By Lorae Kinseth, The Navigators
His Black Hawk went down 20 years ago in the mean streets of Somalia’s capital, eight days before the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in the same area, later captured in the Academy Award-winning film by the same name.
U.S. Army pilot Perry Alliman and pilot Dale Shrader had been flying together for two months, serving a tour at the height of tensions in Somalia in 1993. The nation was enveloped in civil war, and in the middle of a severe famine.
“We went into the situation to stop the starvation,” Perry says. President Clinton joined efforts by the U.N. to create a representative form of government, which did not sit well with military commander Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who went on the offensive against the U.N.
On September 25, 1993 Dale and Perry flew their nine-101st Airborne Division aircraft across the enemy landscape, sending rebels a strong message. We are watching you. Watching bases, watching for mounting attacks. The mission went smoothly, at first.
They stopped at around 2:00 a.m. to do a “hot” refuel—refueling while leaving the Black Hawk running.
Then suddenly the Somalis fired three mortars at the aircraft, exploding mere feet away.
“By the time the last one hit, our Crew Chief, Sergeant Williams, unhooked the aircraft from the refuel point,” Perry says. “He jumped back in the aircraft and we flew.”
After landing again, they assessed for damage, and appeared to be okay. Soon, they were airborne, searching for those responsible. But rebels found them first.
At about 100 feet from the ground, traveling between 130 and 140 miles per hour, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Black Hawk’s belly, causing a massive explosion. They did a diving right turn, and crashed into the street.
“A fireball rolled over us inside the aircraft,” Perry remembers. “Somehow I got out through the windshield, and I met Dale off the front of the aircraft. I told him I was burned really bad.”
“Really bad” meant a full third of Perry’s body, face included. Dale’s shoulder and right side of his face were also burned. Perry’s face, which hit a panel on impact, suffered other major damage. The orbital bone of his right eye was broken, his jaw was broken, his sinuses crushed.
Dale sat Perry down and went back for their three comrades.
“The fire was already in our seats, so there was no way to get them out,” Perry says. “The last thing Dale said he saw was Sergeant Williams trying to climb out of his seat and come up to us through the center console.” He didn’t make it. None of the other men survived.
Dale returned alone and guided Perry, who was temporarily blinded, down an alley. They attempted to radio for help, but one radio was broken, and the other missing. Hearing two Somalis coming, they quickly stuck their flashlight in the dirt. Laying in the dark, they watched the two Somalis pass by. They came back, and spotted Dale.
The rebels tossed a hand grenade. Dale fired a round to push them back. More hand grenades. This went on for about an hour.
Then Dale ran out of ammunition.
A prayer for help
“Once we were out of ammo, Dale came over to me and knelt down,” Perry remembers. “He prayed, ‘Lord, forgive me for not sharing Christ with more people, but we’re ready to come home now.’ ”
He finished praying. Almost immediately, an answer to Dale’s prayer came in the form of a child shouting to them.
“American boys, American boys!”
A Somali boy stood in the alleyway. Dale went out to him, cautiously, warning that he had a gun.
“The kid just pointed down the street—and down the street was an armored personnel carrier from the United Arab Emirates,” Perry says, the relief still lingering in his voice.
“Dale got me up, and they got us out of there.”
Most of Perry’s recollections of that night come second-hand—Dale remembers far more of the details. Some memories, mercifully, are little more than shadows.
Perry endured six weeks in the hospital, six surgeries, multiple skin grafts, and six months of physical therapy. He still has problems with his vision. His skin grafts can’t sweat, so he overheats easily and must stay hydrated. He can’t feel the right side of his lip, and has lost some feeling in his right arm.
Many people ask Perry if he ever asks God why this happened to him. He never has.
“It’s actually deepened my faith,” Perry says. “It’s made me confident that no matter what happens, He is in control. If He wants me alive, there is nothing anybody can do to stop it. It’s given me tons of confidence to really go anywhere and do anything that He’s calling me to do, without fear of it ending badly.”
“I’m still sad about my guys that died,” Perry says. “I lost three guys.”
It would be understandable to succumb to fear and bitterness after walking through such darkness. But Perry, who served in the military 10 more years after his accident — and even served in Iraq –doesn’t see life that way. He sees what God continues to do through his life, and every experience that “interferes” with it. He sees his chance to impact the next generation of soldiers for Jesus. Because it’s all about Him anyway.
“In a lot of ways, the military is kind of a dark place,” Perry says. “If a young guy doesn’t figure out how to walk in fellowship and come to Christ, he could easily slip away.”
That’s the field where Perry continues to lay everything down.
Perry, who served in the Army for a total of 25 years before retiring in 2005, now works as a Department of the Army Civilian and Course Manager for the Aviation Safety Officer Course. He also serves with The Navigators, a Christian discipleship ministry, working mostly among helicopter flight school students at Fort Rucker, a U.S. Army base in Alabama.
“On Wednesdays, I get to see 60 to 100 students who are in training here,” Perry says. “I get to interact with these guys one-on-one, or in groups of two or three. I’m able to share the Gospel with them, or just help them with general counseling.”
Perry and his wife, Debbie, who have three adult children of their own, also teach Bible studies and invite students over for fellowship in their home. Inevitably, they grow very close to the students in their care.
“They are very transient, and the time we have is very limited,” Perry says. “We invest pretty heavily in them, and then they leave. I kind of see us as a sending ministry. We hope to get them established in their walk, and then when they leave, they’ll plug into another ministry.”
For the Allimans, this “tour of duty” is never over.
“One of the things I’m learning is that it’s very possible to have a full-time job and do full-time ministry,” Perry says. “I would love to see everyone in ministry get the vision that this is not a thing you do for a season.”
Perry doesn’t think he’ll ever retire from ministry. “We’ve found what we want to give our lives in exchange for,” Perry says. “It is other people. And we’re having tremendous fun.”