AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2002

Appointment in Somalia   

A behind-the-scenes look at how reporter Mark Bowden penetrated the military culture and painstakingly reconstructed, minute by minute, the story of “Black Hawk Down.”

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

Mark Bowden never dreamed that he would write the definitive book about a wretched battle in Somalia, one that would alter U.S. military policy. He expected a Tom Clancy to tease out the hideous details behind angry Somalis dragging American corpses through the streets of Mogadishu.

As newspaper accounts appeared, reporter Bowden inhaled stories about American soldiers who died on a mission to snatch two key lieutenants of a Somali warlord. The October 3, 1993, Battle of Mogadishu struck him immediately as amazing fodder for a book.

Only 120 soldiers fought against a heavily armed rag-tag Somali militia. A relatively small American force, overwhelmingly outnumbered, fighting for their lives. Eighteen Americans died. Track down as many of the surviving Rangers as you can, and you have one sensational story.

But Bowden tossed the idea aside. If Clancy didn't do it, surely a reporter who covers the military would, someone with numerous sources inside an institution known for its impenetrability. Bowden knew little about the armed services. Besides, he had other projects going at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Somebody is going to get themselves a hell of a book," Bowden thought, and moved on.

Six years later, two years after his 29-part series on the battle appeared in the Inquirer, somebody did get a hell of a book. "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" is a domestic and international best-selling, bullet-by-bullet account of the Battle of Mogadishu.

And this year, somebody got himself one hell of a blockbuster movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott. For three consecutive weekends after it came out, the movie was No. 1 in box office receipts. Bowden is traveling the globe first-class with Hollywood luminaries attending premieres, swimming in the "Black Hawk Down" memorial swimming pool behind his house outside Philadelphia and driving a blue $55,500 Corvette Z06 that he's already pushed past 100 mph--just to see what it feels like.

"My wife thinks the car is the most ridiculous thing in the world," says Bowden.

Gail Bowden's comment: "Man, are you 50."

Bowden is now living a fantasy nursed by many journalists. There must be a moral here. It could be to follow your journalistic hunches no matter what. It could be a harsh admonition to all journalists to etch the words "never assume" into their brains. Or it could simply be a reminder to always remain open to opportunities.

Bowden's opportunity came almost three years after the battle. In April 1996, he was assigned to do a profile of President Clinton to run before the November election. Rather than focus on the usual suspects, Bowden decided to track down ordinary people who had interacted with Clinton.

Bowden recalled reading that parents of soldiers killed in the Battle of Mogadishu had been invited to the White House. He would ask them how Clinton had handled that delicate encounter.

One of the parents Bowden called was James H. Smith.

Smith was wary. The media had besieged him in October 1993 after his oldest son, Cpl. Jamie Smith, 21, bled to death in the arms of a field medic while awaiting rescue in Mogadishu.

"Mark is not a crass, pushy person," says Smith, a veteran who lost part of his left leg in Vietnam. "He has a very nice way. I just didn't know who he was or where he was coming from. I said: 'If you want to talk to me, you come to my house.' "

Bowden did just that. He drove two-and-a-half hours from his home in New London, Pennsylvania, to Long Valley, New Jersey. Smith was bitter, certain his son had died needlessly. He welcomed Bowden's interest. Smith shared his frustration over the 45-minute meeting with Clinton, in which he says the president offered no satisfactory explanation for the thwarted battle. Smith accused Clinton of not taking responsibility for a situation in which the Rangers were left without adequate support.

Smith is the father of three sons and a daughter. Bowden is the father of four sons and a daughter. At the end of a long interview, Bowden expressed his condolences, empathizing with a man who had lost a child. Then he asked a question: "How much do you know about how Jamie was killed?"

"Hardly anything," replied Smith, an administrator with Warren County Community College in New Jersey. "I know how he died, but there are a lot of circumstances I don't understand. I don't know nearly as much as I want to."

