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Norm Hooten: From Somalia to Cigars With A Special Forces Operator & Black Hawk Down Veteran

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Photos Courtesy of Norm Hooten and Driveline Studios

Norm Hooten is an unlikely pop culture icon but, thanks to a minor difference in weapons clearing procedures, a snapshot of him has been immortalized in the popular canon. However, like all good one-liners, there’s so much more to not only that story but to Hoot’s story. 

While Hollywood is happy to play the highlight reel on repeat, we wanted to give Hoot a chance to tell his story his way — not just about Mogadishu, but about his journey to what would become the forefront of special operations history, and the trajectory beyond that which would put him at the helm of a booming whiskey and cigar business …

In high school, just before leaving for basic training.

RECOIL: Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what your childhood was like. 

Norm Hooten: I grew up in a little ranching and farming community called Brackettville in Texas. I think the population was around 800 when I was there. They may be close to double that now. I think they put in a border patrol station since I left. But really humble beginnings — ranching family, middle class, hardworking family. You were either working on a ranch or you were working in oil fields out there in West Texas. I think my family moved to Texas in 1840 from Sevierville, Tennessee. I spent most of my childhood there. Then, when I was in high school, I moved. My last two years of high school were spent in Houston, Texas. But my family had been generations of just ranch workers. 

RECOIL: Was military service something that you had decided on early on in your life, or was it something that kind of just came by happenstance later? 

NH: It played a really important role in my childhood, being around veterans and learning about military service. I remember when I was a child, I’d go into the barbershop every weekend to get my haircut, and I was surrounded by guys who had served in World War II, Korea, and were currently serving in Vietnam because I grew up in the ’60s. I remember the young guys that were coming in to get their haircut, getting ready to go off and serve in Vietnam, and I remember the advice they were getting from the guys who had served before them. I was just captivated by that whole interaction as a young kid. 

Hooten with his family.

Then, in my senior year in high school, a couple of things happened. One was the Iran hostage crisis, which fired up everybody in my generation. All these patriotic young guys were thinking, man, we’ve got to go do something about this. And the other one was that I got caught driving a load of whiskey from Brackettville, Texas, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I really didn’t know I was doing anything wrong — that was just kind of what we did. And I went before the magistrate down there, and he said it’s bad enough that you’re driving it, but worse that you’re going across state lines. He goes, “All that stuff isn’t good for you. You seem like a pretty good kid. What are your plans? Are you going to college? What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about joining the Army.” He goes, “Today would be a pretty good day for you to do that, man.” Right after that, I went and joined. I went in and looked at the recruiting book, and it had all the options you could do. In the back end of it, there was a picture of a guy with a green beret and a rope over his shoulder. It said, “If you don’t think you can make it, don’t even try.” And I was like, that’s what I wanna do right there. So, I joined the Army in June of 1980 on an SF baby contract — what they used to call it back then. Now I think they call it the 18 X-ray. 

Army basic training, 1981

RECOIL: Once you made it through the Q course (Special Forces Qualification Course), what were some of your assignments like within Special Forces? 

NH: I was a commo guy when I started, but a lot of the commo guys went to the commo shop, and they would sit there and receive messages from A-teams deployed around the world. I was sent to a B team, so I didn’t go to the commo shop. I was fortunate enough to go to a company and kind of worked directly for the company commander as one of his commo guys. After a short period of time on the B team, one of the team sergeants there, his name was Francis Comorosky, an old SOG guy, ran the SCUBA team. He came to me, and he said, “Hey, Private Hooten, do you think you can pass SCUBA school?” I said, “I’ve never had anything I couldn’t pass yet so I don’t see why that’d be different.” And he said, “Good because I need a demo (demolitions) guy.” As soon as I got back from SCUBA school, I immediately went to the demo training, cross-training as a demo guy. And I spent the rest of my life in the Special Forces as a demo guy. I spent several years on what they used to call the Green Light team, which was a special atomic demolitions munitions team. In simple terms, it was backpack nuclear weapons. We had nuclear weapons that were small yield, so 0.1 kiloton to 1 kiloton yields, depending on how you programmed it. But it would fit in a large ALICE pack, and you would either HALO it in, SCUBA it in, static line it in, or walk it into a precise location. The idea was that you could use it as a tactical nuclear weapon on specific targets that were too large to hit with conventional munitions — like a dam behind enemy lines, or some locks that maybe were used in the Dardanelles Strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Stuff like that, where you might not be able to drive in truckloads of conventional munitions, but you could backpack it in and probably do that with minimal risk of starting a nuclear war. It was old school, a Cold War idea. 

