LT Michael Murphy

Olive Drab

Verified SOF
Verified SOF
Sep 15, 2006

Chapter One: On the Mountain

On a June afternoon in 2005, Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy lay in hiding on the side of a ridge in the lawless eastern mountains of Afghanistan.

He carried little with him in the thin alpine air near Pakistan's border. A rifle. Clips of ammunition. Sophisticated communications and surveillance equipment. Some high-energy food. And, sewn onto his uniform, a red shoulder patch honoring a New York City firehouse in East Harlem.

Three years, 9 months and 17 days had passed since Sept. 11, 2001. The region surrounding the mountain where Murphy and his men waited was the hiding place of those who masterminded the attacks. On this summer day, 29-year-old Murphy was far from the comfortable Patchogue home where he was raised to look out for others.

There were three U.S. commandos hiding with him on that mountain, all, like him, members of one of the most elite and secretive units in the U.S. military, the Navy SEALs. A tall Texan who was a karate expert, whose brother and father were SEALs. A scratch golfer from Northern California known as "a perfect sniper." And a communications expert from Colorado who was so determined to be a SEAL he enlisted three weeks out of high school.

They had only each other to rely on; help was miles away, if it could get there at all at elevations soaring to 10,000 feet.

The mission Murphy and his men were assigned was a daunting one. A high-ranking jihadist leader, identified by the Naval Special Warfare Command as Ahmad Shah, was thought to be in the area, guarded by scores of heavily armed Taliban fighters.

The mountain's deep, rocky ravines and steep, forested sides gave the terror leader perfect cover. Sending a noisy force of several hundred soldiers would be pointless. It would be too easy for the target to meld into the local population, or to disappear along any of dozens of unmapped trails that would take him back over the Pakistan border.

So it was up to Murphy and the three other SEALS to secret themselves on the mountain, quietly identify their target, then capture or kill him. That was their mission. They counted on stealth and skill to protect them, knowing that numbers would not.

In war, the most highly trained soldiers often find themselves in impossible situations. Murphy's predicament was not unlike the one his father had found himself in decades earlier, when, as a young soldier, he fought and was wounded on a mountaintop in Vietnam.

For Murphy, the actions he took on the mountain have placed him in consideration, posthumously, for the Congressional Medal of Honor -- the United States' highest military award.

As he and his men watched and waited on the mountain, an Afghan shepherd trailing a herd of goats chanced across their path. No words were spoken as they stared at one another. Their cover blown, Murphy faced the hardest decision of his life.

What to do about the shepherd?

Chapter Two: Growing Up In Patchogue

The answer to that question might be found in Murphy's upbringing on Long Island.

A blue-eyed young man of Irish stock, Murphy's friends and relatives were public servants -- cops and lifeguards, firemen, teachers and criminal court officials. His hometown of Patchogue was a working- and middle-class community of third- and fourth-generation Irish, Italian and German immigrants. His father's father was as Irish as a man can be while still being an American -- he was born aboard a ship from Ireland as it steamed into New York harbor.

While he grew up, Murphy watched as those closest to him tried to right the world. One night when Murphy's father, Daniel -- then an assistant Suffolk County district attorney -- thought his 10-year-old son had gone off to bed, he began prepping for a murder case he was to prosecute the next morning.

Two defendants were charged with killing a man and dumping his body into a cesspool behind a Patchogue auto parts store. The senior Murphy laid gruesome crime scene photographs across the kitchen table.

Then Michael wandered in.

"He asked me what were the pictures of?" Daniel Murphy recalled. "And then he threw up."

A few weeks after Michael graduated from Patchogue-Medford High School in 1994, a sniper firing from outside a Commack diner killed a 50-year-old lawyer as he sat with his wife waiting for their dinner. Three days later he shot at a gasoline station attendant. Three weeks later, the sniper shot a 43-year-old waitress on the night shift at a fast food restaurant, wounding her in the lung.

With Long Island in a panic, police had nothing to go on but a few .35- caliber bullet fragments. One of Murphy's relatives, John J. McElhone, deputy chief of Suffolk's detective squad, ran the investigation. Four months and 1,600 interviews later, they caught and eventually convicted the sniper, who was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Michael watched the drama unfold.

"Our whole family is police, firemen, lawyers, people helping other people," said Michael's mother, Maureen Murphy, a cousin of McElhone's. "He realized that's just the way you grow up."

His father said even as a young child, Michael "never liked seeing people getting taken advantage of or getting picked on."

While Michael was a pupil at Patchogue's Saxton Middle School, he jumped into a fight to help defend a classmate who had been cornered behind the building. After that incident, Michael couldn't shake the nickname: "the protector."

"I think he liked the fact that there were people out there trying to protect other people and trying to solve the world's problems," Daniel Murphy said.

When he was in high school, Michael took a summer lifeguard job at the Brookhaven town beach in Lake Ronkonkoma -- a job he returned to each summer through his college years.

