'Black Hawk Down' Veteran Talks Leadership

Retired Army Maj. Jeffrey Struecker speaks in the Hall of Valor Jan. 30 as part of the Center for Leadership and Ethics' courageous leadership series.—VMI Photo by Maj. John Robertson IV.

LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 31, 2019—More than 200 cadets, VMI employees, and members of the community gathered in the Hall of Valor last night to hear retired Army Maj. Jeffrey Struecker speak about fear, faith, loyalty, and leadership.

Struecker is best known as the enlisted Army ranger who led his three-Humvee convoy through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, to evacuate Pfc. Todd Blackburn from the searing firefight that inspired the movie Black Hawk Down.  He served for 10 years in the 75th Ranger Regiment, enlisting at age 18, earned a commission, and retired after more than 22 years of service. He spent the final 10 years of his military career as a chaplain.

Struecker’s reputation as a war hero and faith leader brought the crowd to its feet as soon as he walked onto the stage, and Struecker returned the crowd’s affection.

“I am a huge fan of this institution,” said Struecker. “Because of the leaders that this institution has created and what they have done for our country over more than 100 years, this institution has always meant a great deal to me.”

His talk was part of the Center for Leadership and Ethics’ courageous leadership series and the full version is available on YouTube. Struecker recalled the events of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 U.S. service members were killed and 73 wounded. He used the battle as a means of relating leadership lessons.

Struecker shared his reaction to the death of Sgt. Dominick Pilla, who was killed as the convoy returned to base under heavy fire.

“When I looked over the back of my shoulder, it was like the whole back of that Humvee had been painted red,” said Struecker. “As a combat leader, I want you to hear something… at this moment I was terrified for my own life.”

Struecker went on to describe how he took charge of the situation. With the knowledge that the lives of his soldiers depended on maintaining self-control, he overcame that fear and directed his convoy through the firefight, back to base, and into battle again.

“It’s hard to lead men into a firefight.  It’s exceptionally hard to lead men back into the firefight that you just came out of,” said Struecker.

“What moves a man to get back into those Humvees?” Struecker asked the audience. “The thing that will move a man or a woman to do something like this is love.  Love for your buddies.”

Those personal bonds, Struecker emphasized, are the key to exceptional leadership in all walks of life.

“Loyalty is the currency that allows a leader to lead with courage on the battlefield. Loyalty is the currency that allows somebody to lead with courage in a boardroom.  It’s the currency that allows somebody to lead with courage in their living room or their kitchen.”

Struecker took time to express his admiration for one member of the audience familiar to many in the VMI community—local physician Dr. John “Rob” Marsh, who led the medical team that saved dozens of lives during the battle.

“Frankly, it was your self-control that caused me to start to get things under control,” Struecker said to Marsh during the talk.  “There are several men from Task Force Ranger that are alive because of him.”

Throughout his address, Struecker alluded to the role that his faith played in his life and how it has influenced his decision making.  He spoke more specifically about his faith during a prayer breakfast this morning in Crozet Hall. Cadet chaplain Emily Kirk '19 attended Struecker’s talk and the breakfast.

 “It was almost overwhelming to see how his faith played a role in his actions and leadership style, not only in Somalia, but in his life in general,” said Kirk. “He talked about looking at life through a faith lens and that statement really made me evaluate my life and how I interact with others.”

 -Maj. John Robertson IV


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