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U.S. Prisoner Now Symbolizes Somalia Debate

October 6, 1993

Undated (AP) _ The image is all too familiar. A battered and scared American speaks tersely to his faceless captors for a worldwide audience.

Once again a foreign policy crisis takes on a human face.

Before this weekend Michael Durant was defined by his relations and accomplishments: Son of a military man. A husband. A father. A man who hunted and fished and loved to fly.

A man who, at age 32, had hustled his way up the enlisted ranks to chief warrant officer, piloting a hot helicopter in an elite special operations unit.

Now, suddenly, he has become a focal point for debate on the U.S. role in Somalia.

″Usually local school board issues are the topic of conversation. Today that all seemed pretty trivial,″ said Rod Ross, host of ″The Forum″ talk show on radio station WMOU-AM in Berlin, N.H., where Durant graduated from Berlin High School 14 years ago.

″All the calls were about Durant and Somalia. Almost everybody who called was against our involvement there,″ Ross said.

By midday, the mill town of 12,500 near the Canadian border was dotted with yellow ribbons on buildings and car antennas.

″It’s just overwhelming to see the yellow ribbons and the flags and to hear the support and the patriotism and the love for Mike and his family,″ said Nancy Labrie-Davidson, a cousin.

Durant, a pilot with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based in Fort Campbell, Ky., was captured Sunday after his Blackhawk helicopter was shot down during a raid to capture militia members loyal to Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

Another helicopter was shot down during the raid that saw heavy fighting between U.N. troops and Somali militia. Twelve Americans were killed.

In a videotape released by his captors, Durant appeared to be wounded, with a blanket covering his twisted legs. His face was bloodied and bruised. He seemed cautious and frightened as an unseen interrogator asked about his role in the fighting.

″I’m a soldier, I have to do what I’m told,″ Durant said.

When asked whether he agreed with the killing of innocent people, Durant replied, ″Innocent people being killed is not good.″

Ross, whose son was friends with Durant, said the images were disturbing.

″You could see the same familiar mannerisms. He always was a very confident young man,″ he said. ″To see him shaken was very troubling. But I was impressed how well he handled himself considering the pressure he was under.″

Other friends recall Durant as a straight-A student, an amateur boxer and an avid outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing. A set of antlers from a deer he took at age 16 is on the wall of his family’s home.

″He was a pretty outgoing guy. Anything he wanted to do, he could do it,″ said Leo Landers, a classmate in high school who was an usher at Durant’s wedding.

Once in the Army, Durant went to language school and became fluent in Spanish. He served in Panama before enrolling in helicopter flight school.

″He loves to fly,″ Landers said. ″He always talked about renting a helicopter and landing at Memorial Field behind his family’s house.″

Five years ago, Durant married his wife, Lorrie, the daughter of a retired Army officer at Fort Campbell. Their son, Joey, was born last year.

On Wednesday, the family’s rented red brick house on the outskirts of Clarksville, Tenn., was besieged by reporters as family and friends made their way up the gravel driveway. Durant’s parents, Louise and Leon, who served 45 years in the New Hampshire National Guard, flew to Clarksville on Wednesday morning.

A rocking chair for two sat empty and motionless on the porch of the silent home.

″I can only imagine the fear she’s feeling at this time,″ said Josie Cobb, a neighbor. ″It’s terrible. We originally went to Somalia to help the food get to starving people and now what is happening? All of a sudden we’re fighting. It’s just not right.″

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