Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Keni Thomas, motivational speaker, musician, and author of Get it On What it Means to Lead the Way.
Keni, as a member of Bravo Company of the 3rd Ranger Battalion was deployed to Mogadishu Somalia as part of a special operations package called Tasked Force Ranger. Their mission was to find and capture a criminal warlord named Mohammed Farrah Aideed. Outnumbered 10 to 1, the men of TFR distinguished themselves in an 18-hour fire fight that would later be recounted in the highly successful book and movie Blackhawk Down . 19 Americans died and 78 were wounded.
Keni got out of the Army to pursue his music career and now works full time as an award winning Nashville recording artist. His band Cornbread was featured in the movie Sweet Home Alabama and regularly tours with the USO to perform for the USA military personnel serving in the Middle East. Keni has been recognized by congress and the White House, as well as being recently inducted into the VFW Hall of Fame for his dedicated work on behalf of USA veterans and military families. He is also very proud to be a national spokesperson for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation which provides college educations to the children of our special operations personnel killed in combat or training.
Keni is a graduate of the University of Florida, a recipient of the American Patriot Award and the Bronze Star for Valor.
Norm: Good day Keni and thanks for participating in our interview.
Could you tell us more about your experience as part of the special operations called Tasked Force Ranger to find and capture the criminal warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed? What did you learn from the experience and how has it influenced your life?
Well, these are two huge questions I could never answer in one sitting. “Tell us about your experience.” And “How has combat changed my life?” The first question took me an entire book to try and accurately describe my experience, and I still don't think I fully covered it!
To give you some perspective of my role in the mission, I was a team leader in B company of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. My squad was part of the air assault element that went in on the original raid. The mission was a success. We wrapped up the target building in about a half hour. We were waiting to go back to base, when the first helicopter got shot down. And that’s when everything changed.
The 85 of us on the target building would now move on foot to the crash site to try and help. We stayed there fighting into the night until the next morning when the convoy of vehicles was finally able to push through to us. We loaded up all our wounded and then ran out of the city.
How has combat affected my life? Not a day goes by that I don't think about that battle in one way or another. Your feelings and what you learn from it evolves over time. But for those of us who make it back from something where others did not, you will spend the rest of your life thanking those people on your left and right that day. Because I know by the grace of God, the only reason I’m still here is because of them.
Norm: How did you feel about the book and movie, Blackhawk Down? Did it accurately depict the event or was it embellished?
Mark Bowden’s book did an excellent job of making sense of the chaos. There were so many different moving elements of the battle and he was able to make it understandable. There was so much we never knew about each other until Mark started interviewing us. For instance, the guys on the vehicles fought an entirely different battle than those of us at the crash site. Honestly, I don't know how any of those guys survived. The streets were so narrow and they just kept getting hammered by ambush after ambush. It’s a testament to their intestinal fortitude to have kept pushing forward to get to us. If they hadn’t, I’m not sure we would have made it out. We had more wounded than fighting capable and needed their help.
I felt like the movie did a great job with the attention to detail. A lot of people may not know they actually brought in a platoon of Rangers and in fact, some of the pilots who flew the movie were THE actual pilots who flew in the battle. Ridley Scott told us at the premiere, that having the actual guys there changed the way he shot the film. He brought in more cameras and just let them do their thing. So what you are seeing as far as tactically is quite accurate.
Norm: What is your definition of a hero and do you consider yourself a hero?
Keni: I spend a great deal of time around the country as a keynote speaker telling the story of TFR and relating it back to the leadership capabilities of people in the audience. And what I hope they learn from the story is that leadership has nothing to do with the rank. It’s the example we set for the people we serve. But that is a choice we make on a daily basis. Many times we are faced with tough decisions that require us to do something we don't want to have to do. It would be easier to point to someone else and say “someone ought to do something about that”. But if we don't step up then who will?
Norm: What made you become interested in becoming a musician? Do you write and compose your own songs?
Music is a disease. There is no cure and once you are infected, there is no escaping it. I’ve always been a singer. I’ve always been a performer. I started the band while I was in the Army. When I got out, I started focusing and pouring all my efforts into the music. And it paid off. I ended up with a writing deal and a record deal here in Nashville. As a song-writer I still go in every week to write with other writers, in search of that great song hiding somewhere in our hearts. It’s there. But if you don't do the work and make the effort to write, it stays hidden.
Norm: What motivated you to write Get it On What it Means to Lead the Way and could you tell our readers a little about the book?
Keni: People started asking for it. After the speaking events, folks would say, “I wish you would write a book. We’d love to hear more.” Now if you had asked me if I was planning on writing it from a faith-based point of view, I would have said, “probably not”. I just didn't see myself as a qualified “good-enough” Christian. But I learned that God will use us despite our own doubts, if we let him.
So I set out to tell the story I was telling at speaking events. Rather than recount the entire history of the battle, i focused on the guys around me. Through their stories and the examples they set, I was able to make my point to the reader. You don't have to have rank on your collar or a diploma on your wall to be a great leader. Honestly, I don’t really try to tell people how to go about being a leader. There are certainly hundreds of self-help books that will cover that topic. I just emphasize how important it is to be one.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your book serves and what matters to you about the book?
Keni: First of all, I hope it honors the guys I got a chance to work with. I owe them my life. Secondly and quite simply, I hope the reader finishes reading it and walks away feeling like they are a little more capable, a little more qualified, and a lot more extraordinary. Because once you begin to see yourself as such, that’s when you start making a bigger effort to live up to it. And that’s when lives are affected and differences are made.
Norm: What was the time-line between the time you decided to write your book and publication? What were the major events along the way?
Keni: If you were to ask me what goes into writing a book, I would say the hardest part about it is starting, and finishing. You have to make the time. You’re also going to need someone to push you, coach you and edit you. I had a great team around me reminding me of deadlines and holding me to higher standard.
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Keni: I learned quite a bit about myself. If the only person who ever got anything from it was me, then that’s ok. I learned I could do it. I’m a surprisingly better writer than I would have thought. Such is the case with most of it. We are better than we tend to give ourselves credit for. And what a shame if we let our own doubts hold us back when something great is there for the making? All you have to do is start and finish.
Norm: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Keni: My favorite part of the speaking events is meeting people afterwards at the book signing. Because then you get to hear their stories. The feedback I get is overwhelmingly “thank you for sharing your faith”, which still takes me by surprise because I thought my faith was lacking and ordinary. I am learning that wherever we are in our walk, we are farther along than others. And God will use you to help others if you are willing to let him.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your book?
Keni: MY WEBSITE
Keni: Right now, we’re creating a workbook that would be helpful for small group-studies or men’s groups looking to become stronger leaders. It would parallel the leadership lessons I try to illustrate in the book using practical lesson and extraordinary stories as motivation. Remember, leadership is the example we set for the people we serve.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Keni: If you had to sum up, in one word, the entire experience of your part in such an historic event, what would it be?
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Keni: Of course. It’s always an honor and a privilege to tell the story of Task Force Ranger to all who will listen. Thank you for giving me that opportunity. Godspeed. RLTW!
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