"Hasn't anybody written about this?" asked Bowden.

"No, to my knowledge, no one has really gone back to look at this at all," said Smith.

"It always seemed to me such an obvious story," said Bowden. "Hell, if nobody else is doing it, I'm going to try."

Smith liked Bowden's honesty and volubility. Bowden has a warmly aggressive style, but he didn't push hard. He simply expressed interest in Smith and his son, and told Smith he'd like to tell the story of Somalia. "All my life I've been in positions where I had to judge people," says Smith. "He just hit me as a straight shooter. I don't want to say I was rude, but I was very straightforward with him. I had good vibes. Not that I didn't check him out on my own. Hey, I was in banking."

Smith made a decision. He'd help Bowden, although Smith didn't tell the writer that. Smith liked Bowden because he didn't seem to have an agenda. But Smith did. He'd survived Vietnam, yet his young son had died in Mogadishu. He struggled with the why. He couldn't bring back his boy. But he could do something.

"We can make sure that this doesn't happen again, where soldiers are put out on a limb," says Smith. "Second, we can make sure people don't forget their story. In a tiny, small way, I've been prodding that along."

Although Bowden didn't know it, he was an answer to Smith's prayers.

The Battle of Mogadishu hadn't played well in the media. Eighteen Americans dead and 73 wounded. What began as a simple gambit spun out of control, with one catastrophe after another. Two helicopters were downed and American soldiers were pinned for 15 hours by a vicious civilian mob armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47s. Army Special Operations leaders had expected the mission to take an hour.

The American forces captured the warlord's henchmen and killed hundreds and hundreds of Somalis as they battled to survive. But the media portrayed the operation as a debacle. A campaign that began as a humanitarian mission to help starving Somalis dominated by a ruthless warlord evolved into a bloody embarrassment. It led to Senate hearings, to the resignation of Defense Secretary Les Aspin and to a greater U.S. reluctance to intervene on foreign soil. Some blame Somalia for the Clinton administration's slow response in Bosnia and Rwanda. The Battle of Mogadishu seemed destined to go down in history as a full-fledged military disaster.

But inside the military, many soldiers didn't see it that way--especially young Army Rangers and top-secret Delta Force operatives who had been stationed in Mogadishu in the fall of 1993. Bad policy doesn't always translate into shoddy military conduct. Rather than a fiasco, the soldiers viewed the battle as a hundred acts of courage.

American forces "won that battle," says Smith. "We lost it politically, like Vietnam, but they won it militarily."

Bowden understood that. He wanted to re-create the battle so readers could see, feel, smell and taste each hour that the soldiers endured on a sunny Sunday afternoon in an eastern African nation far from home.

When he returned from his visit with Jim Smith, he called the Pentagon. He asked to interview men who fought in Mogadishu; the media affairs official pretty much shut him down.

"That battle was fought by a number of units that are off-limits to the press for the most part," the official told Bowden. "Second, it's been two-and-a-half years, and some of them aren't in the Army anymore. And the ones that are still in the Army have probably gone off to different units."

But he offered a sliver of hope. "I'll tell you what, if you can give me a list of names of the men you want to interview and what units they are in, I'll see what I can do," Bowden recalls being told.

But where would Bowden get such a list? Some men served in Delta Force, which the Army won't acknowledge exists.

Bowden didn't toss the idea aside, but neither did he have high expectations.

He'd try to find names in newspaper clippings when he had a chance.

Then a break: Bowden was invited to a June 1996 memorial service for Cpl. Jamie Smith at which a building was dedicated to him. Inquirer editors had assigned Bowden to work on a proj-ect on the 50th anniversary of the American suburb. He didn't have time to drive nearly three hours to sit on folding chairs and listen to military music. But he liked Jim Smith, and out of respect for him, he made the trek.

And Bowden struck the proverbial paydirt.