While there, Murphy began to demonstrate qualities that made people around him willing to follow his lead, say former lifeguards who worked with him. Friends from his high school and college years describe Murphy as someone who others naturally gravitated to -- who exuded loyalty and instilled loyalty in those around him.

When he was 16, his was the larger of the two bedrooms that he and his brother John occupied. But when an uncle fell on hard times and needed the Murphy family to help care for his three daughters, Murphy volunteered to take a smaller spare room, rather than ask his little brother to move.

That day on the Afghanistan mountain, Murphy wore a large red sleeve emblem in honor of a former lifeguard he worked with -- Owen O'Callaghan -- who later became a fireman at Spanish Harlem's Engine 53 Ladder 43.

O'Callaghan, now a Suffolk police officer, said when Murphy set his sights on joining the SEALs, he set up a chin-up bar at the beach, and prodded his fellow lifeguards to get stronger with him.

"I'd be, like, 'I don't want to do any more,' and he'd say, 'You can do it'," said O'Callaghan, 28, who credits Murphy with preparing him to meet the physical requirements to become a fireman.

"He wouldn't let you quit."
Chapter Three: Two Relationships

Murphy met Heather Duggan through mutual friends in 1996, at a summer carnival on Long Island. Duggan, who grew up in Mount Sinai, graduated from high school that year. She told Murphy, then a college sophomore, that she planned to attend Penn State in the fall.

"I'm already at Penn State," said Murphy.

For the next several hours, he challenged her to go on the carnival rides her girlfriends rejected as too scary.

"To be honest, he rode my nerves the entire night," said Duggan "But he brought that competitive spirit out of me, so I was right there with him. I wouldn't back down."

Soon, they were inseparable friends, but nothing romantic. He called her the first day she arrived on campus, finding her number before she even had a chance to give it to him. He attended her gymnastic meets. She took him dancing in the popular bars along College Avenue. She shared details of her spats with boyfriends, with Murphy often taking the side of her beaus. One night, with her on the back of his motorcycle, he zoomed along a Patchogue main drag at more than 100 miles per hour. She never got on again.

Duggan said that Murphy enjoyed teasing her. A favorite joke was to pull up in front of her house and offer her a ride in his car. When she reached for the door handle, Murphy pulled away, stopping a few feet down the street.

"Sometime this would go on for half a block," she said. "He loved pushing my buttons."

But Murphy was also fiercely protective of her, more of a big brother than a potential suitor. Proof was the small scar near one eye from a time when they were dancing together at a Port Jefferson bar during a holiday break from college. A man approached Duggan, dancing closely and suggestively. Murphy asked the man to stop and when he didn't, pushed him away. Duggan recalled that several of the man's friends jumped in and rained blows on Murphy, but never managed to knock him down.

"My mom suggested while she was cleaning off the blood that he needed stitches," Duggan said. "He laughed and said he hadn't lost enough blood to need stitches."

At home during college breaks, Murphy and his father continued their habit of hanging out together. Years earlier, the father had coached the son through youth soccer and pee-wee football. Young Michael would vault into his father's car to ride shotgun on trips to the supermarket or hardware store.

As he grew up, Michael returned the affection. As a college student, he extended his weekend visits home as long as possible. It was 295 miles from the Murphy home in Patchogue to Penn State -- a five-hour drive when father and son could talk to one another without interruption.

Their habit was to climb into Daniel Murphy's green Buick an hour or two before midnight on a Sunday, point the car west toward Interstate 80 and drive to State College, Pa. After dropping off his son, Daniel Murphy turned around and drove toward the rising sun, arriving back in time to be at work Monday morning.

It was on one of those trips, in the darkness along the interstate, that Michael told his father he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. It wasn't something Daniel Murphy wanted to hear.

Chapter Four: A Father's Experience

Decades earlier, the father had also risked everything to serve his country and had come away with a permanent physical wound and a deep distaste for what soldiers are asked to do. But he let his son make his own decisions.

Daniel Murphy grew up in Elmont and enlisted in the Army in September 1968, while the U.S. was reeling from the Tet offensive throughout South Vietnam. The attacks by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had deflated optimistic U.S. assessments of the war's progress and began to turn American public opinion against the war.

Daniel Murphy, who had just graduated from the University of Tennessee and had law school in his sights, enlisted anyway, believing it was his patriotic duty to volunteer.

By January 1970, Murphy was at war and on a mountaintop of his own, Nui Ba Den, a 3,235-foot dormant volcano that looms above a wide plane northwest of Saigon.

Throughout years of intense fighting, American troops held just a few acres at the mountain's peak, with the Viet Cong owning the rest. The two forces fought regular battles to try to drive the other away.

The mountain's caves were storehouses for insurgent supplies arriving from North Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia, 18 miles away. From the mountain, the Viet Cong could spot approaching American troops before they arrived and direct shelling onto the camp where Murphy was stationed in the nearby provincial capital of Tay Ninh City.

