The Sole Survivor
Monday, June 11, 2007
The blood in his eyes almost blinded him, but the Navy Seal could hear, clattering above the trees in northeast Afghanistan, rescue helicopters.
Hey, he pleaded silently. I'm right here.
Marcus Luttrell, a fierce, 6-foot-5 rancher's son from Texas, lay in the dirt. His face was shredded, his nose broken, three vertebrae cracked from tumbling down a ravine. A Taliban rocket-propelled grenade had ripped off his pants and riddled him with shrapnel.
As the helicopters approached, Luttrell, a petty officer first class, turned on his radio. Dirt clogged his throat, leaving him unable to speak. He could hear a pilot: "If you're out there, show yourself."
It was June 2005. The United States had just suffered its worst loss of life in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001. Taliban forces had attacked Luttrell's four-man team on a remote ridge shortly after 1 p.m. on June 28. By day's end, 19 Americans had died. Now U.S. aircraft scoured the hills for survivors.
There would be only one. Luttrell's ordeal -- described in exclusive interviews with him and 14 men who helped save him -- is among the more remarkable accounts to emerge from Afghanistan. It has been a dim and distant war, where after 5 1/2 years about 26,000 U.S. troops remain locked in conflict.
Out of that darkness comes this spark of a story. It is a tale of moral choices and of prejudices transcended. It is also a reminder of how challenging it is to be a smart soldier, and how hard it is to be a good man.
Luttrell had come to Afghanistan "to kill every SOB we could find." Now he lay bleeding and filthy at the bottom of a gulch, unable to stand. "I could see hunks of metal and rocks sticking out of my legs," he recalled.
He activated his emergency call beacon, which made a clicking sound. The pilots in the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters overhead could hear him.
"Show yourself," one pilot urged. "We cannot stay much longer." Their fuel was dwindling as morning light seeped into the sky, making them targets for RPGs and small-arms fire. The helicopters turned back.
As the HH-60s flew to Bagram air base, 80 miles away, one pilot told himself, "That guy's going to die."
Luttrell never felt so alone. His legs, numb and naked, reminded him of another loss. He had kept a magazine photograph of a World Trade Center victim in his pants pocket. Luttrell didn't know the man but carried the picture on missions. He killed in the man's unknown name.