"About 30 of the Rangers came to the dedication as an honor guard. The night before the dedication they are at my house," recalls Smith. "I said to them: 'Look, there's going to be a reporter there. His name is Bowden. He's going to want to talk to you. If you want to tell him to kiss off or get bent, that's fine. He wants to tell your story, warts and all.' "

Smith, it helps to remember, is a retired Army captain. He was a Ranger in Vietnam and he's the father of a fallen Ranger.

"Hey, sir, do you trust this guy?" they asked.

"I think so," said Smith. "Yeah. I think so."

The next day, Bowden talked to the men and they made their own judgments. "They felt, 'This guy Bowden is a straight shooter,' " recalls Smith. "What they didn't want is someone coming in with a right-wing agenda to glorify the Rangers or a left-wing agenda to beat the Rangers over the heads."

Almost all of them would talk. "Ordinarily," says Bowden, Rangers "don't trust reporters. They don't like reporters." But because Jim Smith gave the OK, Bowden heard: "Yes, sir. We'll talk to you, sir. Here's my commanding officer. Here's what unit I'm in now."

Bowden had his list. He gave it to the Pentagon. And he tried to convince his bosses that Mogadishu was a better story than the anniversary of the suburbs. Do the suburbs first, they told him.

Late in the summer, Bowden's phone rang. If he could be at Fort Benning, Georgia, at 8 a.m. the next day, he could interview a bunch of Rangers. Trouble was, Bowden wasn't officially working on Mogadishu.

"I tried to call Don Kimelman," who was editing the suburbs project, says Bowden. "Rosey [Robert J. Rosenthal, then the Inquirer's executive editor] was away on vacation. So I got on a plane and flew to Columbus, Georgia, and checked into the Red Roof Inn and showed up at 8 a.m. the next morning."

The gamble paid off. The Rangers told Bowden one hair-raising story after another. "As a reporter, if you are working on a story, all it takes is one really good interview," says Bowden. "Every interview was that quality. Just amazing, amazing stories. These guys had never been asked to tell their stories."

But Bowden sensed they were holding back. He'd learned their reticence was due to the fact that the Rangers were in the operation as backup for Delta Force – a group of soldiers more highly trained and experienced than the Rangers, and often 10 or 15 years older.

"The Delta Force is so secret that they are not allowed to say it exists," Bowden says. "So they are not allowed to say anything about it. So they are having a really hard time explaining things."

Bowden grilled each Ranger. He needed minute details to reconstruct the ferocious battle hour by hour, minute by minute. Bowden unwittingly asked about events in which a Delta operative played a key role.

The Rangers would "get tongue-tied," says Bowden, "and then they'd go out of the room and have a little huddled conference with the guy from military affairs. Then they'd come back in the room and tell me, 'A solider from another unit did this.' "

What other unit? Each replied, "I'm not at liberty to discuss that, sir." Bowden left Fort Benning with a great story. But he needed to do much more reporting. He called Jim Smith.

"My God, those boys are special," Bowden told Smith. "I can't believe what they did."

Now the door was wide open. Other Rangers were ready to talk to Bowden. "They wanted somebody to know what they had done," says Smith. "The thing that hurt them beyond anything else was that nobody knew what had happened. They'd been forgotten."

He adds, "The Rangers are an especially tight-knit family. If you are not in that family, they don't talk to you. To break into that circle, with Mark never being in the military or combat, to where they would talk to him, was absolutely amazing."

Bowden still wasn't officially working on the Mogadishu story. Then, in the late fall of 1996, the New York Times entered the picture. Gene Roberts, the Inquirer's longtime executive editor, had hired Bowden in 1979. Now Roberts was the managing editor of the Times, and the two talked about the possibility of Bowden going to work there. Bowden credits his success to Roberts, who gave him freedom to write long and think big.

"Mark's secret," says Roberts, who now teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, "is he's both an unusually gifted writer and he's also a splendid reporter who knows how to get information. That's why we were interested."