"They hit us so often we used to call it 'Rocket City,' " Murphy recalled.

On Jan. 4, 1970, as they had every few months since 1965, U.S. forces again hurled themselves at the mountain, hoping finally to take it. Shortly after dawn three days later, Murphy -- firing his rifle from behind a rock -- was lifted high into the air when a grenade exploded. It fractured his ankle and pierced his legs with shrapnel from his hips to his feet.

"I remember as clear as a bell floating down and saying, 'I'm dead. What are my parents going to think?' " recalled Murphy, who to this day is prevented by pain from carrying his briefcase in his left hand.

A month after he was injured, Murphy's best Army buddy -- a 20-year-old radio operator from Bay Shore named Tommy Wynne -- was killed in combat. Also killed was the medic who pulled Murphy to safety, whom everyone called "Gushy."

U.S. forces never took the mountain, and, in 1973, ground forces abandoned the country altogether. It was in that place and time, that Daniel Murphy's view of the soldiers' life was formed.

"It wasn't a matter of political belief, but Vietnam left a bad taste in my mouth that soldiers were used as cannon fodder," said Murphy, the National Judge Advocate for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an advocacy group for wounded veterans.

The father had rarely spoken of Vietnam while Michael was growing up, not wanting to share the horror -- or plant a career idea -- with a young, impressionable son. So that night in the car, Murphy offered some words of caution.

"I said, 'Michael, you know my disenchantment with the military after being in Vietnam,' " Murphy recalled. " 'I thought you wanted to go to law school?'
Chapter Five: Rigorous Training

Michael was not to be dissuaded. In 1998, he graduated with a pair of bachelor's degrees from Penn State -- in political science and psychology. And exactly as his father had done more than 30 years earlier, he put on hold his plans for law school.

If there was any consolation to the senior Murphy, it was knowing that the odds against his son being accepted as a SEAL were enormous. Of the nearly 1.4 million people serving in the U.S. military, only 2,270 men are SEALs. The SEAL training program was so rigorous that more than three in four who won admission to BUDS -- the Naval Special Warfare Command's Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school -- quit before they finished.

But the long odds didn't deter Murphy. While still a Penn State student, Murphy, who was slightly built at 5-10, began attending SEAL mentoring sessions at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point with the goal of getting himself ready for BUDS. Drew Bisset, a retired Navy captain and former SEAL, had designed the program after an admiral suggested lowering the strength requirements for SEAL candidates because so many were failing to make the grade.

To earn his recommendation to the SEAL school in San Diego, Bisset's charges had to far exceed the Navy's requirement to complete sets of at least 42 push-ups and 50 sit-ups -- each in two minutes -- plus six un-timed pull-ups. They also had to eclipse the Navy's requirement to swim a silent side stroke for 500 yards in under 12 minutes and 30 seconds, then run a mile and a half in just over 11 minutes -- while wearing long pants and combat boots.

Candidates in Bisset's program who failed in any one exercise had to wait a month before completing the entire regimen again. Bisset routinely fails applicants for splashing too loudly during the swim.

Murphy began testing under Bisset on Jan. 16, 1999, completing the swim in 9 minutes, the run in 9 minutes, 22 seconds and executing 90 push-ups, 58 sit-ups and 18 pull-ups in the allotted time .

"This is an intensely motivated individual who has the focus, determination and perseverance to carry him through the rigors of Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL (BUDS) training," Bisset wrote in his recommendation of Murphy. On a personal note, Bisset added, "I would be most eager to have this individual serve in my wardroom."

Murphy continued to participate in the monthly strength-testing meetings even after winning Bisset's recommendation. He posted his last strength test on Sept. 11, 1999, gutting out 102 push-ups, 87 sit-ups and 22 pull-ups. He had cut his swim time by 13 percent, to 7:47. He ran a mile and a half in boots in 8:55.

He was well above the Navy's minimum in all categories. But even with his improvement, he still fell short of Bisset's more rigorous prep regimen.

"We want to see 100 sit-ups in two minutes," Bisset said. "But because he was strong across the board, we recommended him."

With Bisset's recommendation virtually assuring him acceptance into SEAL training, Murphy enlisted in the Navy's Officer Candidate School at Pensacola, Fla., in September, 1999. He was commissioned as an ensign that December.

Now, only BUDS stood between Murphy and membership in the Navy's elite SEAL corps.

Before he left for SEAL school in San Diego, Murphy told Heather that he wanted her to move with him to California. His emotions had changed and he knew he wanted her in his life.

Her feelings had changed, too. At a party she organized to celebrate Murphy's acceptance into BUDS, she told him for the first time that she loved him.

Still, she wasn't ready to follow him. She had been accepted in a graduate program for school counseling at Long Island University.

"This will sound horrible, but I didn't want a military life," Duggan recalled. "I wanted to get my master's degree and wasn't prepared to live the kind of life he was asking me to live."

Murphy said goodbye to Duggan. In San Diego, Hell Week awaited him.

