By Lynn R. Mitchell
An unassuming man walked to the middle of the stage in front of a room of 300 military veterans and their guests who stood and applauded the Desert Storm veteran, now in his mid-50s. He paused and seemed to take in the faces before him, humbled at the reception. As guests sat down, Dr. Rob Marsh began his story by noting that he doesn’t often speak but, when he does, his priority is with military groups, veterans groups, and medical gatherings that may offer new medical and surgical techniques that can help our soldiers at war.
Then he paused, kind of bowed his head, and quietly said that he would talk with groups if he felt his message could honor the Lord. He went on to add that it was an honor to recognize veterans and their families who sacrificed for America, and noted that he was not speaking as Rob Marsh the soldier but, rather, as Rob Marsh the Christian.
Humble words from a decorated member of the Army’s elite Delta Force who had been awarded the Legion of Merit medal, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart — a flight surgeon who served his fellow soldiers for 20 years before returning home to the Shenandoah Valley to become a beloved country doctor. But his story goes deeper than that, a story some in the room did not know.
Veterans Day 2014 offered the opportunity to listen to Dr. Marsh who was the keynote speaker for Cornerstone Church of Augusta’s Veterans Appreciation Dinner (see Veterans Day 2014 … honoring all who served). A local family practice physician who lives on a farm in southern Augusta County with his wife and children, it is a short commute from there to his rural medical office.
Despite the fact he does not do many speaking engagements, he is well known as the medic portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down,” the 1993 U.S. military mission that sent Special Forces into Mogadishu, Somalia, to capture a Somali warlord. The mission did not go as planned. What was expected to be a quick in-and-out turned into a 24-hour hell hole with the loss of 18 American soldiers while dozens of others were injured, some critically. The Army lost four Black Hawk helicopters.
The unpretentious man before us did not tell us that he was from a prominent Winchester family who had close ties to the White House, or that his father had served four terms as Virginia’s 7th District congressman in the 1960s and had been appointed as personal counsel to President Gerald Ford, and that he was appointed to serve as Secretary of the Army in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The man before us never mentioned any of that. Instead, he mentioned God, country, and service to his fellow man both at war and on the back roads of western Virginia.
As Dr. Marsh stood on stage, he thought a moment, and then began to share the story of how he, in a roundabout way, became a doctor with Delta Force, officially known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), the Army’s elite mission group that was formed in the 1970s to serve as one of the United States military’s primary counter-terrorism units. He ended up spending twenty years in the Army … years that he loved being in the military … but it didn’t start out to be that way.
Growing up in Shenandoah County, he headed to the University of Virginia after graduating from high school. Two years later — here he paused and softly chuckled — he explained that he was not doing too well … one was left to think perhaps he had fallen under the influence of some less-than-stellar peers. That was when his parents intervened.
At a crossroads with his life, Marsh decided to enlist in the Army. Looking to become involved in demolitions, he was told they needed medics so that was the field he entered when sent to Fort Bragg. His time as a medic instilled his love of medicine, something he pursued after returning to UVa, and then he earned his medical degree before returning as an Army doctor to Delta Force whose sole reason for existence was to fight terrorism.
Marsh said his sole mission in the military was to take care of his men in combat and their families back home, something he took to heart. His care and concern was evident in the way he spoke.
In 1990 during Operation Desert Storm, Delta Force was sent to protect Israel. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had begun attacking Israel with SCUD missiles so Delta’s special forces were sent into the desert to find the missiles. During a skirmish, Marsh had been tending the wounded but, as the battle waned, he threw his gear in a helicopter to help in another area and prepared to leave when more casualties began arriving. Instead of boarding the aircraft, he decided to stay behind to care for the wounded so grabbed his gear from the helicopter and instead sent two of his medics to the other location.
Marsh later learned that the helicopter had crashed, killing both medics. As he mourned that loss the next morning, he saw a rainbow over the desert, a rare sight in that arid part of the world, and he found comfort in it, taking it as a reaffirmation of his trust in God. That was a recurring theme throughout his remarks — trust in God, and the power of prayer.
Standing on stage, he was jolted back into the present when his cell phone interrupted the story. He paused, pulled the phone out of his pocket as the crowd chuckled, and laughingly joked that the hospital calls override everything and that he couldn’t get it to stop ringing. Tossing it to one of the young entertainers sitting side-stage, he quipped, “Here, Josh — you young people are better at figuring it out!” It provided a bit of comic relief from the real-life story that had everyone hanging onto his words.
