- Feb 25, 2005
- Monadnock area, NH
Continued below...In the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, 4 SEALs made a tough choice. Only one lived to tell
By Sean D. Naylor - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Jun 25, 2007 10:21:21
With the midday sun beating down on them near the top of a mountain in eastern Afghanistan, four Navy SEALs faced an agonizing decision.
Their mission, to reconnoiter a village where a Taliban leader was thought to be holed up, had just been compromised by three goatherds who had almost tripped over the commandos. Now the SEALs were holding the goatherds — one a young teenager — at gunpoint and deciding whether to kill them or let them go.
The decision they would reach would cost three of the SEALs their lives and leave the fourth feeling “cursed” for having survived.
Marcus Luttrell, then a petty officer second class, was the lone survivor. This month, he left the Navy as a special warfare operator first class and, with co-author Patrick Robinson, published “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.”
The book is a rare look inside a SEAL operation, and covers in detail the fateful decision and the ferocious battle that followed. Instantly among the top 10 sellers on Amazon.com, its description of the decision has already stirred controversy.
Operation Redwing was aimed at capturing or killing Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader in Kunar province whose attacks had been taking a heavy toll on Marines operating in eastern Afghanistan. The four SEALs — Lt. Michael Murphy, Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew Axelson, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz and Luttrell — were the leading edge of the operation, charged with locating Shah and his forces.
“We were to go in, lay up and monitor any movement,” Luttrell said in a June 14 interview.
After infiltrating by helicopter June 27, 2005, the SEALs’ orders were to get eyes on the village, stay in position for 24 to 72 hours and report any sight of Ahmad Shah or his forces. If they spotted him in the village, “then the main body was going to come in and take it down — that’s how we usually did business.”
But the four SEALs shared a deep unease about the mission.
The pre-mission intelligence was an area of particular concern to Luttrell. “The intel reports were there were anywhere from 80 to 200 Taliban fighters,” he said. “That’s pretty obtuse. What have I got? Do I have 80 or do I have 200? I need to know. And then the terrain intel kept changing on us. We didn’t know whether we were going into rock beds or trees, or both.” Luttrell said he and his teammates voiced these concerns during the planning phase of the operation. “But it’s our job to do the mission, no matter what.”
After a night spent on a difficult movement up the mountainside to their hide site, the SEALs’ fears were realized June 28. Within two hours of letting the goatherds go, the special operators found themselves in a fight for their lives, all but surrounded and massively outnumbered by an estimated 140 Taliban fighters.
During this battle, which Luttrell describes in great detail in his book, the SEALs fought heroically against overwhelming odds as they tried to retreat down the mountainside to the flat ground, where they figured they could find cover in the village and hold out until help arrived.
They killed dozens of Taliban, but one by one, the SEALs fell, in each case — except for Luttrell — fighting on despite being shot several times. In both the book and the interview, Luttrell is determined to emphasize his comrades’ heroism:
**Dietz, the communications expert, stayed on the high ground with the radio, trying vainly to get out a call for help. “He stayed up there, as we fell back, trying to make comms, and he got shot two or three times,” Luttrell said. “He got the mike blown out of his hand.” Shot five times, Dietz was still firing when a sixth bullet caught him in the head. He died instantly in Luttrell’s arms. Dietz received the Navy Cross posthumously for his actions.
**Murphy was shot in the stomach early in the fight, but kept leading his men, before being shot again in the chest. Then he exposed himself to enemy fire in order to make a last-ditch satellite phone call back to the headquarters in Bagram, pleading for a quick reaction force to be sent. Luttrell describes Murphy being shot in the back as he made the call, slumping forward and then continuing the conversation — “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” — before returning to his position and firing at the Taliban. He is being considered for the Medal of Honor for his actions.
**Axelson, wounded first in the chest and then, mortally, in the head, fought on alone after becoming separated from Luttrell, expending two more magazines before succumbing to his wounds. He received the Navy Cross posthumously.
