Screen Test

For soldier Matt Eversmann, Hollywood sets straight the reputation of a dangerous battle in 'Black Hawk Down.' But seeing his life on the big screen has its own special effect.

January 17, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

CARLISLE, PA. - These days, Matt Eversmann feels compelled to distinguish himself from "the other Matt Eversmann."

It's not that he didn't do some of what that other Matt Eversmann does, but he did not do everything the other Matt Eversmann does. Other people did those things done by the other Matt Eversmann, but not Matt Eversmann.

Got it?

Matt Eversmann - the Matt Eversmann - is not suffering from a multiple personality disorder, although keeping a firm grasp on his own identity is less a given than it used to be. Tomorrow, as the movie Black Hawk Down opens nationwide, Eversmann joins the select few who find themselves in the thoroughly modern but peculiar position of seeing themselves, or a Hollywood version of themselves, blown up onto movie screens two stories tall. In Technicolor. With Sony Dynamic Digital Sound.

And that Matt Eversmann will be the one and only version most Americans will ever know.

The film's Matt Eversmann is a couple inches shorter and has a far thicker head of hair than the original. If the real Matt Eversmann is flattered by the good looks of Josh Hartnett, his screen counterpart, what concerns him far more is how he and his real-life comrades are depicted during the Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu, the biggest fight by American soldiers since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

On that score, Eversmann, now 35 and a sergeant first class stationed here at the U.S. Army War College as an operations officer, pronounces himself satisfied. He has now seen the film three times, once last month at a glittering Los Angeles premiere.

"The movie is very good in projecting the theme of the book, brave men in a very difficult situation who account for themselves and their country well."

If that is not the most effusive endorsement, you should know two things about Eversmann, the one-time Army Ranger. No. 1, like most military officers, he is prone to treat an interview with an unfamiliar reporter as the equivalent of walking through a minefield. Careful you don't get blown up. And No. 2, whatever he might have thought about reporters, he probably thought even less of those who make films.

"Like a lot of people," he says, "I had a jaded view of Hollywood."

And like all the surviving soldiers of Task Force Ranger and that ferocious 1993 battle in Somalia, Eversmann felt he had every reason to be wary. For years, they felt they were fighting - and losing - a second battle over how to interpret what had happened that terrible day.

These are the bare facts: A straightforward American military operation to snatch two key lieutenants of the bloody-minded Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid devolved into a horrific firefight in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, 18 U.S. soldiers killed and dozens wounded.

When it was over, much of the press and Congress depicted the battle as a humiliating debacle for the world's only superpower at the hands of a ragtag collection of gunmen and thugs, underscored by shocking footage of Somalis gleefully dragging the bodies of American soldiers along the streets of Mogadishu. Eager to quickly bury the event in the past, President Clinton ordered a pullout from Somalia within five months.

But the men of Task Force Ranger have always bristled at the notion that Mogadishu represented their humbling. "It stings when you hear people refer to it as a failure," says Eversmann. It was not a failure, he insists, but a success.

What he means is that the Americans accomplished what they set out to do, which was to grab Aidid's henchmen.

If the cost was far too great - and it's hard to argue otherwise - what happened that day cannot be evaluated only in terms of the mission's objective. Trapped and surrounded in the most hostile environment conceivable, American soldiers showed almost unimaginable courage and devotion to one another. As bad as their losses were, their valor prevented a far greater catastrophe.

Mark Bowden, a Baltimore native, Loyola College graduate and former News-American columnist, helped bring to light this revisionist version of the battle, first in a series he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then in his 1999 book Black Hawk Down, upon which the movie is based.

The very first participant Bowden interviewed and the first character introduced in the book was Eversmann, who was happy to help correct the record.

On Oct. 3, 1993, Eversmann, a 26-year-old staff sergeant in the task force, led a group of men who were dropped by helicopter into Mogadishu. They were to take control of one of the intersections around the building occupied by Aidid's men. Meanwhile, a unit of Delta Force operators were to storm the building and grab the men.

It was the seventh mission for Task Force Ranger since it had arrived two months earlier. Although they had met some resistance on the earlier occasions, it had been scattered and ineffective. Eversmann never had cause to even fire his weapon.

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