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Local veteran recalls Somalia mission

Timur Gaston shares her experience of the peacekeeping mission that was all but forgotten before a Hollywood movie rekindled interest in the decade-old mission
News Editor
   Feb. 20, 2002 -- With the recent movie "Black Hawk Down" hitting screens across the nation, new interest in America's military intervention in Somalia a decade ago has emerged.
   The interest, along with a new wave of patriotism since Sept. 11, made Madras-area resident Timur Gaston a popular guest speaker last Thursday in front of Matt Henry's AP civics class at Madras High School.
   Gaston, who served in the Somalian peacekeeping mission for four months in 1993 with the U.S. Army, shared everything from being a woman in the military to her recollection of the campaign and perspective on the popular Hollywood movie.
   Gaston traveled to Somalia in February of 1993 when the U.S. responded with aid and troops to assist the starving population caught in a massive civil war between rivaling warlords.
   "In Africa, they starve the other team out, if you will," Gaston told the class of seniors. "They just starve people they don't like. It's really hard for Western countries to understand."
   The U.S. was attempting to get food to the starving populations and bring the warlords to the table. But after 18 Americans were killed in an attempt to apprehend one of the warlords, the Clinton Administration pulled the plug on the mission under heavy scrutiny.
   "Obviously if you watched `Black Hawk Down' you know it didn't work," Gaston said.
   Gaston served as a postal clerk during her four month stint, which was cut short when her first husband died in a car accident and she returned home.
   She said most people assume it wouldn't be a worthy job for a military person, but delivering mail to homesick soldiers was rewarding.
   "When you're overseas you are worshiped," Gaston said. "You are the only contact to the rest of the world."
   But delivering mail was no monkey's job. When Gaston traveled between the various U.S. military compounds in the Capitol city of Mogadishu, desperate Somalis often would attempt to hijack or raid the trucks hoping to score the goods inside.
   "When you left the compounds you left locked and loaded," Gaston said.
   During one instance, Gaston explained, a Somali jumped onto the back of her truck. The American forces were not allowed to shoot at Somalis unless fired upon first, but Gaston felt threatened by the uninvited guest.
   "I looked him in the eyes and said, `You better get down or I'll shoot you,'" Gaston said. The man took her advice.
   During the nights, U.S. forces were commonly shot at.
   "There were two kinds of people," Gaston said. "The people we were helping and the people who didn't want us there and wanted to keep fighting."
   The events of "Black Hawk Down" happened shortly after Gaston returned home from the war-torn country and at first she feared it had involved the unit she was serving with, but it hadn't.
   "The reason `Black Hawk Down' happened was because the U.S. was transferring power to the U.N. and the Somalis didn't want that to happen," Gaston said. "They felt more protected with the U.S. forces."
   Somalia's infrastructure was in ruins after years of factional fighting. Several civil wars have unraveled African countries since European imperialists colonized the continent, drew borders enclosing historically adversarial tribes with each other, then pulled out leaving governmental voids.
   Gaston said the toughest thing she witnessed were dying babies.
   "There were open graves -- mounds," Gaston said. "They just couldn't bury their dead fast enough."
   Although the U.S. pulled out, she said she didn't consider the venture fruitless.
   "I don't think we failed our mission but it looks like it didn't work," Gaston said.
   "I think the thing we still hadn't learned in '93 was how to send people who were trained for war to do a police mission."
   Despite people's generally negative perception on the Somalian campaign, Gaston told the Madras High School class she felt it is America's duty to step in when those in need call for help.
   "We're the only country that has the money and the resources to do this for the world," Gaston said.
   Several students in the mostly female class wanted to know how she felt about serving in the military as a woman. Gaston noted that women go through the same basic training as men do.
   "I slugged around an M-16 and threw hand grenades," Gaston told her audience. "Women can do this if they want to."
   She said her and her female colleagues often spoke to peace keepers from other nations about their lack of female soldiers. Gaston said the British soldiers told her women were forbidden to serve because of their female instincts to protect at all costs.
   "Women would kill, not take hostages," Gaston said. "That's what they told us."
   Today, Gaston is remarried and works a part-time job at a local business and a full-time job as a mother of two. She raises cattle and hay on a ranch and serves as chaplain for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. She is one of its youngest members.
   Gaston said that while in Somalia, people forgot about the young men and women serving their country. She said the soldiers knew this because they watched the news and noticed that articles about the peacekeeping mission disappeared from the newspapers.
   Gaston said she hopes people still think of the armed forces, including those currently overseas fighting the war on terrorism, because their commitment to complete their mission and return home is always the same regardless of whether their actions are front-page news.
   "It's not that you're there trying to help and you're getting shot at," Gaston said. "It's that you're not home."