Chapter Six: Earning The Trident

Navy SEALs are involved in the most treacherous and secretive military operations. An assignment might require SEALs to surprise an enemy by swimming silently ashore from a submarine in darkness, or to rappel from a helicopter onto a mountain peak.

The yearlong training program in Coronado, Calif., outside San Diego is most intense during Hell Week, a cold, wet, gritty stretch of almost constant exertion that is designed to make candidates quit. The men are on the run around the clock, getting less than five total hours of sleep over the course of five and a half days.

The push-ups and sit-ups -- sometimes 500 of each per day -- are mere warm-up exercises. They swim and train for hours in bone-chilling surf, haul 300-pound logs and boats heavy with sand, and run obstacle courses under relentless prodding from drill instructors. The skin of their legs, feet, shoulders and groin is often worn raw from the constant motion and the chafing of military pants, boots or life jackets.

To steel himself for what awaited him, Murphy called home with a request. He needed his father to send him a 1970 photograph that showed Daniel Murphy recovering from his Vietnam wounds. "If you could make it through what you went through, I can make it through Hell Week," Michael Murphy told his father.

Midway through Hell Week, the highest-ranking trainee in Murphy's group, Lt. John Anthony Skop Jr., of Buffalo, died of a heart attack during a swimming pool training exercise. He was 29. Three years earlier, Navy airman Gordon Racine died during training in the same pool.

"You have the feeling that it's never going to end," said Navy Lt. Jim Quattromani, 29, a SEAL stationed in San Diego who went through Hell Week with Murphy. "I saw on numerous occasions him sort of pulling other guys along.

"He really exuded a confidence and a maturity," added Quattromani. "He was slightly older than some of the other guys because he had been out of school for a while. And physically, he was such a good athlete that it seemed to come easier for him.

"To me, of all the guys in the class, he was among the top few who it was obvious they were going to get through it," he said.

Becoming a SEAL isn't all brawn and endurance. SEAL candidates must score well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a series of tests similar to the SATs, which gauge mathematical reasoning and verbal skills. SEALs must score as well as the Navy's nuclear propulsion candidates, who serve aboard submarines, a SEAL official explained.

Murphy successfully completed his SEAL training, which included a month of jumps at the army's parachute school at Ft. Benning, Ga. In July 2002, it was official. He was awarded the trident symbol of the Navy SEALs.

As Murphy emerged from SEAL training, war was under way in Afghanistan. U.S. bombers had struck Taliban and al-Qaida terrorist training camps near Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad beginning in the fall of 2001.

Knowing full well he would play a role somewhere, Murphy was assigned to SEAL Delivery Team One, based at Pearl Harbor.

For Murphy and Duggan, parting had been hard. Each of them had thrown themselves into careers they had worked hard to achieve. They paid an emotional price. They stopped corresponding.

"We both had a lot of growing up to do and there was a lot for each of us to experience," Duggan said. "We were young when we drifted apart. I was 22, he was 24."

But on Long Island, Duggan's mother learned from the Murphys that Michael had begun taking on missions overseas. He would eventually be deployed in Jordan and Qatar, but his parent's didn't know about it.

Once, when he called from the country of Djibouti, his mother figured out he must have been in Africa when he let slip that he had been chased by a pack of hyenas. Otherwise, his comings and goings were a mystery to the people he loved.

Duggan worried. She began writing him again.

"I was afraid that something would happen to him and I would never be able to tell him how I really felt about him," Duggan said. "I truly think Mike and I both knew we were a couple as soon as the first e-mail correspondence began."

In April 2003, Murphy flew Duggan to Hawaii and greeted her at the airport.

"It was a different hug, different from the hugs we gave each other as friends," she recalled.

"As soon as I walked toward him at the airport, I knew that I was going to have a hard time leaving. So I called my mom a few days later and said I was moving to Hawaii."

Murphy owned a house near Pearl Harbor. The couple talked of starting a family.

Heather dreamed of two children; Murphy, who organized street hockey games for youngsters in the neighborhood -- much like his father had coached his teams -- needled her about four or five.

On the day after Christmas, 2003, during a trip home to Long Island, Murphy walked Duggan through the holiday crowds to see the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Though temperatures were in the 30s, Murphy's hands were sweating. For the first time since she had known him, this confident man was anything but.

Surrounded by tourists, Murphy dropped to a knee, dug a ring from his pocket and asked Duggan for her hand in marriage. She made him ask twice to tease him a little longer before saying yes.

Planning a wedding would be difficult while Murphy was on active duty as a SEAL. They picked a date anyway -- Nov. 19, 2005.

They planned to move back East when his Navy hitch ended. Thinking ahead, on a visit home in March of that year, Murphy visited an FBI office in New York to inquire about a career in counter terrorism.

But another mission shelved talk of settling down and having babies.

In April 2005, Murphy kissed Duggan goodbye. Nothing of his next destination was known to his family.

