I met Matt Rierson at the Special Forces Underwater Operations (SFUWO) Academy on my second attempt to pass that course in Key West, Florida, in 1986. I was, at that time, assigned to Combat Dive Team ODA 155 at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Matt was attending that same course coming from 2/75 Ranger Battalion, also out of Ft. Lewis. Being thrust together into a class of some 60 students coming from any and all Special Operations units, Matt and I deemed it sensible to hang together for the simple reason that we were both from Ft. Lewis. I, being reverent toward and appreciative of U.S. Army Rangers in general, was confident that Matt would not be quitting anything anytime soon. That would be yet another good reason to hang out with Ranger Rierson.
It took less than a day to conclude that not only was Matt a bad-ass Ranger, but also an all-around solid fellow of strong character and immense courage. He was a devoted family man with a wife, and at that time, just his one son, Kaleb. Matt had no vices; I kept mine in check for those next 30 days out of respect for him. We hung together as as much as was practical, ate all three meals together daily, chilled near the barracks on the weekends, and even gravitated toward each other during class breaks for a quick sanity check and motivational ribbing.
Every morning, there was the infamous PT hazing session that lasted for only about an hour, but was designed to crush the spirit in all but the most motivated participants. I knew from my earlier experience that the two-mile runs the sessions started off with were nearly impossible to stay with as a formation. As the first run of the first morning was shot from a cannon, I found myself behind the formation by about a dozen meters. Low and behold, there was Matt plodding along at my same pace, his feet slapping the ground loudly, reminding me of Frankenstein’s monster running alongside me. We didn’t talk, we just maintained our pace. By the time the two miles were up, we found the formation slowly collapsing back on us from the front. We ultimately always finished with the formations, and we always shook hands quietly at the end of each run.
We both graduated that course and flew back to SeaTac, Washington together, where I briefly met his wife, Trish. We shook hands a final time and returned to our respective units to resume usual duty, now qualified as combat divers. I soon requested an assignment as a cadre member at SWUFO a couple of years later, as I was due for a mandatory Special Warfare Center (SWIC) levy to serve a term as an instructor in one of the many Special Forces training venues. I moved to take charge of my fate and make the best of the levy. After all, what duty could be better than that spent as a combat dive instructor in Key West?
I was stuck in the force-muliplying SFUWO when the first war in Iraq broke out. There came news one day that a local Key West man, MSG Eloy Rodriguez, had been killed in-country, and that there would be funeral services for him on Wednesday of that week. Rumor was, MSG Rodriguez had been a medic attached to Delta when he was killed in a Blackhawk helo crash during a sandstorm. I chose to attend the funeral service for the man, and what’s more, I would do it right and get dressed in my Class-A uniform to show some respect for a great American.
At the funeral, I noted that the front two rows of pews on one side were filled with civilian men of a particularly rigid stature, decked out smartly in tasteful business suits of worsted wool and subtle pin stripes.
Whispering near where I sat suggested that those were Delta operators from the assault squadron that MSG Rodriquez was attached to. My attention was drawn to an individual in particular who I found to be oddly familiar, although I couldn’t draw a conclusion as to who it could be. When services were over and the church crowd dispatched, I heard my name called from behind. I turned to find the mystery suit-clad individual standing in front of me—none other than Ranger Matt Rierson holding his hand out to greet me. “When are you coming over, George?” is all he asked. As I shook his hand, I stumbled with some trite excuses for why I had not tried out for selection: the bone in my leg, the Mrs. and her new job, the trick ankle I had developed in high school doing jack shit…in retrospect, it sounded like my mouth was falling down a flight of stairs.
In my three years assigned to SFUWO in Key West, I watched as the cream of the crop of the cadre tried out for and were accepted by Delta: There went big Dan K.; there went Michael Scott S.; there went Samuel Booth Foster and Kevin “Speedy” W. My rub with the latest commander at the academy coaxed me into the realization that perhaps it was time for me to finally try out, if not to actually make it, then at least for a much-needed break away from SFUWO and the old man.
I tried out for selection in fall of 1990, and by the grace of the Creator and a 30-day out-of-body-experience in West “By God” Virginia, I soon found myself strolling down the “Spine,” the long-axis corridor that traversed the length of the main building inside the Delta Force compound. I inevitably locked eyes one day with Ranger Rierson as he walked toward me with a mop of hair, grinning under an immense mustache that spanned the entire width of his face. The Delta CSM wouldn’t let him grow a vertical Manchu, so out of mild protest, he went horizontal with it, and it traversed ear to ear. We shook hands as was customary while he made some snide comment about me finally overcoming the bone in my leg and my trick ankle. Matt was assigned to C Squadron; I was finally assigned to A Squadron due to my experience in waterborne operations and the pull from my former SFUWO brother Sam Foster.
The days of UN action in Mogadishu, Somalia came, and I watched as C Squadron geared up to deploy overseas on a kill-or-capture mission hunting warlord Muhammad Adid. I stared in awe as C Squadron assaulters entered the mess hall the morning of their deployment dressed in desert tri-color fatigues and sporting fresh Ranger buzzcuts. I didn’t recognize any of them, save for one—Ranger Matt Rierson. There he was in the form I knew him the best: high-and-tight haircut, no facial hair, looking like somebody’s son again. I bid him good luck and he told me to “hurry up and get over there with us as soon as you’re done dicking around at Bragg.” C Squadron deployed to Somalia that day, and A Squadron went into a rehearsal phase for a potential operation in Somalia that lasted nearly three weeks.