Maxwell King, then the Inquirer's editor, didn't want to lose Bowden. King "got wind of the fact that the New York Times was interested in hiring me," recalls Bowden. The editor gave him a raise and promised him he would be able to concentrate his efforts on substantial pieces, like the Somalia story. By February 1997, Bowden was working on it full time.

"We wanted to get the [Mogadishu] story for the Inquirer," says King, now executive director of the Heinz Endowments. Since Bowden had already started doing research for a book, King told the reporter that he could have the book rights. Of course, at the time, nobody was thinking about movie rights.

Bowden interviewed nearly 60 Rangers, amassing detail after detail, particularly from Rangers out of the Army and freer to talk. He went to their hometowns, and he listened.

But what about Delta Force? He doubted he could crack it--the elite of the elite, special soldiers who don't wear uniforms or keep their hair closely cropped, soldiers who live by a strong professional code that forbids talking to outsiders about what they do.

Bowden might not penetrate Delta Force. But he could fly to Somalia. Bowden felt he needed to go there to interview those who fought against the Americans. At least 500 Somali men, women and children – far more by some estimates--died on October 3, 1993. They had stories as well. But one doesn't just buy a ticket and jet into Mogadishu.

Bowden found a man in Washington, D.C., who represented the Habr Gidr clan--the closest entity to a ruling party in a country that hasn't had a government since 1991. In May 1997, the Inquirer picked up the tab for armed security, an interpreter, a driver and a place for Bowden and photographer Peter Tobia to stay. They were to be received as guests of the Somalis.

Despite State Department warnings against traveling to Somalia, Bowden says it sanctioned the trip because Somali clans have a long tradition of protecting those who are considered guests. That eased concerns voiced by Inquirer editors and Bowden's wife, Gail. Although it shouldn't have.

Bowden and Tobia flew to Kenya, met their contact, "Ibraham," and flew in a small plane jammed with bales of khat. Khat looks like parsley but creates a mild amphetamine-like high after it is chewed. It is very popular in Somalia, but it has to be imported because, as Bowden says, nothing grows in Somalia.

They arrived in a nation of chaos. "The scene at the airport was like a movie set," Tobia said in an audio piece on the Inquirer's Web site. "It was surreal. There were people everywhere with guns.... Guns decided who does what and what gets done. It was a dangerous place."

The clan leaders who met Tobia and Bowden told them they weren't welcome and had to leave. "I had paid this guy in Washington," says Bowden. "But they had political reasons for wanting me out. They were very disappointed with Americans. They weren't about to cooperate with an American reporter."

The journalists had been royally ripped off. But Bowden is stubborn. He and Tobia were not about to go home after traveling at great expense and difficulty.

"I hired my own gunmen and we stayed," Bowden says. "We hung out and toured the places where the battle was fought. In fact, the helicopters that had crashed are still there. There hasn't been a trash pickup there in recorded history."

They had $1,000 in cash. It bought them a security detail fit for a head of state. "When we'd go out of the hotel, we'd have Ibraham as interpreter, a driver and maybe two or three guards in the trucks with AK47s," says Tobia. "Sometimes a technical would follow us. They were Toyotas with the back chopped up and a 50-caliber gun in the back." At night, guards slept in the Sahafi Hotel courtyard with their guns next to them.

"Being an American was a disadvantage," says Bowden, aware of the understatement. "There's something frightening about a 10-year-old with a rifle. Everybody is armed. You don't know really whom to trust. You don't speak the language."

Bowden is a big man--6'2". "Crowds would gather because it's such an unusual thing to see two white Americans in the streets of Mogadishu," he says. "So when the crowds gathered, I would go around with the interpreter and start asking for people who fought against the Americans. I told them where I was staying. We had a line of people out in the streets waiting to come in for those seven days we were there from the minute we arrived."

The pair listened to dozens of Somalis share their stories about "The Day of the Rangers," a day Somalis celebrate for driving the Americans out. Soon after the battle, Clinton pulled troops out of Somalia.