RECOIL: Can you talk a little about the selection process for the Army Special Mission Unit, versus what Special Forces selection was like? 

NH: Yeah. The biggest difference is that when I went to the Special Forces Qualification Course early in my career, they would take you out on these long, arduous, ruck marches or runs, and they pace. You either hung with them or you didn’t. When I went to selection in the mountains, you had none of that. You were the guy that set the pace, and you didn’t know what the time standard was. They would tell you, “I need you to move 30 miles from point A to point B; you can get there any way you want to. Don’t use roads, don’t use trails.” That was it, and you know you’re timed, but you don’t know what the time standard is. You’re by yourself. Everything about it was on your shoulders, and you didn’t have any feedback from anybody else. It was much more individually focused. The psychological component of that is a lot more demanding. 

With the Army's SMU in 1990. Inset: Saudi Arabia in 1984.

RECOIL: This year was the 30th anniversary of Operation Gothic Serpent, probably one of the more high-profile operations for SMU. Let’s talk a little bit about that. What was the original mission tasking like for you guys? 

NH: It first came to our attention in early summer of 1993. There was some other stuff going on at that time, some very big high-profile mission that the whole unit was focusing on. This thing in Somalia didn’t really pop up on our radar screen as being an earth-moving event. It was kind of like a UN peacekeeping operation, and we weren’t really involved in it. This particular mission initially went to one of the other squadrons, and they didn’t want it because at the time it was only a partial squadron. It was a small unit like a team or maybe two teams. That was the way we looked at things back then. We don’t want to put in a lot of people because the more people you put it in, the more complicated it becomes. When we first got it for planning, it was a one team thing because it was a kill-or-capture, with emphasis being on the kill part. They started the initial planning on it, involving one or two teams. Through the development of the plan, a couple of months went by, right? So they dumped it onto C Squadron. Right after we got it, the Pakistanis went in there to help out with that UN mission, and they were hit and they lost I think 20 or 30 people, including armor. They were a tank unit. There were also some MPs who had run over a landmine, and it killed four soldiers, I believe, U.S. soldiers. Then, it became, “OK, we’re going to do this.” When that happened, it went from being a couple of teams to a squadron. At the time we had a JSOC commander, Wayne Downing, and he wanted to get the Ranger Battalion involved as outer cordon. So it went from being a couple of teams to Task Force Ranger, which was around 500 people — dramatically different in every measurable way. Not something that we were super excited about at the time. We deployed. I can’t remember the exact time, sometime in July or August we went over there. 

RECOIL: Thanks to the movie Black Hawk Down, there’s an incident between you, played by actor Eric Bana, and Captain Steele that’s been immortalized in pop-culture history. So, we have to ask, what’s the real story behind “This is my safety, sir!”

NH: Yeah, it made a good scene in the movie, but it really, really wasn’t that big a deal at the time. We had developed relationships with some of the non-coms in Ranger Battalion and we were doing some cross-training with them, helping them work through some of their CQB training. One of the things that we used to say to each other was, “This is our primary safety,” right? So, you’ve got a safety on the weapon, and you have muzzle awareness, which is a facet of safety. But really, this (the trigger finger) is the one, because this is the one that’s connected to your brain. We would repeat that in training to them, and then it stuck. Then, later on, either that day or the next day, I’m going through the chow hall and felt somebody tap me on the back and it was Captain Steele. It makes it look like he’s a bad guy, but he wasn’t. He said, hey, Sergeant Hooten, your weapon’s off safe. And I said, yeah, it’s safe, don’t worry about it. Because we had a different clearing process. Once you drop the hammer, it will no longer go on safe, because the weapon is no longer cocked. We store our own weapons like an armorer, so we would safe our weapon, drop the mag, clear the chamber, inspect the chamber, and then drop the hammer. At which point you couldn’t put it back on safe. He didn’t really understand that at the time. It was a minor thing, but there happened to be a couple of young soldiers standing around when this took place. Later on that night, they made up this skit to kind of roast their commander. It was all in good fun but ended up in the movie a little bit different and went down in history as the fact of the matter, right? But, no, he wasn’t a bad guy. He just didn’t know what we did. 

