movement a terrorist organization due to its alleged al Qaeda connections last month. That group has been accused of attacking Ethiopian forces supporting the transitional government, beheading government officials, plotting to kill Ugandan peacekeepers and this week was accused of killing four teachers — two British nationals and two Kenyans — in the small town of Belet Weyne, which it overrun. Islamist fighters connected to the former Islamic Courts Union, reportedly took over another town, 50 miles outside of Mogadishu, in March.
Meanwhile, Cleo Riley recalls her time in 1993 like it was yesterday. Too bad everyone else, it seems, has chosen to forget. Let’s pray our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, years from now, don’t suffer the same fate.