Sometimes Bowden gave the Somalis money, but he says it was a small amount, perhaps the equivalent of 25 cents, to cover their jitney costs. Each day they assessed the situation. "As it happened, I ended up working for seven days, and then I ran out of money and I was very, very happy to leave."

Through a hole in their hotel carved by a 50-caliber bullet, Tobia shot a picture of the K-4 traffic circle where angry Somalis dragged the body of an American soldier.

When they arrived back in Nairobi, a customs official smirked and said, "I'll bet you are very glad to be here."

A month after his return from Somalia, Bowden got a call from the White House. It was Michael Sheehan, lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army Special Forces, detailed to the National Security Council staff. He'd heard about Bowden's trip to Somalia and wondered if the reporter might come down to Washington for lunch. Sheehan had spent nine months in Mogadishu with the Army and had a particular interest in the African country.

Bowden described the project. Sheehan "told me that this battle had been the most significant episode and it had completely changed the way military policy was conducted by this country," says Bowden. "And yet, no one really understood what happened and it would be a tremendous service to the military and to the country for somebody to do exactly what I was doing."

The two had lunch in Georgetown at tony Germaine's and then spent the afternoon hours talking on Sheehan's porch. Sheehan instantly liked and trusted Bowden. He offered to open doors to top military brass. "When I started talking to him, I realized this guy has done his homework and has an extraordinary insight on what happened in Somalia," says Sheehan. "However, I noticed a gap in his story."

Delta Force.

"Mark had spoken to Rangers and to Somalis but he hadn't cracked the Delta labyrinth," explains Sheehan, who now works for the United Nations. "I talked to some people about him as a person and his project, a story which was going to be told--and deserved a full accounting, which resulted in him getting some meetings, which led to other meetings. That's as far as I'll go. It is not kosher to give a journalist the names of serving members of Delta – in fact it could be construed as a security violation. That's why he had a hard time getting access to Delta in the first place."

Sheehan steered Bowden to high-ranking people at the Pentagon, people who had been deeply involved and knew a lot about the battle. One official--not Sheehan--gave Bowden the names and phone numbers of 12 Delta Force men. The source doubted any of them would talk, but some were no longer "behind the fence." "That list sat around on my desk for maybe months," says Bowden. "I called them just in the spirit of leaving no stone unturned."

Each time, Bowden explained why he was calling, only to hear, "You got the wrong guy." "Sorry, can't help you."

As he neared the bottom of the list, Bowden dialed the number of Master Sgt. Paul Howe, one of the first soldiers to arrive at the first helicopter that crashed during the battle. Bowden made his pitch, and Howe didn't hang up right away. There was only silence, a long silence.

"I really would like to talk to you," Howe finally said. "Here's what you have to do: Write a letter to my commanding officer. If I do this, I have to do it completely aboveboard and get total authorization."

While thrilled, Bowden was sensitive to Howe's sacrifice. "He knows by talking to me that no one from his former unit will ever speak to him again," says Bowden. "But just in that minute-and-a-half on the phone thinking, he decided that this is an opportunity that he wanted to take advantage of."

They met early in the fall of 1997, and Howe shared a highly detailed, 200-page account of what had happened in Mogadishu. It was invaluable, because it had been written not long after the event, without the distortions of intervening years.

"This episode had been extremely traumatic for him," says Bowden. "That it has been regarded as a disaster and debacle was sort of an insult to him and the memory of his friends who had died."

Bowden also obtained from the Army the handwritten accounts of six or seven other Delta Force operatives after he spoke to Howe. But the authors weren't identified. Only Howe risked the wrath of his Delta brothers and let Bowden use his name. "In reality, Paul has been shunned," says Bowden.

Sort of by accident, Bowden discovered the final piece that allowed him to so precisely re-create the battle. "When I got to interview people at the top who gave me an overview from a commander's perspective, I learned things like this battle was videotaped, this battle was audiotaped. So all the radio traffic in the battle was tape-recorded and transcribed."

