The Navy SEALs' worst day

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Fox Raiders
Jul 2, 2007
San Diego, CA
War forces terrible decisions on young men. No one knows that better than Marcus Luttrell.

In June 2005, on a barren mountain high in the Taliban-infested Hindu Kush range in Afghanistan, Luttrell and three fellow Navy SEALs came together to talk. Their mission had just been compromised. They were there to locate and possibly take out an important Taliban leader hiding in the Afghan village below.

Then three goatherds, one a boy of about 14, had blundered onto their position. Now, the goatherds were sitting against a log under the watchful eyes of their captors. They clearly weren't happy to see the Americans, but they were unarmed, technically civilians.

As dozens of goats milled about, Petty Officers Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz and Luttrell, and their commander, Lt. Michael Murphy, discussed what to do. Having failed to make radio contact with their home base, they were on their own.

They seemed to have two options: kill the Afghans, or let them go and hope for the best. They let them go, a decision Luttrell bitterly regrets.

Within hours, more than 100 Taliban fighters descended on the SEAL team. In the gun battle that followed, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz died.

A few miles away, a Taliban grenade brought down a helicopter on its way to help the trapped men, killing all 16 aboard. It was the worst day in the 40-year history of the Navy SEALs.

Nightmares and guilt

Luttrell, who was raised on a small ranch in Texas, has recounted the harrowing events in ''Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10'' (Little Brown, 400 pages, $24.99).

It was released a few weeks ago, and has climbed to No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list.

Co-written with author Patrick Robinson, the book includes one of the most gripping and heartbreaking descriptions of heroism in combat to come out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The book is also an astonishing survival tale. Luttrell, half-dead, was taken in by Afghan villagers, who discussed the matter and decided to grant the injured man ''lokhay warkawal,'' the protection of the village. They would be honor-bound, to protect Luttrell and not give him up.

''One of the lessons I learned was that there are good people everywhere,'' Luttrell said. ''That village, Sabray, saved my life.''

Luttrell, who received his Navy discharge in June and has moved back to Texas, was discussing ''Lone Survivor'' recently over lunch. His 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame squeezed into his only civilian suit, he wasn't enjoying himself. He says he hates interviews.

In the book, he expresses frequent disdain for the ''liberal media'' and ''liberals'' in general, whom he blames for imposing naive rules of engagement that jeopardize American lives, and for second-guessing the difficult, split-second decisions of soldiers in combat.

His friends' deaths remain raw and immediate. He can't sleep. He just goes until he collapses, he said. Then the nightmares jerk him back awake.

''The endless guilt of the survivor,'' as he puts it in the prologue.

The decision

What was the right thing to do on the mountain? In the book, Luttrell describes how the team talked it out, trying to find the best course. If they killed the men, they worried, the American media would get wind of it, and they'd be charged with murder.

Luttrell wondered what choice would have been made by great commanders of the past - Napoleon, Omar Bradley, Douglas MacArthur.

''Would they have made the ice-cold military decision to execute these cats because they posed a clear and present danger to their men?''

On the other hand, he felt the promptings of ''another soul. My Christian soul.''

''Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood.''

He reports that Axelson favored killing the goatherds. Dietz was neutral. Murphy and Luttrell voted to let them go.

''It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life,'' Luttrell writes. ''I must have been

out of my mind. ... I'd turned into a (expletive) liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jack rabbit. At least, that's how I look back on those moments now. ...

''In my opinion, we should have killed them,'' he says today, certain the goatherds told the Taliban of their presence. ''I regret it every day. I miss my friends.''

The firefight

He wrote the book to pay tribute to his friends' heroism, he said.

''No matter what I say or what I put into words, it won't do justice to what they did out there.''

The 50-page narrative of the firefight is riveting. In Luttrell and Robinson's telling, the SEALs fought furiously but coolly, inflicting terrific casualties on the enemy. But the Americans faced overwhelming odds.

At one point Luttrell likens the fight to a 21st century version of ''Little Bighorn with turbans.''

Three times the SEALs threw themselves down the sheer face of the mountain to escape the Afghans, who were coming at them from three sides. Axelson, Dietz and Murphy all sustained numerous wounds but kept fighting.

Near the end, Murphy deliberately exposed himself, moving into an open space to try to make his cell phone work. He managed to get through.

''My guys are dying out here ... we need help,'' he told headquarters before a bullet in the back knocked him to the ground. He struggled back to cover and continued fighting. It was that cell phone call that summoned the ill-fated helicopter rescuers.

Dietz died first, followed by Murphy, whose cries for help, Luttrell, pinned down, couldn't answer. In his nightmares, he still hears those cries.

As he cradled a dying Axelson in his arms, a grenade blew them apart and tossed Luttrell into a ravine.

His friends gone, Luttrell managed to work himself out of sight of the enemy - his legs full of shrapnel, his nose broken, three cracked vertebrae in his back. That night and the next day, he dragged his wounded body over the mountains in a desperate search for water.

Having finally found a watering hole, he looked up to see a half dozen armed Afghans surrounding him.

''Taliban?'' Luttrell asked.

''No Taliban,'' the leader responded.

The man was Sarawa, the doctor of Sabray, the village Luttrell's team had been observing. Sarawa and his men hauled the American down the mountain.

The Taliban interrogated Luttrell. But the village elder decided he would not turn Luttrell over to the Taliban. Villagers then contacted a nearby American base and got Luttrell to safety.

''People make mistakes and bad things happen,'' Luttrell said, summing up the events of two summers ago. ''We fought as hard as we could. We just ran out of bullets. My greatest honor was to serve my country.''
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