By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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."
Help came thundering over the ridgeline in a Chinook carrying 16 rescuers. But at 4:05 p.m., as the helicopter approached, the Taliban fighters fired an RPG. No one survived.
"It was deathly quiet," Luttrell recalled. He crawled away, dragging his legs, leaving a bloody trail. The country song "American Soldier" looped through his mind. Round and round, in dizzying circles, whirled the words "I'll bear that cross with honor."News of a Crash
In southwestern Afghanistan, at the Kandahar air field, Maj. Jeff Peterson, 39, sat in the briefing room with his feet up on the table, watching the puppet movie "Team America: World Police."
Peterson was a full-time Air Force reservist from Arizona, known as Spanky because he resembles the scamp from "The Little Rascals." He was passing a six-week stint with other reservists he called "old farts." In three days they would head home, leaving behind the smell of burning sewage and the sound of giant camel spiders crunching mouse bones.
Someone flipped on the television news. A Chinook had crashed up north.
Peterson flew an HH-60 for the 305th Rescue Squadron. Motto: "Anytime, anywhere." Their rescues had been minor. "An Afghani kid with a blown-up hand or a soldier with a blown-up knee," Peterson recalled in an interview at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
That was okay with him. Twelve men, including Peterson's best friend, had died during training in a midair collision in 1998. The accident, he said, "took the wind out of my life sails." He just wanted to serve and get back to his wife, Penny, and their four small boys.
Peterson is dimply, 5 feet 8, and describes himself with a smile as "an idiot. A full-on, certified idiot." He almost flunked out of flight school because he kept getting airsick. While the other pilots downed lasagna, he nibbled saltines. He had trouble in survival training because they had to slaughter rabbits: "I didn't want to kill the bunny."
Peterson dealt with stress by joking, singing "Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood" songs on missions: It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Now, with the news of the Chinook crash, the tension in the Kandahar briefing room amped up as a call came over the radio. Bagram needed them. Peterson grabbed his helmet and a three-day pack. He asked himself, "What is this about?"Encounter With a Villager
The Seal wondered whether he was dying -- if not from the bullet that had pierced his thigh, then surely of thirst. "I was licking sweat off my arms," Luttrell recalled. "I tried to drink my urine."
Crawling through the night, as Spanky Peterson's HH-60 flew overhead with other search helicopters, he made it to a pool of water. When he lifted his head, he saw an Afghan. He reached for his rifle.
"American!" the villager said, flashing two thumbs-up. "Okay! Okay!"
"You Taliban?" Luttrell asked.
The villager's friends arrived, carrying AK-47s. They began to argue, apparently determining Luttrell's fate. "I kept saying to myself, 'Quit being a little bitch. Stand up and be a man.' "
But he couldn't stand. Three men lifted 240 pounds of dead weight and carried Luttrell to the 15-hut village of Sabray. They took his rifle.
What happened next baffled him. Mohammed Gulab, 33, father of six, fed Luttrell warm goat's milk, washed his wounds and clothed him in what Luttrell called "man jammies."
"I didn't trust them," Luttrell said. "I was confused. They'd reassure me, but hell, it wasn't in English."
Hours after his arrival, Taliban fighters appeared and demanded that the villagers surrender the American. They threatened Gulab, Luttrell said, and tried to bribe him. "I was waiting for a good deal to come along and for Gulab to turn me over.
"I'd been in so many villages. I'd be like, 'Up against the wall, and shut the hell up!' So I'm like, why would these people be kind to me?" Luttrell said. "I probably killed one of their cousins. And now I'm shot up, and they're using all the village medical supplies to help me."
What Luttrell did not understand, he said, was that the people of Sabray were following their own rules of engagement -- tribal law. Once they had carried the invalid Seal into their huts, they were committed to defend him. The Taliban fighters seemed to respect that custom, even as they lurked in the hills nearby.
During the day, children would gather around Luttrell's cot. He touched their noses and said "nose"; the children taught him words in Pashtun. At prayer time, he kneeled as best he could, wincing from shrapnel wounds. A boy said in Arabic, "There is no god but Allah." Marcus repeated: "La ilaha illa Allah."
"Once you say that, you become a Muslim -- you're good to go," he said. Luttrell offered his own unspoken prayer to Jesus: "Get me out of here."
On several occasions, he heard helicopters. In one of them was Peterson. Come on, dude, show yourself, Peterson would silently say, looking down into the trees. At dawn, as Peterson flew back from a search, he felt his stomach sink. We failed.
On July 1, with Taliban threats intensifying, Gulab's father, the village elder, decided to seek help at a Marine outpost five miles down in the valley. Luttrell wrote a note: "This man gave me shelter and food, and must be helped."
The old man tramped down the mountain.Preparing a Rescue
At 1 a.m. on July 2, Staff Sgt. Chris Piercecchi, 32, an Air Force pararescue jumper, picked up Gulab's father at the Marine outpost. He flew with him to Bagram. "He was this wise, older person with a big, old beard," Piercecchi recalled. Gulab's father handed over Luttrell's note and described the Seal's trident tattoo.
U.S. commanders drew up rescue plans. "It was one of the largest combat search-and-rescue operations since Vietnam," said Lt. Col. Steve Butow, who directed the air component from a classified location in Southwest Asia.
Planners first considered sending a Chinook to get Luttrell, while Peterson's HH-60 would wait five miles away to evacuate casualties. But the smaller HH-60, the planners concluded, could navigate the turns approaching Sabray more easily than a lumbering Chinook.