And leaked. Bowden even saw an edited two-hour version of the battle.

Sophisticated cameras on satellites, a P-3 Orion spy plane and hovering UH-58 surveillance helicopters photographed and videotaped all 15 hours. "One of the reasons why it's such a fascinating story," he says, "is because it shows how modern battles are fought."

Rather than first write the series, Bowden quickly wrote a draft of the book. It was up to his editor, David Zucchino, with Bowden's help, to aggressively trim the book into 29 cliff-hanging stories for newspaper and Web versions of "Black Hawk Down."

Simultaneously, they worked with Web staffers to get interview sound bites, graphics, maps, documents and photos ready for the Internet. The series (www.blackhawkdown.com) also gave birth to a documentary.

"One of the stipulations if we were going to run it as a serial," says then-Editor Max King, "was that we had to limit the length of each piece. I really felt we should have limited every one to 20 inches."

But King was dealing with Bowden, then an 18-year Inquirer veteran notorious for writing 20 inches or more when an editor wanted only 12. King lost. Daily newspaper and Web pieces of between 27 and 40 inches ran in November 1997; the Sunday installments were almost three times as long.

The series was a popular success. Bowden says the paper sold 20,000 more copies a day than usual while it ran. And traffic on the Inquirer's Web site reached record levels.

"The Web site was very innovative for the time," says former Inquirer Editor Rosenthal. "It had streaming video. Mark held daily online chats. Mark obtained a lot of actual radio traffic and some video of the battle that was on our Web site."

Posting "Black Hawk Down" on the Web site turned out to be fortuitous for Bowden in ways he hadn't imagined. "Once Mark did the story on the Internet, it was a minor event in the Special Forces community," says Sheehan. "It went around like wildfire. People were forwarding it or sending e-mails about it because it was so extraordinary."

One avid nonmilitary reader was Chad Oman, president of production for Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

The series done, Bowden turned his attention to re-crafting and expanding the book. And the high-profile Web presence again proved a major plus.

In effect, his online availability became an efficient way to proof the book before it was finished. Those knowledgeable about the military read the series and corrected mistakes online. "They wouldn't use that kind of a weapon, they'd use this kind," Bowden recalls being told. "It wasn't an M-16. It was an M-16A.... All of these things that military guys know instinctively that betrayed the ignorance of the writer. In that sense, I had my manuscript vetted by every military man in the world."

Bowden's 386-page book came out in April 1999. Not surprisingly, the first real boost came from word of mouth inside the far-flung military. If the D-boys and the Rangers liked it, the book must be good. Bowden became an instant celebrity among the military--and he's never even covered a war.

The book also received critical acclaim. "Bowden has performed an important service by picking out and meticulously dramatizing such a turning point in recent history," William Finnegan wrote in a cover review in the New York Times Book Review.

Bowden's publisher, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic Books, paid him $30,000 for the hardback rights, then sold the paperback rights for $750,000--a comfortable cushion to promote the book. "The book became a best-seller, and we started making royalty money right away," says Bowden. With the book's rapid success, Bowden's life changed dramatically. Money became far more plentiful than before for the family of seven. "That was the first time Gail and I ever had substantial savings," says Bowden.

And then came the movie. Executive producer Oman was impressed when he read Bowden's serial online. He strongly urged Hollywood impresario Jerry Bruckheimer to buy the movie rights.

But who owned the rights? Bowden and King had made a verbal deal about a book. But there was no discussion of a movie. Knight Ridder lawyers wondered if the lucrative movie rights belonged to the newspaper company. Bowden didn't think so, and neither did King. After the Knight Ridder attorneys "were reassured by me and Bob Hall, the publisher, that Mark owned all the rights, they were satisfied," says King. "They were disappointed but satisfied."

After reading the book in galleys, Bruckheimer bought the rights for seven figures--Bowden won't say exactly how much. News of that deal generated more interest in the book.

