These gods were soon to be humbled.
What would happen to Luttrell and 19 other special-operations soldiers is the basis for the new movie “Lone Survivor,” adapted from Luttrell’s best-selling account of the worst single death toll for Naval Special Warfare since World War II.
On June 28, 2005, Luttrell and three other SEALs — Lt. Michael Murphy and Petty Officers Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz — were helicoptered into a mountainous region on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Their mission was known as Operation Red Wings, and their objective was to locate a Taliban leader called Ahmad Shah, then radio headquarters. Shah would be taken out by an air assault.
From the minute Luttrell and his team fast-roped 20 feet down onto this desolate moonscape in total darkness, things went wrong. The rope was cut loose and dropped into the field instead of flown away — if the SEALs hadn’t found and hidden it, locals would have proof American forces were near.
They were in such cold conditions, made worse by freezing rain, that to stop moving could mean death.
Every 500 yards, one of them fell on the treacherous terrain, and with so little vegetation, they were easy targets.
“This was my nightmare,” Luttrell writes, “the four of us starkly silhouetted against a treeless mountain above a Taliban-occupied village. We were an Afghan lookout’s finest moment, unmissable.”
Through the night, the SEALs made their way from Waypoint 1 to Waypoint 2 to their final destination. It was a 4-mile-long, seven-hour trek up and down a steep mountain. As dawn broke, they had made their way to a slender ridge.
“In its way, this place was perfect,” Luttrell writes, “with the most commanding views any surveillance team could wish for. We just somehow had to burrow into this loose, rocky shale, keep our heads down, stay camouflaged, and concentrate. We’d be OK as long as no one saw us.”
They lay there, face down and still. The extreme cold of the night gave way to extreme heat.
Then came footsteps. Luttrell looked up and there, standing on a log, was a man in a turban, holding an ax, staring at him.
“I damn near fainted from shock,” Luttrell says.
He leveled his rifle, thinking this man was about to behead him, but the man dropped the ax and sat on a log as small bells began to ring. Up came 100 goats and two more figures — a young man and a boy no older than 14.
“Are you Taliban? Are you Taliban?”
“No Taliban. No Taliban.”
Luttrell offered the 14-year-old a PowerBar. The boy took it and put it on a rock and glowered. The SEALs could feel the men’s loathing. Luttrell understood: Here they were, goat herders in the most primitive of lands, stumbling upon four American soldiers “with enough weapons and ammunition to conquer an entire Afghan province.”
Even so, the SEALs felt at a disadvantage. These men, while civilians, were clearly hostile, and if the SEALs let them go, it would be a matter of minutes before the Taliban knew where they were. But these men were not enemy combatants, and it is a violation of the Geneva Convention to kill unarmed civilians.
The SEALs debated for several minutes while Dietz tried and tried to get through to headquarters. No one
picked up. They were on their own.
They let the goat herders go.
The SEALs retreated, as swiftly as possible, to the first spot they’d picked — one with poor visibility but denser tree coverage. It took nearly an hour, and again, they kept trying headquarters, to no avail.
The operation was now strictly defensive: Avoid being seen, make radio contact and get out. The assumption was the goat herders had talked.
It was now almost two hours since the SEALs had turned the herders loose. The mood had lightened a bit, the guys cracking lame jokes, then Murphy made the soft sound of high alarm, and Luttrell raised his rifle, looked up and saw, at the top of a hill, a slew of armed Taliban. Just how many remains a matter of debate — in Luttrell’s after-action report, he estimated 20 to 35, but in the book he claims between 80 to 100.
“My heart,” he writes, “dropped directly into my stomach.”
Luttrell saw movement behind a tree 20 yards away. He fired the first shot, to the head of a Taliban fighter, killing him.
Then it was an eruption of gunfire. The SEALs were outnumbered and outflanked, but confident. “No one can shoot like us,” Luttrell writes.
But the situation was dire. The enemy was advancing, bullets coming in from both sides, closer and closer, and Murphy ordered his men to fall back and over the edge of the mountain.
Down they rolled, their gear flying, hitting rocks and trees. Luttrell thinks they were doing 70 mph. He compares the final impact to feeling “like we’d jumped off a goddamned skyscraper.” Half his face was missing its skin, and his back and shoulder were badly injured.
‘NEVER OUT OF IT’
In came the RPGs, and now Luttrell knew they were dealing with a sophisticated force. He, Murphy and Axe kept firing as Dietz fell. He wasn’t moving.