Operation: Just Cause

RECOIL: To go back to October 3, when the initial decision was made to actually launch a raid, what were some of the concerns? 

NH: Yeah, there were some big concerns down at the team level. One of the things that I would do differently was I wouldn’t have sent as many people. At some point you have to go, “You know, all you guys are equally qualified, and I’m picking this particular team to go do this. And the rest of you guys, I love you, but you’re not going.” And that’s a difficult call for a commander to make. In any event, we went with a much bigger package than we probably should have gone with. And we paid for it. 

RECOIL: From team leader Hooten’s perspective, was there a moment where you really felt everything went sideways? 

NH: On October 3, we knew it even before we landed. Going in, you could see tires burning in the city. It was the first time that we had ever gone in with two Little Bird gunships leading our formation. Their job was to, if there was anybody on the landing zone, they were going to clear it out with minigun fire. They’d never done that before. Most of the time, as we were coming in, they would run. Nobody would stand and fight. But I noticed as we were coming in that the two lead Barber elements, the Little Bird gunships, went hot on the LZ. They cleared the LZ with minigun fire, and I thought that’s the first time I’ve seen that happen. And there was already ground fire at the aircraft. So there were RPGs flying past aircraft in the formation. The fight started before the helos were down. So that was the first time that had happened. There was a lot more fire early on. Even so, we kind of expected that, and we planned for that. It was the first time it had happened, but we were like, OK, that’s not a showstopper for us. 

You know, as a team leader, I’m watching my watch, looking at time on target. I’m going, OK, you know, 5 minutes on target, 10 minutes on target, we’re good, 15 minutes on target, we’re starting to get a little long. That’s 15 minutes on target with no exfil in sight. And the reason that we were on that target, a couple reasons, but on infil, one of the young Rangers had fallen when he was fast roping, and we were working a med package on him. We had our medic over there working with the Ranger medics trying to stabilize him for exfil, and that was taking a while. I’m watching that watch, and I remember hearing the blocking positions start to engage. Then, we start to receive fire on the target building, and we have assaulters in the building that are starting to return fire. I’m thinking this is starting to make me nervous. But still at the time I was thinking, OK, we’re gonna be able to get out of this because this is what we do. In my mind, I’m thinking, hurry up guys. This is not getting better with time. We’re up there on the roof waiting to get the thing solved so we could exfil, and we’re engaged in a gunfight around the building. Then, we see the helicopter go down. When that thing went down, I was like, OK, here we go. When you see that aircraft go down, you’re really not thinking about an aircraft, you’re thinking about your friends on that aircraft — Cliff Wolcott, Donovan Briley, and that whole crew along with our assault team members, we had a sniper team on the aircraft. We had Jim McMahon, Steve DeLellis, Dan Busch, and Jim Smith on there. It’s not like we lost an aircraft. We’ve got friends now who are either dead or in serious, serious trouble surrounded by a bunch of bad guys. So that’s a sickening feeling. 

Having his first cigar at Manuel Noriega's house in Altos De Golf during Operation: Just Cause.

RECOIL: We hesitate to use the term “silver lining,” but if there is a positive to be pulled out of incidents like this, when they occur, it’s the lessons learned for future generations. What were some of the things that you took on from that into the remainder of your career in that unit? 

NH: You’re exactly right when you say that the silver lining is the lessons learned. Because if you look at Mogadishu on a personal level, it’s extremely significant to me and the guys that were there. But on the scale of things like D-Day or something like that, it’s really minuscule. The old expression that I used to hear in the Army all the time is that the Army is always fighting the last war we were in. In a 24- or 36-hour gunfight, we lost a lot of people that were close to me personally, but we learned a lot. I think it gave the Army a head-start on what they would encounter, or the military in general, 10 years later, after September 11. The biggest thing that I could see was that armor. We went in there, and our idea of armor was taking sandbags and lining the back of a Hummer with it. After that, I was sitting down with Colonel Boykin and I said, “Hey sir, I was working with Houston SWAT, and even the SWAT teams have armored vehicles.” They all have a 113 or something they use to go in and punch a hole in a wall or whatever. Every time we’ve been in combat, we’ve lost a helo. Almost every time. We lost a helo in Panama, we lost a helo in Grenada, we lost a helo in the first Gulf War. And almost every time we respond to that, we have to go borrow somebody’s armored vehicle. I said, “I think it’s about time that we get our own armored vehicles.” And from that, we moved forward with our armored vehicle program, which I think led to the Army adopting the Stryker. But I don’t think that would have happened as fast had it not been for the lessons we learned in Mogadishu. 