"Sixties, you got the pickup," the mission commander said to the HH-60 pilots.
"I was like, 'Holy cow, dude, how am I not going to screw this up?' " Peterson recalled. His chest felt tight. He had never flown in combat. "You want to do your mission, but once you're out, you're like, damn, I'd rather be watching the American puppet movie."
At 10:05 p.m. -- five nights after Luttrell's four-man team had set out -- Peterson climbed aboard with his reservist crew: a college student, a doctor, a Border Patrol pilot, a former firefighter and a hard-of-hearing Vietnam vet.
First Lt. Dave Gonzales, 41, Peterson's copilot, recalled that he felt for his rosary beads. "If you guys are praying guys, make sure you're praying now," Gonzales said. Master Sgt. Josh Appel, 39, the doctor, had never asked for God's help before. His father was Jewish, and his mother was a German Christian: "I don't even know what god I was talking to."
They flew for 40 minutes toward the dead-black mountains. Voices from pilots -- A-10 attack jets and AC-130 gunships flying cover -- droned over five frequencies. Peterson's crew was quiet, breathing a greasy mix of JP-8 jet fuel fumes and hot rubber.
As they climbed from 1,500 to 7,000 feet, Peterson asked about the engines: "What's my power?" In thin air, extra weight can be deadly. He didn't want to dump fuel; they were flying over a village. But he could sense the engines straining through the vibrations in the pedals.
Peterson broke the safety wire on the fuel switch. "Sorry, guys," he said, looking down at the roofs. He felt bad for the people below, but he needed to lighten the aircraft if he wanted to survive. Five hundred pounds of fuel gushed out. "That's for Penny and the boys."
Five minutes before the helicopter reached Sabray, U.S. warplanes -- guided by a ground team that had hiked overland -- attacked the Taliban fighters ringing the houses. "They started shwacking the bad guys," Peterson recalled. The clouds lit up from the explosions. The radio warned, "Known enemy 100 meters south of your position." The back of Peterson's neck prickled.
At 11:38 p.m., they descended into the landing zone, a ledge on a terraced cliff. The rotors spun up a blinding funnel of dirt. The aircraft wobbled, drifting left toward a wall and then right toward a cliff. Piercecchi lay down, bracing for a crash. Master Sgt. Mike Cusick, 57, the flight engineer who had been a gunner in Vietnam, screamed, "Stop left! Stop right!"
"I'm going to screw up," Peterson recalled thinking. He thought of his best friend's wife, how she howled when he told her that her husband, a pilot, had crashed. "Don't let this happen to Penny."
Then, suddenly, through the brown cloud, a bush appeared. An orientation point.
Luttrell was crouching with Gulab on the ground, watching them land. The static electricity from the rotors glowed green. "That was the most nervous I'd been," Luttrell said. "I was waiting for an RPG to blast the helicopter."
Gulab helped Luttrell limp through the rotor wash. Piercecchi and Appel jumped out and saw two men dressed in billowing Afghan robes.
Appel trained the laser dot of his M4 on Luttrell. "Bad guys or good guys?" Appel recalled wondering. "I hope I don't have to shoot them."
Someone shouted: "He's your precious cargo!"
Piercecchi performed an identity check, based on memorized data: "What's your dog's name?"
Piercecchi: "Favorite superhero?"
Piercecchi shook his hand. "Welcome home."
Luttrell and Gulab climbed into the helicopter. During the flight, Gulab "was latched onto my knee like a 3-year-old," Luttrell recalled. When they landed and were separated, Gulab seemed confused. He had refused money and Luttrell's offer of his watch.
"I put my arms around his neck," Luttrell recalled, "and said into his ear, 'I love you, brother.' " He never saw Gulab again.The Lessons
Two years have passed. Peterson, back in Tucson, realizes he may not be "a big idiot" after all. "I feel like I could do anything," he said.
On a recent evening, he took his boys to a Cub Scout meeting. The theme: "Cub Scouts in Shining Armor." The den leader said: "A knight of the Round Table was someone who was very noble, who stood up for the right things. Remember what it is to be a knight, okay?"
Peterson's boys nodded, wearing Burger King crowns that Penny had spray-painted silver.
Peterson had never spoken to Luttrell, neither in the helicopter nor afterward. Last month, the Seal phoned him.
"Hey, buddy," he said. "This is Marcus Luttrell. Thank you for pulling me off that mountain."
Such happy moments have been rare for Luttrell. After recuperating, he deployed to Iraq, returning home this spring. His injuries from Afghanistan still require a "narcotic regimen." He feels tormented by the death of his Seal friends, and he avoids sleeping because they appear in his dreams, shrieking for help.
Three weeks ago, while in New York, Luttrell visited Ground Zero. On an overcast afternoon, he looked down into the pit. The World Trade Center is his touchstone as a warrior. He had linked Sept. 11 to the people of Afghanistan: "I didn't go over there with any respect for these people."
But the villagers of Sabray taught him something, he said.
"In the middle of everything evil, in an evil place, you can find goodness. Goodness. I'd even call it godliness," he said.
As Luttrell talked, he walked the perimeter fence. His gait was hulking, if not menacing, his voice angry, engorged with pain. "They protected me like a child. They treated me like I was their eldest son."
Below Luttrell in the pit, earthmovers were digging; construction workers in orange vests directed a beeping truck. Luttrell kept talking. "They brought their cousins brandishing firearms . . . ." The cranes clanked. "And they brought their uncles, to make sure no Taliban would kill me . . . "
Luttrell kept talking over the banging and the hammering of a place that would rise again.