Surviving SEAL tells story of deadly mission

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In the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, 4 SEALs made a tough choice. Only one lived to tell
By Sean D. Naylor - Staff writer
navytimes.com
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.

‘Call it’
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.”
Continued below...
 

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‘I would have killed them’
By putting the issue to a vote, Murphy was not abdicating his command responsibility, Luttrell said. “Not at all. He had total control. He was in total command out there the whole time. He was a consummate professional.”

But Murphy’s father, Daniel Murphy, disputes Luttrell’s account. He maintains that his son would never have put such a decision to a vote. According to a report in Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper and Murphy’s local paper, Murphy said Luttrell’s account dishonors the memory of his son and contradicts the version that Luttrell told the elder Murphy personally.

“He said that Michael was adamant that the civilians were going to be released, that he wasn’t going to kill innocent people,” the elder Murphy is quoted as saying in Newsday. “Michael wouldn’t put that up for committee. People who knew Michael know that he was decisive and that he makes decisions.”

Luttrell seemed pained by the disagreement.

“I can’t pretend to understand what Mr. Murphy’s going through with the loss of his son,” Luttrell said in an interview. “I’m sorry for his [son’s] death. Mikey was my best friend and I’m sorry that he feels that I’ve dishonored him in some way. If he thinks that I did, then I apologize for whatever I said. That’s not my intention. My intention is to honor his son in every way I can and I’m not going to stop doing that.”

But, by Luttrell’s own account, Murphy put the petty officer in the position of casting the deciding vote. Swayed by Murphy’s warning that killing the Afghans would lead to the SEALs being charged with murder, Luttrell voted to free the Afghans.

He now believes that decision sealed the fates of his three teammates.

“It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life,” he writes in the book. “I must have been out of my mind. I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. I’d turned into a f---ing liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.”

But he remains conflicted. In the interview, Luttrell said, “If you put me back in the same situation, I’d probably do the same thing again, if I didn’t know the outcome. Knowing what I know now, knowing what we went through and what I go through every day, hell yeah: I would have killed them.”

Even at the time he made the decision, Luttrell said, he would have voted to kill the three goatherds if he was assured that he and his teammates would not get into trouble.

Second guesses
These are the wrong answers, said Air Force Lt. Col. David Bolgiano, the judge advocate general for Central Command’s Special Operations Command from 2002 to 2004 and the author of “Combat Self-Defense: Saving America’s Warriors from Risk-averse Commanders and their Lawyers.”

“The killing of non-combatants under the circumstances described is never legally justified unless as an act of self-defense,” Bolgiano said. “Use of deadly force in self-defense is reasonable when responding to demonstrated hostile intent, or a hostile act, which presents an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. While imminent does not mean immediate, it is quite a stretch to say that since the shepherds may tip off local Taliban as to the presence of the SOF [special operations forces], then it would be OK to kill them in self-defense.

“On the other hand, if the SOF had a reasonable belief that, in fact, these shepherds were acting as Taliban lookouts or sentries, then deadly force may be authorized. Once, however, any threat (combatant or non-combatant) becomes a prisoner, then one can’t simply execute them for convenience.”

Ruh, the Naval Special Warfare Command spokesman, said SEALs are not trained to kill unarmed civilians. “There is no instruction that would justify any of that,” he said.

Luttrell dismissed as impractical and dangerous another option, raised by an Army Special Forces officer: tying the goatherds up and leaving them behind.

But to Luttrell, this is all Monday-morning quarterbacking.

“There’s no right answer,” he said. “It’s what happened right then and there. You can’t plan this out. You can plan the best way you can, and then you deal with what you’ve got right there in the field. People can ... armchair quarterback us all day long, but the bottom line is, they weren’t out there.”

After recovering from his wounds, Luttrell was promoted to hospital corpsman first class, received the Navy Cross — pinned on by President Bush in the Oval Office — and deployed to Iraq in the fall of 2006. Getting back into the fight with his colleagues was critical to coping with the lingering mental trauma.

“I redeployed back overseas to get my head straight, to get back on the horse, and I’m doing well,” he said.

Now he’s out, having written the book, he said, to honor the men who fell fighting with him.

