From Somalia to country star: UF grad's story

Published: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 11:31 p.m.
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University of Florida graduate Keni Thomas sings his hit song "Not Me" for members of the National Agriculture Ambassadors Conference in the J. Wayne Reitz Union Grand Ballroom on Friday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
On Oct. 3, 1993, Sgt. Keni Thomas was enjoying a scheduled day off, writing a letter to his mother as fellow American soldiers stationed in Somalia played volleyball nearby. Then, from an airplane hanger, a voice screamed, "Alright, get it on!"
Within minutes, the Army Rangers were on Black Hawk helicopters, slicing through the dust over Mogadishu en route to "kick in the doors" and capture warlords working under Gen. Mohammed Farah Adid.
"You prepare yourself. Train as you fight, fight as you train . . . Once you get the call, you just do it," the Gainesville-bred Thomas told about 350 college students Friday at the University of Florida.
As a keynote speaker for the National Agriculture Ambassador Conference, the 1989 UF graduate brought students to tears and the room to its feet as he detailed - often with humor - his role in the famed Black Hawk Down mission. And, in keeping with the event's theme, Thomas hammered home one question: If I don't, who will?
Based in Columbus, Ga., Thomas is a country singer/songwriter whose patriotic 2004 CD "Flags of Our Fathers: A Soldier's Story" produced the Top 4O hit "Not Me," an ode to leaders. The CD combines his music with his esteemed military experience.
Thomas was awarded a Bronze Star of Valor for the ill-fated mission in Somalia, which has been detailed in books and the 2001 movie "Black Hawk Down."
On Friday, he used his war stories to stress leadership by example, placing the packed ballroom into the thick of the fight, an 18-hour, bloody battle that was waged after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down upon returning from the mission. In fact, Thomas recalled, he was on the helicopter thinking about finishing his letter to his mother with a nod to the day's success.
"Then, just like that, the first Black Hawk went down," he told the crowd. "The bird (in front of us) went down. Now the mission had changed."
They found themselves in a fierce ground battle as they tried to secure the crash sites. Thomas said he stuck to his training, at one point - facing fire and out of ammunition - firing a Vietnam-era, shoulder rocket launcher he had always detested carrying. The blast silenced his attackers, he said. Never, he added, question the value of being prepared.
Eighteen American soldiers died in those 18 hours; many of the casualties were friends - Thomas wears KIA bracelets in their honor.
He spoke of guilt, addressing the nagging question that lingers after any tragedy claims lives: Why am I still here?
"As a leader, you constantly recycle that. 'Did I do the right thing?' " he said. It remains on his mind constantly. But, he told the students, he goes to bed at ease each night, knowing he did the right thing - staying focused, staying a leader, ultimately protecting his men.
"You train as you fight, you fight as you train," he repeated. "Strength of character saves the day . . . Lead by example. The people around you are taking notice, I guarantee it."
He praised the national agriculture group - 35 colleges strong - for its leadership and, in the end, addressed the question - If I don't, who will? - in song.
At that point, Thomas the speaker and military hero became Thomas the country star, picking up his guitar and performing his bittersweet ballad "Not Me": "The world becomes a better place/When someone stands and leads the way/Steps forward when they'd rather say not me."
He was greeted with a standing ovation, several female agriculture ambassadors wiping away tears. "He was one of the best speakers I've ever heard," Karen Grubb, a senior at Penn State, said as the applause died down.
"His humility speaks very well of him," added Penn State junior Javier Moreno.
"I really liked his message," said Julie Chandler, a UF ambassador and one of the day's emcees. "That was something we were trying to stress: If I don't, who will?"

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