Returning to his memories, Marsh noted that when the “Black Hawk Down” battle occurred in 1993, he had been in Delta Force for ten years. The mission into Mogadishu, Somalia, was supposed to be simple, he said … but those are often the ones that go awry. A bad situation in that part of the world escalated to the point where President Bill Clinton, who had been in office only six months at the time, responded to the call from the United Nations for Delta Force and Army Rangers to go in and take out well-known warlord General Mohammed Farah Aidid who had used his guerrilla forces to hijack UN food supplies sent to the area to help starving Somalis. Skirmishes between Aidid’s forces had resulted in the death of two dozen UN troops and four members of the press corps as well as innocent Somali civilians.
Blending into the crowded urban landscape of Mogadishu, Aidid escaped every attempt to capture him. He was smarter than previous warlords — he had attended school and received military training from the western world and knew the ways of the American military. Because they were battling anti-U.S. and anti-Christian forces, Marsh believes it was our first encounter with al Quaida, the group that would later carry out the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001. But that was eight years down the road. What Delta faced in Mogadishu was unfamiliar territory for American forces, and the resulting clash showed that the U.S. had underestimated its enemy.
Delta went into battle and was quickly in over their heads. The Somalis had learned to shoot down helicopters by training multiple bazookas or anti-aircraft guns on them at the same time, a fatal discovery for the Americans. Added to that was the fact that warfare took place in the city which was Aidid’s territory so the enemy had easy hiding places and knew how to navigate the familiar area.
The battle took place in broad daylight, a dangerous dimension to the situation since Delta forces were most effective working under the cover of darkness. Eight helicopters with the best pilots in the world went in, each with three men on board. Before it was over, four helicopters would be lost. As Marsh talked, he described the confusion of battle. Probably the part most Americans remembered was hearing about Somalis dragging half-naked bodies of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. There was no back up for the American forces inside the city who were left to fend for themselves in enemy territory. The story is well documented not only in the movie “Black Hawk Down” but also in written accounts. It resulted in 98 casualties — eighteen soldiers died. Looking back, Marsh said, all 18 who were wounded had fatal, unsurvivable injuries.
Amazingly, Dr. Marsh — who was in the middle of the hell hole tending the wounded — did not have a scratch on him after the battle ended. His uniform was stiff and covered in dried blood as if it had been starched, he said. They had battled for 24 hours.
Standing on the stage, he paused and slowly shook his head at the memory as if it was unbelievable even all these years later, even as he mourned the loss of brother soldiers.
Mogadishu is on the Indian Ocean and he spoke of seeing the dawn the next morning with its beautiful sunrise in the midst of all the destruction. It reminded him of the rainbow he had seen in the desert, yet again a reminder that God would be there.
Two days later Marsh stood on the tarmac of the airport, surrounded by air ambulances who were there to transport the American wounded, and he remembered seeing the emblem of the American flag on those air ambulances and thought about how heart-warming it was to see fellow Americans taking care of American soldiers.
At that moment, as he talked with those in control of the operation, an incoming rocket exploded and killed the man standing next to him as well as five of the eight commanding officers. Marsh was critically wounded as shrapnel tore into his abdomen and leg. He required 17 units of blood and was close to death. Because of his extensive injuries, he was not expected to live so the Army flew his wife to Germany.
This is where his strong belief in the power of prayer comes into the story because Hebron Church — his family church in Virginia — received word of his devastating injuries which sent them into action. They began a prayer vigil that continued around the clock 24 hours a day, praying for a miracle to save his life. Somewhere during that time, he turned the corner and began to recover. Marsh is convinced it was that church and the fervent prayers of the members and the community that brought the miracle that saved his life. Never, he said, underestimate the power of prayer.
He laughed and softly commented, “God said it was time to do something else.”
When it was time to return to the Valley, Marsh wanted to practice medicine near the church that he felt had been the reason for the miracle that saved his life. Southern Augusta County was in need of a physician so he settled there and has been tending to that farming community through his clinic that is connected to the University of Virginia and its hospital, his roots from all those years ago in Charlottesville.
Listening to him on Veterans Day night in November, Dr. Marsh concluded with the message that America’s active military needs our prayers, that there is nothing like the power of prayer, and he’s living proof. As he ended his remarks, the crowd rose to its feet to applaud this humble hero. And, somehow, it was comforting to know he walks among us in this part of the Shenandoah Valley where he is appreciated for his service and sacrifice to America, respected for his love of God and country, and loved for his service to the community where he lives.
Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell
November 11, 2014