ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Virginia — Jeffrey Bray, a hero soldier who was awarded the Silver Star for saving dozens of lives in the famed “Black Hawk Down” battle in Somalia in 1993, has died at age 49.
Bray, an Air Force sergeant, was credited with coming up with a novel defense of the men pinned down by militiamen in Mogadishu, coordinating airstrikes amid close-quarter urban combat and creating methods that would later become a blueprint for U.S. forces in Iraq.
“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of urban warfare and it gave us a really good look at how we conduct operations in an urban environment,” said Tech. Sgt. Tim Wilkinson, who was awarded the Air Force Cross for his role in the battle.
Bray was among the soldiers sent to help rescue the crews of two Black Hawk helicopters that had been shot down over the Somali capital. But the rescue teams quickly found themselves surrounded and the a pitched battle ensued that left 18 U.S. servicemen dead and 73 wounded over the course of two days.
The fierce fighting later would become the subject of a book, “Black Hawk Down,” which was adapted into a 2001 film of the same name that starred Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore.
While Bray had not had experience with urban warfare, he quickly came up with a system of distinguishing his men’s positions from those of the enemy, enabling helicopter gunships to provide the trapped men cover without accidentally hitting them.
In some of the the fiercest combat, Bray’s system allowed successful air strikes to be delivered to enemy positions just 35 feet from where his men were holed up, driving the militiamen back.
According to an account he gave in a 1994 Airman magazine, Bray said he sent runners to mark locations with infrared strobe lights only visible to U.S. aircraft. When the runners spotted target positions, they would relay it to Bray, who plotted the locations and called in airstrikes.
In some cases, when airstrikes would miss their target, Bray braved heavy enemy fire to help pinpoint exact enemy locations.
Officials credited Bray’s actions with saving numerous lives and he was awarded a Silver Star by President Clinton.
“Sergeant Bray’s efforts were paramount in the limitation of casualties and safe evacuation of all U.S. soldiers in an intense 18-hour long firefight. By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Sergeant Bray reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force,” the citation read.
Afterwards, Bray became an instructor in conducting airstrikes in such close-quarter urban combat situations.
“In Mogadishu, Jeff saved dozen of lives: men who were able to come home and either return to their families or someday start a family of their own,” said retired Col. Kurt Buller, a former special tactics officer. “As an instructor, he was exceedingly demanding of our technical skills … his training kept us alive in combat, I’m sure of it.
“The majority of the guys Jeff taught went on to fight post 9/11 and were tested the way Jeff was tested,” Buller said. “Besides being a great person and a great operator — his legacy was the training he provided to the scores of guys at the squadron, who would ultimately go on to be successful in combat as well.”
Bray died on Oct. 24 in Asheboro, North Carolina where he lived with his wife. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery on Dec. 30.