“The story’s not about me,” he said. “I’m the cursed one. I’m the one that made it out.”
I would have had zero problem slitting their throats...
 

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The question of whether or not to kill someone (almost always someone who typifies a non-combatant) who stumbles upon your unit is perhaps a classic question in military discussions concerning tactical operations. There is no right or wrong answer, but instead it is posed to see how you would address the issue and what guidelines you would use to arrive at your decision.

In a situation like this, I would probably make the same decision, perhaps not for the same reasons, but I do not think that I would kill someone who compromises a surveillance operation. I might withdraw taking them with me before I let them go, but I do not think I would kill them.

To do that, the potential outcome would have to be something on the magnitude of the end of our civilization as we know it. Or the certain destruction of a large number of our troops.

But not for a surveillance mission.

Innocent human lives are worth more.

But, if I knew for a fact that they were Taliban fighters, that would be another story.
 

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But not for a surveillance mission.

Innocent human lives are worth more.
This exact thing has happened more than a few times in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in the loss of American lives because they let the peeps go.
 

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good men lost due to a stupid decision.
they should of [sic] killed the goat f***ers right there.
A declaration obviously based on xenophobia, if not racism.

Riddle me this, O Caped Crusader - when the 3 goatherds don't come home, don't you think someone is going to go looking for them? [slap]

The mission was fairly low priority to begin with, was compromised as soon as the team was discovered, there was, therefore, virtually no chance of the mission succeeding and it should have been terminated at that point.

Bring the goatherds with you to the egress point and release them when you leave. A Predator could have accomplished this mission with NO risk of life.
 

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[T]he U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy,” Luttrell quotes Murphy as saying. “We will almost certainly be charged with murder.”
It's pathetic that our soldiers have to worry about this sort of thing.
 
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You know what the sad part is...if they had killed the goat hearders and then all survived they would have been brought up on charges just like those poor border patrol bastards.
This PC government is a boat load of shit and it's getting stirred daily.
 
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It's difficult to sit here and second guess their decision after we know the outcome and without having the details of the brief.

Based on what was stated and attempting to logically assume the rest, then adding experience, I probably would have scrapped the mission. Honestly, though, there are just far too many variables to take a guess.

What was the terrain? Was the ability present to view the approach? If so, why was there contact? What was the true priority of the mission? What was the village make-up? The list goes on and on.
 

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It's difficult to sit here and second guess their decision after we know the outcome and without having the details of the brief.
This is true. I should clairify my comment. If I had a vote I would have voted to kill them and I would have done it myself... SSS
 

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This is true. I should clairify my comment. If I had a vote I would have voted to kill them and I would have done it myself... SSS
You have to ask yourself Derek, what is so critical about this surveillance mission that it requires killing possibly innocent people?
 

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This is true. I should clairify my comment. If I had a vote I would have voted to kill them and I would have done it myself... SSS
The summary execution of NON-COMBATANTS, merely to protect a mission which:

1. Was of a low priority under any threat analysis;

2. Would still have been compromised when the NC's were missed and searched for; and

3. Could have been accomplished by other means anyway (Predator, overflights)

sounds like very poor judgment and a Geneva Accords violation.

It also sounds like precisely the type of thinking and action that GENERATES jihadists.
 

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It was a recon mission that would have been a direct attack by a superior force once they spotted their target.

Scriv don't give me this low priority bs... These a**h***s had already killed dozens of Marines and were planning on killing more. Had they killed these three herders it would have saved the lives of 20 spec op soliders and more Marines in the future.

Like I said I've read reports of this exact thing happening other times with the same results.
 

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The summary execution of NON-COMBATANTS, merely to protect a mission which:

1. Was of a low priority under any threat analysis;

2. Would still have been compromised when the NC's were missed and searched for; and

3. Could have been accomplished by other means anyway (Predator, overflights)

sounds like very poor judgment and a Geneva Accords violation.

It also sounds like precisely the type of thinking and action that GENERATES jihadists.
These "NON COMBATANTS" as you called them seemed to locate their brothers in arms quickly. Located and destroyed the enemy... [thinking]
 

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These "NON COMBATANTS" as you called them seemed to locate their brothers in arms quickly. Located and destroyed the enemy... [thinking]
It's an Afghan village; not NYC. How long does it take to find 20 - 30 people in a village of 100 - 150?
 

