A 30-year veteran of the United States Army, retired Oro Valley resident Larry Casper has seen his fair share of challenging experiences, but one in particular has burdened him for the last two decades.
That was until this past Memorial Day, when something unusual happened.
A graduate of Sunnyside High School and the University of Arizona, Casper saw plenty of action during his long service in the military, but perhaps none more notable than an assignment in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he and comrades were sent to rescue the trapped Ranger Task Force – the very one depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”
During those efforts, one of the soldiers under Casper’s command, Sgt. Cornell Lemont Houston, Sr., was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.
The injury caused severe damage to Houston’s vital organs, and he died at a medical center in Germany on Oct. 6, 1993, three days after sustaining his wounds.
Houston, an engineer in C Company, 41st Combat Engineer Battalion, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with “V” for valor.
He left behind five children and his wife.
While Casper had never met Houston, he met Houston’s wife five years later at a reception in Arlington, Va. during a remembrance ceremony for the 18 who were killed during the operation.
“She asked me why her husband died,” said Casper. “I answered that question the best I could, but have been plagued over the years that my response was inadequate.”
As those years passed, Casper took on other endeavors. He worked at Raytheon for several years before retiring last year. He has also been working with a Malaysian film production company on a full-length feature about the Ranger Task Force rescue operation.
The Malaysians worked closely with American troops during the mission in which Houston was killed.
While discussing the operation with the film producer, Casper learned that one Malaysian soldier had been killed, while another had been severely wounded and remains handicapped to this day.
What the producer told Casper next was unbelievable.
“The producer informed me that in his interview with the Malaysian soldiers, they kept referring to an African American soldier who was a hero,” said Casper. “They said this U.S. soldier lost his life saving the severely wounded Malaysian soldier from direct fire. This all occurred with a lost platoon of vehicles that strayed from the main rescue force that night in Mogadisu. After we pieced things together, I realized this was Sgt. Houston.”
On Memorial Day weekend, Casper debated calling Houston’s wife, who over the years had never remarried.
“I thought long and hard if I should call,” he said. “I was concerned about resurrecting unpleasant memories.”
But Casper did call.
“I asked if she was the wife of the late Sgt. Cornell Houston,” said Casper. “She said ‘yes.’ I explained who I was because she didn’t remember me, and I told her that I was thinking about her and her husband on this Memorial Day weekend. I also said I had information about Cornell’s death that I had just discovered. I could tell by her voice that she was very guarded.”
Casper told Carmen what he had learned – that Cornell was a hero, and that he gave his life to save another soldier.
“She broke down crying and I really didn’t know what to say. I apologized for any grief I caused,” said Casper. “It seemed like an eternity before she collected herself. She told me this was something she has wanted to hear for over 20 years. She said it provided some reason, some closure.”
For Casper, it was the answer he’d been hoping to provide for 20 years.
The conversation turned toward Carmen’s youngest son, who at 24 years old had been troubled for many years. Casper offered his telephone number in case they wished to talk more.
But after hanging up, Casper decided to call back in order to speak with the son.
“I called Cornell L. Houston, Jr., and wouldn’t you know it, I found him at his father’s grave site,” said Casper, who explained how his father had sacrificed his life. “It was an incredibly emotional call. It was a special Memorial Day for me.”
Casper has written a book about his experiences during the Ranger Task Force rescue operation. Titled “Falcon Brigade,” the book was published in 2000.