With war raging in Iraq -- 52 American soldiers were killed there that month -- his parents assumed that was where he would go.

Half of his Hawaii-based platoon was sent to western Iraq. But at the last minute, Murphy and the other half found themselves headed for the very region where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding.
Chapter Seven: Getting Serious

As a lieutenant who came through Officer's Training School, Murphy was the second-ranking member of his platoon, a unit of up to 44 men. But you'd never know it from the way he dealt with fellow SEALs.

He shared his home with several SEAL roommates in Hawaii, including one who recalled that Murphy would spend his free time alternating between pulling practical jokes on them and indulging reading tastes that ranged from the Greek historian Herodotus to Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and the political writings of Michael Moore.

His home was where others would drop by after work on Friday nights, before carpooling for beers and laughs at Duke's Waikiki, a popular bar.

Some of them were the same guys who were with Murphy now in the desolation of Afghanistan.

One was Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, 29, a karate expert from Texas, whose back is tattooed with the image of half a Navy SEAL trident. His twin, also a Navy SEAL, wears the other half.

Another was Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz, 25, a communications specialist. He had been married almost two years to a sailor stationed with him in Norfolk, Va. But conflicting deployments had kept him from her for most of that time.

The fourth man on the mountain, Petty Officer Matt Axelson, 29, a sniper from Cupertino, Calif., was known as quiet and cerebral. He once inscribed a photograph given to another SEAL with the words: "But within the willingness to die for family and home, something inside us longs for someone to die beside, someone to lock step with, another man with a heart like our own."

The four men were secreted on the side of Sawtalo Sar, a steep mountain that cradles the Shuraik Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province. The valley is home to Pashtun goat herders and woodcutters, who coax wheat from the rocky soil and who sometimes take money from warlords to shoot at and disclose the whereabouts of U.S. troops.

Axelson had trained as a sniper. Dietz was good with communications equipment. Luttrell was a fourth-degree black belt in karate.

Because of his rank, but also his warm personality, Murphy was the glue of the group. Other SEALs said his understated and unassuming nature made him accessible, but that when faced with a decision, he took in suggestions, then made it.

The valley floor stretches south from the Pech River and is 5,000 feet above sea level. The mountain above climbs almost a mile higher. At the place where Murphy and his men waited, the slopes are steeper than a stairwell and heavily forested.

The four men had been dropped in darkness the previous night by a helicopter from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Overhead surveillance detected that a large group of heavily armed guerrilla fighters had slipped into Afghanistan from Pakistan through a pass in the Hindu Kush mountains. The numbers indicated to the U.S. military that someone important was being protected.

Ethnic Pashtun tribes are Sunni Muslims who control both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Fierce fighters who have stubbornly resisted outside domination for more than two millennia, they wore down and then ousted the Soviet Army in 1989. Out of their numbers came the Taliban, anti-modern, conservative interpreters of Islam, whose reign of terror turned Afghanistan into both a fundamentalist stronghold and a haven for al-Qaida. The Taliban remains so strong that local barbers balk at cutting mens' beards, afraid of being marked for death for offending the Muslim conservatives.

This region of Afghanistan lies close to the heart of the Islamic extremism that on Sept. 11, 2001 killed 2,997 people in Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington. Since the 1980s, Kunar's mountains have been a stronghold for Arab militants who, under Osama bin Laden, formed al-Qaida. Many analysts who monitor bin Laden say Kunar and its adjacent Afghan and Pakistani regions are likely hiding places for him even now.

The four SEALs were scouting Ahmad Shah – a man in his mid-30s who grew up in adjacent mountains just to the south. Under the assumed name Muhammad Ismail, Shah leads a guerrilla group known to locals as the "Mountain Tigers" that in recent years he has aligned by turns with the Taliban, Arabs and other militant groups that welcome having a secure toehold in mountains so strategically close to the Pakistani border.

Last September, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told the Times of London that he believed bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan's Kunar Province, near where the four Americans were dropped.

That June day, as the four men waited, they were spotted by a goat herder working his flock through the valley.

Chapter Eight: Military Life

Since a SEAL's strength is his ability to get in and out unseen, their cover was effectively blown and a decision had to be made.

What should they do about the goat herder? As the team leader, Murphy was forced to make a fateful decision.

If he were allowed to leave, the herder might tell insurgents in the area of their presence, putting their lives in jeopardy. Taking him prisoner would slow their movements and could bring others out to look for him. Aborting their mission would risk the lives of those who would have to come to extract them and possibly allow an important insurgent leader to go free.

Murphy made clear to the others that killing the shepherd, a noncombatant, to ensure his silence was not an option.

"You know what, we are not murderers," he told the three others SEALs. "We're not just going to kill someone."

They would spare the herder and take their chances.

While much of what transpired after the goat herder was allowed to go his way is not known, at about 2 p.m. the four SEALs found themselves all but surrounded by several dozen heavily armed Taliban fighters, whose familiarity with the rugged terrain allowed them to slip in unseen.