“The folklore of the brotherhood stood starkly before both Mikey and me,” Luttrell writes. “No SEAL was ever left alone to die on the battlefield. No SEAL.”
He and Murphy grabbed Dietz and tugged him back. Luttrell was sure he had broken vertebrae; Murphy had been shot once, in the stomach, and Dietz regained consciousness, in agony. His right thumb was gone.
All three resumed shooting with Axe, but the Taliban were pushing in from above and both sides — “known, in military vernacular, as a balls-to-the-wall situation,” Luttrell writes.
They had one option: to drop again, another 30 feet off this shelf of rock, which they did. Once at the bottom, Dietz was hit in the back.
“He was still firing,” Luttrell writes. “Christ knows how, but he was. Danny’s mouth was open, and there was blood trickling out. There was blood absolutely everywhere.”
More gunfire. More grenades. Another shot to Dietz, through the neck.
Despite his injuries, Dietz not only kept firing but made another leap, this one 15 feet down as they continued to retreat, Luttrell says. Forty minutes had gone by.
Axe and Luttrell were now the main shots, but they could make only a dent. Dietz, Luttrell writes, was shot again in the neck, and Luttrell grabbed and dragged him, and again, he says, Dietz somehow kept firing.
In that moment, Luttrell was still convinced they might get out alive. Then he saw movement, and he turned to Axe, who was hit in the chest. He, too, Luttrell says, kept firing, and seconds later, Dietz was shot in the face. He died.
“Remember, bro,” Murphy told Luttrell. “We’re never out of it.”
Then Murphy took a shot to the chest, and Axe took a bullet to the head. Murphy, struggling, took out his mobile phone and performed his final act of heroism: He walked out into the open, his best chance at getting a signal to reach headquarters, and made the call.
“My men are taking heavy fire,” he said. “We’re getting picked apart. My guys are dying out here . . . We need help.”
Murphy took another shot to the back. Luttrell writes Murphy got right back on the phone and said, “Thank you,” and resumed firing, climbing above Luttrell to a shelf of rock.
Axe, he writes, stumbled right by him, “the right side of his head almost blown away . . . I knew Axe was dying.”
He heard Murphy screaming. “Help me, Marcus! Please help me!” Murphy was dying, too, but there was nothing Luttrell could do, and, after a few minutes of silence, he saw four Taliban surround Murphy and fire rounds into his dead body.
Luttrell scrambled down to Axe’s hiding place. The whites of his eyes were pooled in blood. Luttrell tried to comfort Axe the best he knew how.
“Hey, man,” he said, “you’re all f- -ked up!”
“Marcus, they got us good, man,” Axe said. “You stay alive, Marcus.”
In that moment, Luttrell says, he no longer cared what happened to him. He’d sit and wait for the Taliban to come. Then in came another grenade, blowing Luttrell farther down the mountain. He prayed. He crawled on his belly. He found a crevasse, and he hid there for hours.
He was petrified. He had no way of knowing that Murphy’s call had been successful, that two Chinooks were in the air, having taken off without the Apaches that normally provide cover.
One of those Chinooks was hit by an RPG. Eight SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers — everyone aboard — were killed.
Once the sun began to set and there had been enough sustained quiet, Luttrell crawled out of the crevasse, desperate for water. He was sure he was about to die of thirst, and suddenly, there were six men upon him, rifles on their backs.
“Taliban? You Taliban?”
“No Taliban! No Taliban!”
Those men saved Marcus Luttrell’s life. They were Pashtuns, and they adhered to lokhay warkawal, a tribal law that requires all help be extended to a wounded man, even if he’s the enemy. Luttrell’s hero is Muhammad Gulab, the man who took him in and refused to hand him over to the Taliban, even after the Taliban threatened to kill his entire family.
Luttrell was in hiding for five days, unaware that Gulab’s elderly father had set off for the town of Asadabad, alone and on foot, to alert the Americans that there was a SEAL still alive.
Luttrell considers Gulab, too, a brother. Gulab’s cousin was killed by the Taliban in retribution, and he and his family are now in hiding. He comes to visit Luttrell on his ranch in Texas and hopes for a green card.
When Luttrell first came back, his house was a shrine to all the SEALs lost that day, a tombstone engraved with their names in the center of his living room. He has since married and is now a father of two, including a little boy named Axe.
Murphy, a Long Island native, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Luttrell writes that the war is unwinnable. “Al Qaeda are running around in broad daylight, mostly doing what the heck they want, until we show up and chase the little pricks back over the border to Pakistan. Where they stay. For about 10 minutes.”