Authors: Peter Nealen,SOFREP
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This book hits close to home for me. I remember finishing up a SEAL sniper course (at the time I was the course manager) in the spring of 2005. One of the graduates was Marcus Luttrell, author of
Part of the Navy SEALs’ new twenty-first-century sniper training methodology is to assign instructor/student mentors to at least two pairs of students. This mentor relationship creates competition among instructors to have their pairs outcompete the others and ensures that the students get 110 percent out of the instruction. It’s like having a personal instructor at your disposal and is very effective at graduating skilled marksman. As an instructor you cannot help but get a little closer to the men you mentor. I had the privilege to mentor some great students including Marcus Luttrell’s twin brother, Morgan, and his shooting partner, Matthew “Axe” Axelson, when they went through training. Both of these men graduated with high marks. I still remember hearing Morgan say, “Make sure you take care of my brother when he comes through here, Instructor Webb.”
Marcus was naturally an excellent marksman, but he had trouble with stalking, and it took him another shot at the course to master this skill. So here I was in the late spring of 2005, and Marcus had come to me with a special request. He asked to skip the final training exercise we put on for the graduating class so he could fly home and be with his family before deploying to Afghanistan in a few weeks with SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I had no idea how special this request was at the time, or what significance the training would have on Marcus’s survival in the Afghan mountains, but I knew that Marcus had given up a large portion of his predeployment leave to attend the course, and I honored his request.
I remember hearing that he was missing in action and presumed dead later that June along with the other members of Operation Red Wings. I was saddened by the loss. I knew everyone on that team and was close to both Marcus and Axelson. I also knew how close the Luttrell brothers were and could only imagine what Morgan and his family experienced getting this news. I was glad I had decided to let him leave the course a week early to see his family.
At least he’d had his one last visit,
I thought to myself.
Then news came that he was still alive, and it spread like a California wildfire throughout the SEAL network. A few years later Marcus was approached by the U.S. Navy and the Naval Special Warfare community to chronicle the fateful operation. This is something few people in the SEAL community are aware of.
This book isn’t about the mission and the men who fought and gave their lives on Operation Red Wings. As Peter Nealen points out later, this story has already been told by the only eyewitness, Marcus Luttrell. It was his story, and his story alone, to tell. Our story is about the rescue attempt and the mission to recover the remains of the men who fought and died with Luttrell; it’s about the heroes, some of whom gave their lives, who assisted in the rescue mission. Their story has gone largely untold until now and includes some explosive revelations. I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions about how this plays into the long-term consequences of war in Afghanistan a decade later.
Hold on for the ride.
former U.S. Navy SEAL and editor of
On the morning of June 28, 2005, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, a small, four-man team of Naval Special Warfare operators under the command of Lieutenant Michael Murphy was compromised. There are two types of compromise, soft and hard. A soft compromise means essentially that a unit’s mission is exposed but no enemy fire is exchanged. A hard compromise is the opposite of this. If you’ve read
(or seen the movie), you understand that the goat herders were the first “soft compromise,” and this led to a “hard compromise,” and a satellite phone call that would end a life.
Only a little while after informing the Joint Operations Center (JOC) of their compromise, Murphy called the JOC by satellite phone to inform them that the team, consisting of himself, Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell, Gunner’s Mate Second Class Danny Dietz, and Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Axelson, was under heavy fire and required the Quick Reaction Force (QRF). A QRF team is always on standby in these situations. That was the last anyone in the rear heard from the team.
Marcus Luttrell has already told the story about what happened on that mountain. Some have called his account into question, but the indisputable fact is that he is the only one alive who knows what really happened there. No one who wasn’t there is in any position to say for certain what did or did not happen to him or his team. This is not the story of the compromise and firefight. This is the story of the effort to rescue him and retrieve the bodies of his comrades. It is the story of the largest Combat Rescue operation in the war up to that time, and the largest loss of life in U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) prior to the downing of Extortion 17 in 2011.
All times are given in Zulu time. Local Afghan time is 4 hours 30 minutes ahead.
Day 1: June 28
It was about 1140Z. Two MH-47 Chinooks, call signs Turbine 32 and Turbine 33, were closing on the LZ (landing zone) near the base of Sawtalo Sar, the compromised team’s last known position. Two UH-60 Black Hawks and two AH-64 Apaches were flying cover, and Grip 21, a flight of two A-10 Warthogs, was circling above. Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen, commanding SEAL Team 10 and the four-man Special Reconnaissance (SR) team, was aboard Turbine 33, determined to lead the effort to get his SEALs back, in one piece if at all possible.