The Taliban knew the escape routes, and the paths the SEALs could use to flee the area. All they had to do was choke them off and pin the GIs down. The four Americans were trapped.

Trying to reach safety, the four men began fleeing down the mountain's steep sides, making leaps of 20 to 30 feet. Realizing they were trapped, Dietz, the communications guy, sought open air to place a distress call back to the base. But before he could, he was shot in the hand, the blast shattering his thumb.

Murphy, now desperate to make radio contact for help, then climbed out into the open, exposing himself to enemy gunfire. While making the call, he was hit, though not fatally, by at least one shot. But his words got through to Bagram Air Base.

"Hornets nest," Murphy yelled into the satellite phone.

Then he ran back down to help his three men.

An account written by a U.S. Marine captain and published by the on-line magazine DefenseWatch, said U.S. forces who received the distress call sent a Predator drone mounted with an infrared camera to locate the SEAL team. Images beamed back from the battlefield told commanders that the SEALs were now surrounded. Within minutes, an Army MH-47 helicopter carrying eight SEALs and eight Army commandos was aloft, flying toward the battle scene at 50 feet off the ground and upward of 150 miles per hour.

It was flanked by two attack helicopters, whose job it was to protect the chopper from ground fire. But the attack helicopters, burdened with the weight of armor and ammunition, and laboring in the thin air of the mountain altitudes, fell behind the troop carrier, making it vulnerable to enemy fire.

As the troop carrier approached where the SEALs were trapped, a rocket-propelled explosive fired from the ground slammed into the MH-47's side. It is not known how many of the SEALs saw their rescuers' chopper explode and crash, killing all 16 aboard -- including James Suh, 28, a SEAL from Florida who was Murphy's closest friend.

At some point, Luttrell found himself trapped, only to be saved when Murphy came to his rescue.

Luttrell has told the families of the other SEALs that an explosion blew him farther down the mountain and away from the fighting.

It was the last time he saw the others alive.

In the fighting, an official investigation found, Axelson, Dietz and Murphy suffered multiple gunshot wounds, plus blunt-force injuries incurred as they jumped and tumbled down the ravine. Dietz was hit 16 times, including gunshot wounds to both thighs and both shoulders, his chest, jaw and head. Axelson had been hit with gunfire at least 22 times, including one shot that struck the back of his head. Murphy was hit at least seven times: bullets pierced his arm, leg, abdomen, back and his face below his left eye.

As darkness fell, Luttrell, bleeding from several wounds and apparently unable to communicate with his command, hid from his pursuers. When the sun came up days later, an Afghan shepherd walked out of his mountain home after hearing a strange noise in the woods. He found Luttrell, wounded and scared, and after persuading him that he meant no harm, took him to his home to protect him from his pursuers.

Luttrell had now been saved twice. And, if it was the first herder who betrayed them, it was now a second herder who saved the sole survivor.

Armed gunmen, who videotaped themselves looting watches, weapons, boots and electronic equipment that they say were from the bodies of Axelson, Dietz and Murphy in a scene that was posted on YouTube -- came to the village to demand custody of Luttrell. But following their own local code of ethics and tradition, which require villagers to offer sanctuary to anyone who is in danger, whether friend or enemy or stranger, the villagers told the gunmen they'd have to kill all the men in the village before they'd turn the American over.

They later smuggled a note written by Luttrell to U.S. troops stationed at Asadabad across the mountain range.

The tall Texan was now safe.

Within a few days, a Navy chaplain phoned Maureen Murphy in Patchogue to say her son was missing in Afghanistan. The next day, a SEAL who had once been Michael Murphy's commanding officer flew from San Diego to Long Island to wait with the family. He moved into a nearby motel.

Every day he would spend from morning to midnight at the Patchogue house, calling back to San Diego each night to see if there was word. On July 4th, at about 11 p.m., the officer went outside to make his nightly call. This one was different -- it lasted much longer than his earlier calls. Inside, Daniel Murphy sensed something was very wrong.

"I saw him coming toward me and I said, 'Is everything okay?' " the father recalled. "He said, 'Mr. Murphy, I'm sorry.' "
Chapter Nine: The Tragic End

Murphy's mission, known as Operation Red Wing, resulted in the worst loss of life for the SEALs since the program's inception in 1962. In all, 11 Navy SEALs -- 8 in the helicopter, plus Axelson Deitz and Murphy -- were killed.

The area where Murphy and the others perished remains one of the most lawless in the world, even though 200 troops from the 10th Mountain Division have since been stationed nearby. "We still take fire from the enemy," said Army Capt. Jim McKnight, who said in a phone interview from his outpost in Afghanistan that they had been attacked by small-arms fire earlier that day.

The lone surviving SEAL, Luttrell, returned to active duty. By mid-May, he was no longer operational. In the SEAL community, he is now referred to as "The One." He declined comment for this story, but a book about his experiences, "Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10," which he wrote with military author Patrick Robinson, is due to be published in June by Little, Brown and Co.