When I first went to Special Forces, we had one or two sets of NVGs per team. When I initially went to Mogadishu, we were using PVS-5s. Every guy had his own set of PVS-5s. By the time we left Mogadishu, we had transitioned over to the pilot’s NVGs that we had flip-down mounts on because they were more useful in that environment. But that happened within a period of a couple of weeks. I look at where the Army’s equipped nowadays with their NVGs and the way they integrate their lasers and stuff on their weapons with those NVGs. All those things were lessons we learned in Somalia. Now I know that since then, they’ve learned their own lessons. But I think it gave them a good starting point. I think they started at a better point, you know, after 9-11, than we would have had, we’d not had Mogadishu. 

Prepping for the Gulf War Operation: Pacific Wind.

RECOIL: Can you tell us anything about what the rest of your career in the unit looked like after Mogadishu? 

NH: I stayed almost another 10 years after that. I took another team, so I was fortunate enough to have two tours as a TL, largely because of Mogadishu. After we got back from Mogadishu, I finished out my first team leader span of time, and then I was scheduled to go off into training. But because we were short of experience, I was fortunate to take another team after that. Then, I went to selection training and became an instructor. I spent about two and a half, three years there. Then, I came back, and I was a Troop Sergeant Major in C Squadron until I retired out of there in 2002. I think most of our focus at that point, right after Mogadishu, was on narco-terrorism down in Central and South America, primarily because the money that they make off the drugs they use to fund terrorism. That’s the unit connection to it. We focused on the Balkans at the time, because I know the army picked up and we all moved over to the Balkans and started focusing on that. I was in and out of Tuzla several times. And then I think that carried me through to the end of my career, but it was either narco-

terrorism in South and Central America or missions in the Balkans. 

HALO Operations

RECOIL: After you got out, you started a cigar and whiskey company with one of your friends. Can you tell us a little more about the genesis of Hooten Young whiskey and cigars? 

NH: His son went to West Point; my son went to West Point. We became really good friends, and we lived not far from each other. Then, it was on the 25th anniversary of Gothic Serpent, in 2018, that I just said, “Hey, you know what? I love doing this and I really want to send some of my buddies up at Bragg some cigars for the anniversary. I wanna make something special for them.” But it wasn’t gonna be a long-term thing, just a one-shot deal. We drew up a logo on a cocktail napkin and a name for the cigar. It was Gothic Serpent 25. We had the bands made locally, and we banded them ourselves. We sent them up to Fort Bragg for the anniversary, and everybody loved them. They started calling up and saying, “Hey, how do we get some more of them?” They were awesome. The cigar was awesome; the story was awesome. Our plan and our attention and what we did was with the goal of giving back to the community, so supporting veterans’ causes. That’s what we do. Since then, we’ve partnered with Folds of Honor, and we’ve supported several unit scholarship fund events, some JSOC events and stuff like that. It’s been a labor of love. We started with cigars and then shortly afterward, paired it with a whiskey. 

RECOIL: You’ve got cigars, you’ve got whiskey. What’s next? 

NH: We’re gonna continue to grow the whiskey and the cigars. That’s our lane. That’s what we focus on. We have our own apparel, and we’re gonna try to build that out a little more, but all that stuff is peripheral to the cigars and the whiskey. I’m really excited about where we’re going with the business. We are in the top 10 percent of companies that fall into our category. We’re looking at some partnerships with some other better-known whiskey companies. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag too early, but really, really excited about it and with some cigars that we’ve got going on. But we’re doubling every year in size. We’ve been very blessed, dramatic growth trajectory. Super, super, super excited about it and had a lot of fun doing it. 

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