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I called a good friend of mine who's actually earned the Trident and has his fair share of combat time. He agrees with me and would have zipped them himself as well...
 

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This is the problem that our troops are forced to confront every day. They're given a mission with incomplete and inaccurate intel (what other kind is there?) and then have to make life or death decisions, usually (unlike here) in a split second, and then get second guessed for whatever decision they make by armchair warriors whose only clue is from a Tom Clancy novel they read, or even worse, a law or philosophy book.

It's called "war", boys and girls. That means that a lot of good guys and a lot of innocent civilians are going to get killed, some of them by other good guys. If this is too upsetting, go back to the trials and tribulations of Paris Hilton.

Reading this sort of expert opinion, I'm reminded of Gen. Lee's comments to B. H. Hill during the war.
"Why, sir, in the beginning we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. As you know, I have planned some campaigns and quite a number of battles. I have given the work all the care and thought I could, and sometimes, when my plans were completed, as far as I could see, they seemed to be perfect. But when I have fought them through, I have discovered defects and occasionally wondered I did not see some of the defects in advance. When it was all over, I found by reading a newspaper that these best editor generals saw all the defects plainly from the start. Unfortunately, they did not communicate their knowledge to me until it was too late. I have no ambition but to serve the Confederacy, and do all I can to win our independence. I am willing to serve in any capacity to which the authorities may assign me. I have done the best I could in the field, and have not succeeded as I could wish. I am willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause in editing a newspaper."
I would have had zero problem slitting their throats...
Yes you would, D, but you would have done what needed to be done, just as I would.

Ken
 

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I agree Ken, the armchair commandos need to step out of this war and let our guys and gals do the job they need to do instead of tieing their hands.
 
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Young men shouldn't have to make such ugly decisions. This kind of story makes me think that life really does suck. Not being a military person myself I wouldn't have faulted them with any decision they made in that situation. Sometimes morality gets in the way of survival instincts. My "personal" mission would be to do what it takes to get home in one piece to see my family again.... if that made me a bad soldier so be it.
 

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Warfare, like everything else in this world, changes and evolves. Along with the society in which we live. This may be the face of war for the foreseeable future. Small, continuing conflicts right smack in the middle of a larger, somewhat split population that places a huge burden on the troops involved.

How we react and adjust our thinking, strategy, and tactics will determine how successful we are.

As I said in my first post on this topic, there are no right or wrong answers in the intellectual discussion of this very limited scenario. But we need to think about it (among other things) and give our military personnel every chance they can use to do the mission and return alive.
 

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This rant isn't really directed at any post here, but is more the culmination of my long irritation by Jay Severin blathering about protecting our troops, Nikki Tsongas current campaign ad whining about the same sort of thing, and a lot of similar (you should pardon the expression) horse shit.

It's been almost 40 years since anybody has shot me or otherwise tried seriously to kill me, or I've had to shoot or kill anybody else (though I've been a couple of ounces of finger pressure away twice), so maybe I'm just another insensitive old fart. Still, I'm pretty confident that most of our combat troops have feelings similar to mine. I didn't enlist in the Marines so that I could be "safe" or have liberal activists make a name for themselves by taking care of me. When I was in the field my primary goal was not getting home safely; that was number 3, behind accomplishing the mission and getting the rest of my people home safely. If it had been, I could have accomplished the same goal simply by not signing and raising my hand. I wasn't a deluded simpleton who needed some politician to protect me from wasting myself doing a job they didn't think worth the price I, not they, might have to pay. Neither young men nor old should have to make those sort of decisions; it's simply that they're usually the only ones who can do it as quickly as the situation requires.

Ken
 
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Scrivener;274459Riddle me this said:
don't[/B] come home, don't you think someone is going to go looking for them? Bring the goatherds with you to the egress point and release them when you leave. A Predator could have accomplished this mission with NO risk of life.
I agree with Scrivener on this one. Get the hell out of their and only release them when you can safely do so.

One question though how fast could they travel with goats?
 
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We have to remember that we are in their minds "Invaders". Every goathearder, farmer, etc. will report any information they have on troops. If not directly to the taliban to someone else who will squeal.
 
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