The SEALs aboard both helos had been preparing to follow on the reporting from Murphy’s team. They had been hunting a particular anti-Coalition militia leader, known as either Ahmad Shah or Sharmak, who had killed a number of the marines of 2/3 (2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment), who were moving into Kunar Province in the Korengal and Pech valleys and had set up in an FOB (forward operating base) named Camp Blessing, after Jay Blessing, a Special Forces soldier killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) strike in the area in 2003. Initial intelligence had Shah leading between one hundred and three hundred fighters and boasting that he had a weapon that could bring down helicopters.
The men aboard the helos, SEALs from both SEAL Team 10 out of Virginia Beach and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 out of Pearl Harbor, had been preparing to go in the next night, clear the target villages where Ahmad Shah was believed to be, and then blow LZs for the marines of 2/3 to come in and do a more thorough sweep of the entire area. There were about five villages on their target list, most of them clinging to the steep sides of the mountains. Instead, they found themselves going in during daylight, trying to retrieve their teammates under fire on the mountain.
Sawtalo Sar is the highest point on a ridgeline running between the Korengal and Shuryek valleys, roughly in the center of Kunar Province, a mountainous province in the northeast of Afghanistan. The Pech River runs across the end of the ridge to the north, with the Korengal and Shuryek rivers running into it. The valleys are dotted with small stone villages, surrounded by terraced fields. The heights are rocky alpine slopes, cloaked in thick coniferous woods.
Turbine 33 took the lead, descending toward the chosen LZ, an open meadow surrounded by scrubby trees on the shoulder of Sawtalo Sar, about 650 meters from the summit of the mountain. In their haste to rescue the SR team, they pushed to the LZ ahead of their escort.
As the big Chinook prepared to settle on the LZ, a white smoke trail was seen streaking up from the trees near the zone. The projectile impacted the MH-47’s exhaust duct and detonated.
The Chinook rolled over in midair at the impact. The pilot lost control, and the helicopter hit the side of the mountain and exploded. All sixteen men aboard—eight members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the Night Stalkers, and eight SEALs from Team 10 and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1—were killed.
Under more ground fire, Turbine 32 turned away hard, throwing the men in the troop compartment to the deck, and pulled into an orbit above the mountain, searching for survivors. According to the official contact report, one of the AH-64s reported a possible survivor near the crash at around 1215Z, but the report was never corroborated. It is remotely possible that one of the men aboard the helicopter survived, only to succumb to his wounds before rescue forces could reach the LZ, but it is equally possible that what the Apache pilot saw was a Taliban combatant, investigating the wreck. No one will likely ever know.
The birds continued to orbit the mountain. A No Fire Area was established for a 500-meter radius around the downed helicopter, so as to avoid accidentally hitting any possible survivors. There would be no air support or artillery missions approved within 500 meters of the crash site.
While the SEALs desperately wanted to get on the ground to look for surviving SEALs and Night Stalkers from the downed bird, as well as retrieve the SR team that still had not been contacted, word came from CJSOTF (Commander, Joint Special Operations Task Force) to return to the airbase at Jalalabad. The risk of losing another helicopter on the mountain was considered too great. The aircraft turned southwest for Jalalabad, while the SEALs aboard Turbine 32 fumed at losing a chance to rescue their brothers.
* * *
It was later reported that Turbine 33 was struck by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that went through the open ramp and impacted the main driveshaft, thus downing the bird. According to the SEALs who witnessed the shootdown, however, it is the consensus that it was not an RPG but something much more powerful, a MANPAD (man-portable air defense) device of some kind. RPGs, contrary to movies and video games, do not leave smoke trails. Missiles do. There had been rumors of Stingers still around from the Soviet-Afghan War, but those were just that—rumors. Stinger batteries don’t last all that long; the missiles have a definite shelf life. Whether it will ever be discovered what exactly shot down Turbine 33 is unlikely, but the question of how many loose SA-7 Strela shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles are still floating around has to be asked.
Given the operational impact of acknowledging an actual MANPAD threat in-theater, the reports were put down as an RPG shot down Turbine 33. Otherwise, it would have been necessary to completely alter air operations in the entire AO (area of operations). It did, however, put a substantial damper on air operations in support of the rescue effort. Having lost one bird already, the command became extremely skittish about risking another.
Had a suspected MANPAD been reported and verified, it’s likely that loss of life in-theater linked to shot-down helicopters could have been prevented, including the controversial Extortion 17 crash that would happen years later.
* * *
The SEALs weren’t going to sit still in Jalalabad. Now, not only were four SEALs missing on the mountain, but another eight, plus their Night Stalker brethren, had gone down on the same mountain. Getting off the MH-47, they pushed to get aboard new birds, this time UH-60 Black Hawks. They had to get back to the crash site as quickly as possible, in case the reports from the Apache pilots had been correct and anyone had survived. The birds took off and headed back northeast toward Sawtalo Sar, passing over the checkered fields of the Kunar River valley before heading up into the Hindu Kush as the sun began to go down.