Bowden tried his hand at the screenplay in the summer of 1999 after Bruckheimer sent him some "how to" books. Oman then called to say the first draft wasn't bad. "We might even be able to use some of it," Oman said.

After writer Ken Nolan reworked the script, Bowden played an advisory role on the movie, flying to Hollywood, spending three weeks last spring on location in Morocco. Sometimes he does pinch himself.

Once, while writing some lines for the movie in a Santa Monica warehouse across from Bruckheimer Productions, it hit Bowden. He blurted to a colleague: "I'm working with Ridley fucking Scott on a movie!"

Hollywood is part of Bowden's new sphere. When he promotes the movie, which he's seen eight times, a handler is nearby as Bowden signs autographs and a limousine waits to ferry him to the next event. He throws out "I was talking to Ridley" like he's talking about an assistant metro editor.

"It's become part of my everyday life," admits Bowden. "I still really admire Ridley a great deal. I do. But I've never lost the voice in my head that says: 'This is you. Mark Bowden. You are talking to Ridley Scott about a movie.' I'm not starstruck, but I'm impressed and I'm very happy about it."

When Bowden steps outside himself, he sees a man who has spent 30 years perfecting his craft. A man who has covered his share of challenging as well as mind-numbing stories. He's legendary for spending months in Africa researching the plight of near-extinct rhinos and then writing exhaustively about it.

Bowden started at the Inquirer as a science writer, covered transportation, then followed the Buddy Ryan-era Philadelphia Eagles for three years and wrote a book about the team. He did a three-year stint as an assistant city editor, too. "Generally speaking there's been a kind of path to my career," Bowden explains. "And that's been to writing longer and more complex stories. So that when I was starting out, I was always asking for more space." And he never stopped. First it was long Sunday stories, then lengthy magazine articles, then two- and three-week magazine series. "Then it got to the point that I was writing book length," he says.

But he remained a trouper. Last spring, when Rosenthal asked Bowden to work on a story about a bad doctor in the suburbs, he did. "As successful as he's become, and he certainly has a big ego," says Rosenthal, "he's more than willing to help out." Rosenthal dubbed him the "SS Bowden" because he always plows straight ahead and gets the job done.

Endless television appearances and jetting around the world with Jerry and Ridley are a long way from the city room on North Broad Street. But Bowden's success is hardly an unexpected event. He has worked hard, always seeking intellectually challenging stories to keep himself energized.

"It's no accident that lightning has struck him," says King, whose son called him recently to say he'd read a fantastic book and then noticed it was dedicated to his father. "When you have an absolutely top-of-the-line reporter and top-of-the-line writer, it makes for some pretty exciting journalism."

But Bowden won't be writing much more of it for the Inquirer. After more than two decades there, he quit, though he continues to write a weekly column for the paper on war. He just has too much going on. He's teaching journalism at his alma mater, Loyola College in Baltimore. He's writing for The Atlantic Monthly. He's working on a screenplay for his Inquirer-serial-turned-book, "Killing Pablo," about the U.S. role in the death of Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar. He's anticipating a new book project on the hostages in Iran.

"I now am fortunate enough to do the things I want," says Bowden. "If I do cruddy work from here on out, it's my fault. There's nothing stopping me from doing my best work."

When Bowden was in Morocco for the filming of "Black Hawk Down," Army helicopter pilots asked him if he wanted to ride on an MH6 Little Bird from the set back to the city. The Little Bird doesn't have room for anyone to sit inside. Bowden was seated on a bench outside the helicopter, tethered by a single strap.

At sunset, the helicopters took off in formation out over the Atlantic Ocean. "Just a gorgeous sky and ocean and it's all moving beneath my feet like I'm on a magic carpet," recalls Bowden. "Then we slide in over the city and we are angling over mosques. All over the city. It was just like the most extraordinary sensation, most triumphant feeling."

And all the while he was thinking: "What a lucky son of a bitch I am."