Luttrell's family and Robinson also declined comment. He received the Navy Cross -- the Navy's highest honor -- at a private Washington ceremony.

Dietz and Axelson also received the Navy Cross, posthumously, at the ceremony.

Standing in for their son, Dan and Maureen Murphy attended. But Michael Murphy did not receive the Navy Cross. The military only awards individuals one honor per war episode. Murphy's actions that day have put him in consideration for the nation's most prestigious combat award -- the Medal of Honor. The medal is often bestowed on the two-year anniversary of an incident. For Lt. Michael Murphy of Patchogue, that day is June 28, 2007.

Two independent witness accounts of a deed are required before a candidate is considered for the Medal of Honor. Luttrell is a living witness. The radio contact Murphy made to call for help may well count as a second witness to his bravery. Consideration and deliberations are never discussed publicly by Pentagon officials who decide.

Dan and Maureen Murphy, who were divorced in 1999, remain such close friends that when Dan remarried last year, Maureen took care of his new bride's two children while they honeymooned in Hawaii. Their other son, John, 20, is attending the New York Institute of Technology, with hopes of pursuing a career in criminal justice.

"He's going to be the lawyer," Dan Murphy said.

Maureen Murphy visits Michael's grave site at Calverton Cemetery nearly every day, where she talks to him. Before her son was buried, she tucked into his casket a key to the front door of the family's Patchogue home where she still lives with John.

Heather Duggan lives near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and counsels middle school students at IS-220 in Borough Park, Brooklyn. These days, she says she laughs more than she cries when she remembers Michael.

"He'll always be a part of me, but what I truly, truly miss the most -- and this might shock some people -- is definitely his friendship," Duggan said. "I think about him hanging out with me back in 1997-1998, with a backwards baseball hat on, out on the beach, cracking jokes and messing around. He was just such a great friend."

Several times a week, Dan Murphy drives to Lake Ronkonkoma where his son served as a lifeguard and where he practiced chin-ups to prepare for SEAL training. The memory that his son stood on this beach on hot summer days, looking out for swimmers in trouble, is reassuring to a father who desperately misses him.

He said, "It gives me a sense of peace walking on the same ground he walked."

The shepherd who saved the SEAL

ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- When Afghan shepherd Muhammad Gulab left this mountain home one morning in June 2005 to check on a strange noise his family had heard in the woods, he found a frightened and wounded American soldier pointing his rifle at him.

"His pants were torn almost off," his legs black with dirt, dried blood and bruises, Gulab recalled in an interview. "I saw from his eyes that he was almost collapsing.

"I lifted my shirt to show him that I had no weapon," Gulab said through an interpreter, "and I beckoned for him to come to me." The American lowered his weapon and limped forward. Gulab knew that in rescuing the American, Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, he was risking his own life. The day before, he had heard the gunfire and shouting of pro-Taliban guerrillas who had battled a team of U.S. Navy SEAL commandos. Killed in that battle were three Navy SEALs -- Matt Axelson, Danny Dietz and Michael Murphy. Luttrell was the sole American survivor of the fight.

On that day, Luttrell stepped forward to Gulab, put his arms around him and handed over his rifle, Gulab said. With that, Luttrell entrusted his life not only to the shepherd but also to the ancient and ironclad moral code of the Pashtun people. Their code of honor, called pashtunwali, is written in no constitution or legislation, but in the mountains and deserts of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are the Pashtuns' homeland. It carries the force of law.

Unflinching honor

Born out of centuries of Pashtun tribal wars and clan feuds, pashtunwali demands of a man both unflinching violence when his honor is thought to have been stained, and selfless humanitarianism when anyone -- stranger or enemy -- requests protection from a foe.

"He came to me for help. If I did not help a guest, it would have been a great shame for me," Gulab said -- a shame that might have led to his expulsion from his community.

As Gulab walked the wounded Luttrell to his home, he was spotted by the guerrillas who had fought the SEALs. "They called to me to give him to them," Gulab said. "But they know that I belong to a powerful clan, and they didn't dare to attack."

An attack on Gulab or the man he had taken under his care would have obligated Gulab's extended family -- a powerful clan called the Masaud -- to fight the guerrillas.

At his house, Gulab tried to make Luttrell comfortable. "I gave him some of my clothes, but he was too tall for them . . . We laid him in a bed and my brother cleaned his wounds. We cooked some goat for him, but at first he wouldn't eat."

As word spread that Gulab's family was now responsible for the safety of an American, "my brothers and nephews and cousins began arriving" with guns, Gulab said.

Other armed men came, too -- Shuraik valley residents with connections to the guerrillas, whose commander the SEALs had been tracking when they were ambushed. Over four days, the commander, Ahmed Shah, "sent a lot of intermediaries to tell me to hand over the soldier," Gulab said. "They said, 'We'll give you 5 million rupees [about $80,000] and any house you want in Peshawar,' " a city in neighboring Pakistan.