The battle went from bad to worse when the Taliban shot down the MH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying the quick reaction force, killing all 16 personnel on board — eight SEALs and eight aviators from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
But Luttrell survived — knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade after Dietz and Murphy were killed and Axelson mortally wounded, he managed to stay hidden until he was given shelter by Pashtun tribesmen who risked their lives to save him from the Taliban. Several days later, a combined team of Army Rangers and Special Forces rescued him, and an Air Force helicopter flew him to safety.
Luttrell’s physical wounds, which included a broken wrist, a broken nose and three cracked vertebrae, healed faster than his mental wounds. In the book, he describes suffering nightmares every night in which he is haunted by Murphy’s dying screams.
For the lone surviving SEAL of Operation Redwing, it all comes back to the decision he and his comrades made on the mountainside. According to his book’s account, the SEALs thought they had only two choices: kill the three goatherds, or let them go.
None of the four SEALs had much experience in this situation. They were three months into the deployment and were already veterans of missions that Luttrell said numbered in the double figures. “We had never been compromised before,” Luttrell said. “That was a reputation that we were proud of, that we had never been walked on. But we got walked on this time.”
For Murphy, Luttrell and Axelson, the Afghanistan deployment was their first taste of combat, Luttrell said, adding that he was not sure whether Dietz had done a previous tour to Afghanistan or Iraq. (Naval Special Warfare Command spokesman Lt. Steve Ruh said whether Dietz or any of the other SEALs had prior combat experience was “highly classified.”)
Although the possibility of being compromised had been discussed in preparations for the mission, there was no set plan for how to handle such an eventuality, Luttrell said. “It had to be an on-scene call, due to the severity of the compromise, the location of the compromise, how many people had walked on us,” he said.
As Luttrell relates in “Lone Survivor,” Murphy first tried to raise the SEAL tactical operations center at Bagram on the radio for guidance. He couldn’t connect. Then Murphy made an “on-scene call”: He put the decision to a vote. He would not impose his decision on the others.
Axelson voted to kill them, Luttrell said. “We’re on active duty behind enemy lines, sent here by our senior commanders,” the book quotes him as saying. “We have a right to do everything we can to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong.”
Murphy voted to let the Afghans go. Dietz abstained. “I don’t really give a s--- what we do,” Dietz said, according to Luttrell. “You want me to kill ’em, I’ll kill ’em. Just give me the word. I only work here.”
Then, Luttrell said, Murphy then warned his men that if they killed the goatherds, they would have to report the deaths, and the Taliban would publicize them, as well.
“[T]he U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy,” Luttrell quotes Murphy as saying. “We will almost certainly be charged with murder.”
And then, according to the book, Lt. Murphy turned to Luttrell, the petty officer second class. “Marcus, I’ll go with you,” Murphy said. “Call it.”
A commissioned officer putting a life-or-death decision to a vote among his subordinates runs counter to most people’s notion of command responsibility. But Luttrell doesn’t see it that way. To him, this was a reflection of SEAL culture.
“Most people don’t understand how the SEAL teams are made up,” he said. “It’s not straight up, ‘You will do this my way.’ I guess it could be if you had some guy like that. But the teams are designed differently. That’s why the officers go through the same training as we do and we’re together the whole time.”
The SEAL mind-set, he said, was, “Two heads are better than one, three are better than two.
“So if you’re stuck in a situation like that, would you want to make the decision that killed all of us? That’s why we talked about it ... A good officer listens to his men.”
Ruh, the Naval Special Warfare Command spokesman, said it was true that the SEAL community “is a brotherhood” whose officers and enlisted personnel train together so closely that they often call each other by their first names, “but whether they’re officer or enlisted, the senior guy ultimately has the ultimate authority.”
Asked whether putting an important decision to a vote is normal or accepted practice in the SEAL community, Ruh replied:
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of anything put to a vote like that. In my 14 years of Navy experience, I’ve never seen or heard of anything like that.”