URBANA — Law-enforcement officials from all over East Central Illinois convened in Urbana to hear from someone who has proven he knows how to lead.
It was not just a day to share war stories; retired Army Col. Danny McKnight told area police about his Oct. 3, 1993, mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, the basis for the novel and movie "Black Hawk Down." McKnight, who retired in 2002, now offers motivational seminars aimed at highlighting the importance of leadership.
Still, it's a heck of a war story.
"It was by far the most intense combat I'd ever been in," McKnight said Monday.
During the 1993 mission, U.S. Army Rangers were dropped into a war-torn hotbed to capture Somalian warlords. After two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, the soldiers spent 19 hours trying to secure those crash sites and find a way out of the city, where they had only planned to spend an afternoon.
When they made it out the next day, after spending the night fending off Somali forces, 18 Americans had been killed.
"It was a tough day, but I'm here because of guys like these," said McKnight, referring to three former soldiers he had brought to the seminar with him. "And I hope they're here because of something I did for them because we're a team."
Now, he said, he uses the experiences he amassed in his 28 1/2-year military career to "reinforce" his lessons of leadership.
"Leadership is the single most important attribute in the success of our country in the last 235 years," he said.
McKnight said he speaks, on average, at 80 to 85 leadership seminars per year. Most of those are in front of law-enforcement-related audiences like Monday's. The daylong talk was organized by the East Central Illinois Police Training Project and paid for by the Department of Homeland Security.
Champaign police Lt. Jon Swenson said the seminar was very interesting, and "it certainly reinforced some beliefs I had about leadership."
Swenson said McKnight's information related well.
"There's quite a few similarities with regard to leadership between the military and the law-enforcement profession," Swenson said.
The three former soldiers McKnight invited to speak on Monday were also involved in the Oct. 3, 1993 battle. Brad Paulsen of Wonder Lake manned a .50-caliber machine-gun turret on the top of the lead vehicle of a convoy trying to leave the city.
John Collett, who now lives in Chicago, said he spent the night in a courtyard, not far from the body of another soldier, waiting with others for a convoy to get them out.
"That was a super-surreal moment," Collett said.
Collett said he had meaningful conversations with the other soldiers while they were waiting.
"It's about building that trust and having that type of relationship that's important to leadership," Collett said.
Dale Sizemore, who lives in McLean, was also portrayed in the movie. His character is held out of the battle at first because of an injured arm. As he sits in a hangar listening to the radio traffic, hearing the trouble his friends are in, he threatens to cut off the cast on his arm to persuade a superior officer to let him go out and fight.
In real life, he really did cut off the cast.
An audience member Monday asked him how he and the others dealt with what was going on during the battle.
"We train, train, train," he said. "You're ready for as much as you can be ready for," and your "buddies" get you the rest of the way through.