The promise of a home in Pakistan would have been the best attempt the guerrillas could make at getting Gulab to break his obligation, but it didn't work. Had he accepted the offer, Gulab might well have been expelled from the valley by the Masaud.

Protecting the SEAL

When the intermediaries came to deliver the guerrillas' demands, Gulab invited them into his house's main room, but sat protectively between them and the bed where Luttrell lay. Seeing the armed men, the SEAL "asked me, 'Taliban?' " Gulab recalled.

"I couldn't explain anything to him, so I just said, 'Yes, Taliban.' He was afraid."

The Masaud clan met to decide their response. "We told them we would not hand him over while even one of us remained alive," Gulab said.

The guerrillas' tone hardened. "They sent us a message saying, 'Prepare for war. We will attack your house tonight.' "

The family moved Gulab's wife and children to his father-in-law's home nearby. Then Gulab and some relatives walked Luttrell to a hiding place in the woods while others prepared to fight off an attack that never came.

That night, the American "was very afraid," Gulab said. "He thought maybe we were taking him up the mountain to kill him. I stayed with him that night, lying next to him. He patted my side."

Meanwhile, Gulab's family sent word to U.S. forces based across an 8,500-foot mountain from the Shuraik Valley, at Asadabad. "We got some paper and I told the soldier to write a note," Gulab said. "We sewed it inside the hem of my brother-in-law's shirt. I sent him to the Americans to tell them that we had their soldier and the Taliban were going to attack us."

Four days after Gulab found the American, U.S. troops arrived to rescue him. They loaded Luttrell and Gulab into a helicopter for a flight to an American base at Jalalabad.

Later, as the SEAL was being readied for medical evacuation to the United States, he summoned Gulab and a translator. "He said he knew the Taliban would kill me if I returned home," Gulab said, and offered to pay him $200,000 to re-start his life.

"I told him I didn't expect any money," Gulab said.

Little help for his trouble

Nearly two years later, Gulab's act of mercy has cost him the life he knew as a woodsman in his mountainside village of simple mud and timber homes. Gulab, 33, has fled his home in the village, Sabray, moving his wife and six children to the thin safety of the government-held town of Asadabad. Still, he says, the Islamic militant guerrillas pass on threats to kill him.

Gulab and others in Afghanistan's Kunar province say neither Luttrell nor the U.S. military has done much to help him. That, they say, may discourage other Afghans from following his example in defending U.S. soldiers.

Soon after the rescue of the seal, the U.S. military gave Gulab a construction laborer's job at its Asadabad base, paying him $280 a month. He moved his family to a rented house in the town.

Then, last April, American soldiers at the base arrested him. "They put handcuffs on me and a sack and earmuffs on my head," Gulab said. For five days, "they accused me of meeting Taliban and people from Pakistan. I felt ashamed. I couldn't eat anything. I haven't told any of my own people about this; it is a great shame to me."

Gulab's arrest followed a Newsweek story about his rescue of Luttrell and interrogators questioned him about his having met a Pakistan-based correspondent for the magazine, he said. U.S. forces released him without explanation, he said.

The arrest was acknowledged by the top U.S. officer at Asadabad, Navy Cmdr. Ryan Scholl, in response to queries from Newsday. The U.S. Special Operations Command in the Middle East said it was checking on the incident but had no immediate comment.

Far from supporting the Taliban, Gulab said, he is still threatened by them. "People come down [from the Shuraik Valley] and tell me that the Taliban have warned them that I will be killed whenever they get the chance," he said.

If he has kept his enemies, he feels he has lost his friends. "Before, I used to go to their [the Americans'] rooms freely and talk with them," Gulab said. But since the arrest, "they don't allow me on the base."

Every two weeks, Gulab is permitted to go to the base's gate to collect his salary for a job from which he said he is now barred. "Nowadays, my situation is very fragile," he said. "My security from the Taliban is not good . . . They can easily reach to Asadabad and find me."

If Gulab is mistrusted by the Americans, he is admired by many locals as a good Pashtun who did the right thing for his own honor, said Ruhollah Anwari, a prominent Afghan journalist in Asadabad.

"I am not sorry that I helped him," Gulab said of Luttrell. While he said he did not save the American with the expectation of a reward, he said he hopes the U.S. will help him out of his predicament. "If they help me, they will get the reputation that they help their friends," he said. "In general, I am very sad," adding that he has had no contact with the SEAL he saved. "I think he has forgotten me."
My best friend went to OCS with LT. Murphy back in '99. Can't say enough good things about him.

RIP Warrior
Lt. Murphy is one of my heroes, and I am so glad to hear that he has been nominated for the MOH. I recall reading about his funeral, and I have been so impressed by the way that his hometown of Patchogue has rallied around him.

RIP Lt. Murphy. My thoughts and prayers will be with you, your friends, and your family always.