I came to work as usual on Oct 4, but rather than our usual priorities of work, we were all summoned to the squadron classroom by the then A Squadron commander, Col. John Quincy A. Once settled, we were shown a newly released video of captured helo pilot Michael Durant, wreckage of MH-60 Blackhawks, and the expired body of William Cleveland being dragged down the streets of Mogadishu. After the video was complete, John Quincy read off a list of the C Squadron men killed in action, followed by a list of the wounded and their status.
He concluded by announcing that A Squadron would muster to deploy to Mogadishu at 2200 hours that same day. Shaken and stirred, I asked Sam what he thought of the situation. He replied that he thought we should go for a thousand-meter swim, which we did. At our 2200-hour muster, we shaved each other’s heads in the crisis lounge of of our squadron bay; hair was swept up in towering piles. As I looked around the room, I was loathe to admit I could scant recognize any of my mates, especially Sam, who routinely wore his hair longer than the CSM allowed him to. That was just Sam Foster; he knew no fear.
When our C-5 landed at the Mog International Airport, we stepped off and were directed immediately to a large formation of guys dressed like us near a hangar. As we drew near, we could see that we were joining a memorial service for the men who had died the night before. General Jim Garrison spoke elegantly and succinctly, and terminated the ceremony with Isaiah 6:8: “Here am I lord, send me.” As we settled in and finally had a chance to seek out our bros in C Squadron, Sam and I walked a zig-zag pattern through the hangar building where C and their Rangers were staying. I had heard by this time that Matt had been through hell, and had lost most of his team in the fight the previous night.
I ran across him sitting on his cot, jotting in a notebook. He didn’t look any different. He looked the usual badass, got-his-shit-together-all-the-time Matt. I mustered up a “Hey Matt!” He looked up at me, expressionless, stood up and shook my hand firmly. “I’m glad you’re here, George. Let’s talk later.” I am not one for venturing platitudes, so a simple yet earnest head nod and a “Roger that” was the sum of my response.
As it grew dark that first evening, we learned there was a mail drop at the tactical operations center (TOC) next to C Squadron’s hanger, so Sam and I decided to drop our wives a quick “All’s well here in the jolly Mog; kiss the kids for me” letter. As Sam and I approached the entrance to the hangar, I could see Matt talking with the bosses—then-Colonel William B., then-major Gary H., and others. We paused to exchange a few words with another C Squadron bud, giving Matt more time to finish his talk with the boss.
There came a sharp sound, a ‘psssssst’ noise like someone opening up a can of soda, followed by a sharp BANG of an explosion and an orange fireball where Matt’s group was standing. A two-second bout of silence was followed by all the lights extinguishing and screams of wounded men begging for medics. Sam and I ducked into the hangar, where I dove behind a “barrier” that turned out to be a mosquito net draped over a cot. Sam appeared on the other side of the net shining a flashlight through it, chuckling and asking me if I felt safe back there. Sam didn’t know fear. I felt like someone was holding a large rubber band stretched back and aimed at my eye, with me unable to look away—just waiting for the snap.
We worked our way through the wounded. Here was a helo crewman laying on his back with both arms locked out straight over his head and clutching tightly a shredded left hand. I stepped over him. Here was Major Gary H., who two men had dragged back into the hangar for cover; his legs were badly peppered with countless frags, and he was howling so sincerely that I recall wishing someone would knock him unconscious to stop his screaming. I moved away from him. Here was our flight surgeon, Doc John M., unconscious and appearing expected to die as he was loaded onto an Israeli litter. I stood clear of him.
Here was Ranger Matthew Rierson lying in a puddle of water, hydraulic fluid, and his blood, the rest of us splashing heavily and clumsily through it trying to tend to him and others. He had a huge hole in his upper rear torso and the back of his head was flattened where it lay on the tarmac. He lay in a low spot of sorts on the tarmac. Nearby pallets of oil, water, and some type of disinfectant were punctured by the mortar splinters, such that all fluids ran down and pooled around Matt.
A medic tried to render resuscitation breaths to Matt which vainly bubbled out the back of his head. Matt didn’t live hardly a full minute with his wounds. Our talk would have to wait; Valhalla would be as good a place as any to chat again with Matt. I remained as I was, infuriated and refusing to believe that there was nothing I could say or do to keep Matt there. It was incomprehensible for him to die for the simple reason that I couldn’t stand the thought of facing his wife and sons to postulate how Matt died in an inflamed boil on the button of the Earth. I stood by him.
Matt died around 2030hrs 06 October, 1993. He was 36 years old.
Five Delta operators died on 03 October, 1993 in the Battle of Mogadishu.
Sam Booth Foster died on 03 October, 1998 of a heart attack while running at top speed through a canyon in Arizona; he was 41 years old.
Exactly 20 years later, on 03 October, Matt’s son Kaleb attended the 20-year reunion of the Battle of Mogadishu in honor of his dad. That night after the reunion, Kaleb was killed in an automobile accident as he departed the event.
In the words of yet another man far better than I ever was or ever will be: “Shit man, when it rains…it pours.”—William “Chief” Carlson, Montana Blackfeet Tribe, A Squadron. Died in an ambush in Afghanistan on October 25, 2003.
(Lead picture curtesy of Joseph Thibodaux)