In July 2005, a four-man element of Navy SEALs was inserted into the dangerous terrain along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Their mission? Conduct reconnaissance in the area, and if possible, kill or capture a known Taliban leader who was rebuilding his forces in the region.
Five days later, only one member of the SEAL element emerged from those mountains. He told a harrowing tale of a mission that was compromised, a bitter firefight with scores of Taliban fighters that killed three members of his team, and an desperate egress attempt that brought him back alive.
Now, the survivor of that mission, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, has written a book his experiences. Entitled "Lone Survivor," it recounts the events surrounding that fateful special operations mission (code named Operation Redwing), and the decisions that ultimately cost the lives of three Navy SEALs. I haven't read the book (yet), but the advance buzz suggests that "Lone Survivor" is a riveting account of heroism, sacrifice, and survival, under the most arduous conditions.
But Petty Officer Luttrell's account is also attracting controversy. The father of the SEAL element leader tells Newsday that the book is a "disservice" to the men who died fighting alongside Luttrell. He also claims that the book contradicts what Luttrell told the officer's family when he returned from Afghanistan.
In the book (and during an interview on yesterday's Today show), Petty Officer Luttrell recounted that his element was compromised by three local goat herders while they waited to kill or capture a high-ranking Taliban leader. He said that the four SEALs voted to spare the goat herders' lives, and within the hour, they were surrounded by four Taliban fighters. Three members of the team, Lt Michael P. Murphy, Petty Officer Danny Dietz and Petty Officer Matt Exelson died in the fighting that followed. Luttrell survived, but only after fighting off six Taliban fighters sent to kill him, and crawling seven miles to a village where he found refuge, and was eventually rescued.
According to Newsday's Michael Rothfeld, casts himself as the decisive player in the drama, writing that he cast the deciding vote to release the herders:
"...writing that he cast the deciding vote to release the herders. He says he was torn between his "warrior's soul" that favored an "ice-cold military decision to execute these cats," and his "Christian soul ... crowding in on me."
According to the book, Murphy was against killing the herders not out of moral considerations but seemingly selfish ones. He quotes Murphy as saying, "The U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy. We will almost certainly be charged with murder." He said Axelson was in favor of killing the herders, while Dietz said he didn't care.
"I looked Mikey right in the eye, and I said, 'We gotta let 'em go,'" Luttrell writes. "It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lame-brained decision I ever made in my life ... I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant."
Lieutenant Murphy's father, Daniel P. Murphy, says Luttrell's published account doesn't square with his original version of events, relayed to officer's family in 2005.
"That directly contradicts what he told [Murphy's mother] Maureen, myself and Michael's brother John in my kitchen," said Murphy, who watched Luttrell on television but said he hasn't read the book. "He said that Michael was adamant that the civilians were going to be released, that he wasn't going to kill innocent people ... Michael wouldn't put that up for committee. People who knew Michael know that he was decisive and that he makes decisions."
In his book, Luttrell suggests he sugar-coated the story in a visit with Murphy's family on Long Island, telling the lieutenant's mother "what she asked me to tell her."
We may never know what actually transpired on that ridge in Afghanistan, and I haven't had the opportunity to read Petty Officer Luttrell's book, to learn more about Operation Redwing. And there's no doubting the heroism of Luttrell, Dietz, Axelson and Murphy. For extraordinary heroism under fire, Lieutenant Murphy is being considered for the Congressional Medal of Honor; the three Petty Officers assigned to the mission received the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest decoration for valor.
Publication of the book may also re-ignite other controversies surrounding the mission. Elements within the special operations community argue that SEALs are not the ideal asset for long-range, overland SOF missions. A good friend of mine, a retired Green Beret NCO with decades of experience in the teams, told me bluntly: "bad things tend to happen when you put SEALs in that kind of environment."
There is also some debate about the element's decision to remain in place after being discovered by the goat herders. A British SAS team suffered a similar experience in the first Gulf War; the leader of that team, Sergeant Andy McNab, elected to leave the area, beginning a legendary escape that carried his men across western Iraq to the Syrian border. Two members of the team made it to safety in Syria, two died of exposure, and the rest (including McNab) were captured and tortured by Saddam's forces. In his book about the mission Bravo Two Zero, McNab makes it clear that his team had to make a run for it after being compromised.
But it's difficult to draw exact comparisons between McNab's experiences in Iraq, and the fate of that SEAL element in Afghanistan. And, any post-mortem on that latter event should not detract from the courage and valor displayed by Lt. Murphy and members of his team. Only one came back alive, but all are heroes, and all deserve the thanks and appreciation of a grateful nation.