By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Wounded and locked in a harrowing gunfight deep in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains, Navy SEAL Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson laid down covering fire so a teammate could escape -- an act of heroism for which Axelson was yesterday posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest medal.
Fighting nearby, Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz was also mortally wounded but stood his ground in a barrage of fire from 30 to 40 Taliban militiamen who surrounded his four-man SEAL reconnaissance team on June 28, 2005. For his "undaunted courage," as described by the military, Dietz, 25, of Littleton, Colo., also posthumously received the Navy Cross yesterday in a ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial.
Families and comrades gathered to honor them on a chilly, gray evening, with flags on ships' masts waving in the breeze. One SEAL, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work, recalled his close friend Axelson as laid back, a golfer and a quiet leader. His voice cracked as he described the inscription Axelson wrote on the back of a photograph of the two men that Axelson's wife gave him after Axelson died.
"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 inscription read.
"I can't tell you how much I wish I could have been there for him," his friend told the gathering.
Patsy Dietz, 25, Dietz's widow, said her husband died during his final mission, only about two weeks before he was to return home. Describing him as a generous man who loved his dogs and who would hand out $20 bills to strangers, she said Dietz had volunteered for the deployment because he believed in the cause. She said he knew the risks that he faced. "Danny and his brothers went towards evil and ran forward and gave their last breath," she said in an interview.
The actions of Axelson and Dietz allowed a lone teammate to escape and survive, and he has also been awarded the Navy Cross, but the military has withheld his name for security reasons because he is still on active duty.
The perilous firefight erupted at 10,000 feet in some of the world's most rugged terrain along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, when the SEAL team probed deep into enemy territory on a clandestine mission to kill or capture a Taliban militia leader. By nightfall that day, three of the SEALs lay dead, along with eight other SEALs and eight Army Special Operations aviators whose MH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed during a daring rescue attempt.
It was the worst death toll in a single day since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and the biggest single loss of life for the Naval Special Warfare forces since the invasion of Normandy in World War II, the Navy reported.
The fatal mission -- Operation Red Wing -- began June 27, when Axelson, Dietz, Lt. Michael P. Murphy and the fourth unnamed SEAL, bearded and camouflaged, were inserted into heavily forested terrain east of the Afghan town of Asadabad to track down militia leader Ahman Shah.
The next day, however, the SEAL team was spotted and pointed out by local residents who were sympathetic to the Taliban. A Taliban force launched a "well-organized, three-sided attack," taking advantage of the high ground to assault the SEAL position using rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, according to an official military account.
"Three of the four SEALs were wounded. The fight relentlessly continued as the overwhelming militia forced them deeper into a ravine," it said.
About 45 minutes into the firefight, Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y., made radio contact with Bagram Air Base outside the capital, Kabul, asking for air support and reinforcements. Soon afterward, the Chinook lifted off with 16 special operations troops aboard on a mission to extract the surrounded SEALs.
The Chinook was escorted by Army attack helicopters, whose job was to suppress enemy ground forces to make it safe for the lightly armored troop carrier to land. But the heavier attack helicopters lagged behind at the high altitude and were outpaced by the Chinook, whose pilots then faced a life-or-death decision: Try to land unprotected in hazardous terrain in a battle zone, or wait while their wounded comrades on the ground risked being overrun.
They chose to land, but as the Chinook rushed into the fight, it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, killing all 16 men aboard.
Meanwhile, Axelson, 29, of Cupertino, Calif., "ignoring his injuries and demonstrating exceptional composure" urged his teammate to escape, according to the medal citation. "With total disregard for his own life and thinking only of his teammate's survival, he continued to attack the enemy, eliminating additional militia fighters, until he was mortally wounded by enemy fire," it said. His body was recovered July 10 after a massive military search effort in Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
Dietz was lauded for "undaunted courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and absolute devotion to his teammates" as he remained behind to fight to defend his partners after he, too, was wounded.