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The Sole Survivor

The service members who helped rescue Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, below, in Afghanistan in 2005 were, from left, Master Sgt. Mike Cusick, Staff Sgt. Chris Piercecchi, Staff Sgt. Ben Peterson, Staff Sgt. Joshua Donnelley, Master Sgt. Josh Appel, Tech. Sgt. John Davis, Tech. Sgt. Jason Burger, Lt. David Gonzales, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Macrander, Master Sgt. Brett Konczal, Maj. Jeff
The service members who helped rescue Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, below, in Afghanistan in 2005 were, from left, Master Sgt. Mike Cusick, Staff Sgt. Chris Piercecchi, Staff Sgt. Ben Peterson, Staff Sgt. Joshua Donnelley, Master Sgt. Josh Appel, Tech. Sgt. John Davis, Tech. Sgt. Jason Burger, Lt. David Gonzales, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Macrander, Master Sgt. Brett Konczal, Maj. Jeff "Spanky" Peterson and Maj. John Phalon. The other members of Luttrell's four-man team were killed by Taliban fighters. (Courtesy Of Josh Appel)

Now Luttrell's camouflage pants had been blasted off, and with them, the victim's picture. Luttrell was feeling lightheaded. His muse for vengeance was gone.

Hunting a Taliban Leader

Luttrell's mission had begun routinely. As darkness fell on Monday, June 27, his Seal team fast-roped from a Chinook helicopter onto a grassy ridge near the Pakistan border. They were Navy Special Operations forces, among the most elite troops in the military: Lt. Michael P. Murphy and three petty officers -- Matthew G. Axelson, Danny P. Dietz and Luttrell. Their mission, code-named Operation Redwing, was to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader. U.S. intelligence officials believed Shah was close to Osama bin Laden.

Luttrell, 32, is a twin. His brother was also a Seal. Each had half of a trident tattooed across his chest, so that standing together they completed the Seal symbol. They were big, visceral, horse-farm boys raised by a father Luttrell described admiringly as "a hard man."

"He made sure we knew the world is an unforgiving, relentless place," Luttrell said. "Anyone who thinks otherwise is totally naive."

Luttrell, who deployed to Afghanistan in April 2005 after six years in the Navy, including two years in Iraq, welcomed the moral clarity of Kunar province. He would fight in the mountains that cradled bin Laden's men. It was, he said, "payback time for the World Trade Center. My goal was to double the number of people they killed."

The four Seals zigzagged all night and through the morning until they reached a wooded slope. An Afghan man wearing a turban suddenly appeared, then a farmer and a teenage boy. Luttrell gave a PowerBar to the boy while the Seals debated whether the Afghans would live or die.

If the Seals killed the unarmed civilians, they would violate military rules of engagement; if they let them go, they risked alerting the Taliban. According to Luttrell, one Seal voted to kill them, one voted to spare them and one abstained. It was up to Luttrell.

Part of his calculus was practical. "I didn't want to go to jail." Ultimately, the core of his decision was moral. "A frogman has two personalities. The military guy in me wanted to kill them," he recalled. And yet: "They just seemed like -- people. I'm not a murderer."

Luttrell, by his account, voted to let the Afghans go. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about that decision," he said. "Not a second goes by."

At 1:20 p.m., about an hour after the Seals released the Afghans, dozens of Taliban members overwhelmed them. The civilians he had spared, Luttrell believed, had betrayed them. At the end of a two-hour firefight, only he remained alive. He has written about it in a book going on sale tomorrow, "Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10."

Daniel Murphy, whose son Michael was killed, said he was comforted when "Mike's admiral said, 'Don't think these men went down easy. There were 35 Taliban strewn on the ground.' "

Before Murphy was shot, he radioed Bagram: "My guys are dying."


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