By Chris Simmons
Trailer for the forthcoming movie, Lone Survivor
Three of the four SEALs we infiltrated into the Himalayas yesterday were already dead or wounded before we even knew they were in trouble.
Known as Task Force 328, we launched Operation “Red Wing” against the infamous Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The SEAL Team 10 members were on a Reconnaissance and Surveillance (R&S) mission. Their mission was not to kill Shah, but to covertly find and monitor him until he could be captured or killed by other assets. Regrettably, the mission went horribly wrong.
Late on June 27, 2005, two of our twin-engine MH-47 helicopters performed several “false insertions.” This maneuver confused Taliban forces as to the true location of the SEAL’s drop-off point at Sawtalo Sar. Over 2800 meters tall, the peak is in the eastern Afghanistanprovince of Kunar. It overlooks the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor — a narrow finger of territory between Tajikistan and Pakistan.
The R&S team consisted of Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Petty Officer Second Class Danny P. Dietz, Petty Officer Second Class Matthew G. Axelson and Navy Corpsman (“medic”) Second Class Marcus Luttrell.
Within hours of their arrival, the team was discovered by local goat herders. Although they were deep in “Taliban Country,” the SEALS had no proof the herders were anything more than they appeared. Murphy ordered them released. It proved to be a fateful decision.
Tipped off by the “goat herders,” an estimated 50 Taliban fighters surrounded the SEALs and attacked with assault rifles, light machine guns, Rocket Propelled Grenades, and light mortars.
The SEALs tried using their radio and a satellite phone to contact those of us in the Joint Operations Center (JOC). Geography appears to have crippled their “comms.” The team could only establish and maintain communication with us long enough to say they were under heavy attack.
A rescue mission was immediately launched, comprised solely of volunteers: eight Navy SEALs and eight Army Special Operations aviators. The crew of the MH-47 quickly found the SEAL’s position and with Gatling guns blazing, descended. As “Turbine 33” descended to a height of 100 feet, a Taliban fighter stepped out of the tree line with a Rocket Propelled Grenade. He fired the RPG directly into the chopper’s rear engine. Needing both engines to stay aloft in the thin air of the Himalayas, Turbine 33 dropped like a rock. The crash killed all aboard.
Meanwhile, Marcus Luttrell was the R&S team’s sole survivor. Knocked out by a separate RPG blast, he regained consciousness to find himself with several broken bones and other serious wounds.
Ghalib, a local Pashtun man, found Luttrell and offered sanctuary in his home. Under tribal law, one is sworn to protect the life of anyone who crosses the threshold of your home. Outraged by Ghalib’s act, the Taliban surrounded his home and demanded he turn over the American. He bravely defied their demands and the Taliban, unwilling to violate tribal law, withdrew after several days.
Shortly thereafter, American forces rescued Luttrell and recovered the bodies of the 19 personnel killed during the mission. The memorial service at Task Force headquarters lasted three hours, marked by personal tributes and anecdotes from 19 brothers-in-arms. Not a dry eye could be found.
The callsign Turbine 33 was retired, never again to be used by a US military aircraft.
Some people say that war changes you. I believe a more accurate assessment is that war sharpens and amplifies who you already are. Bad men devolve into Satan incarnate. Good men become immortal. Their heroic deeds becomes the stuff of legends, but so too their motivation, because they made their sacrifice not for God and Country, but for the noblest of all emotions — love. Shakespeare said it best: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”