There are hopefully few among us unfamiliar with Operation Red Wings.
At the time of this writing it’s been almost 15 years since June 28, 2005, when four US Navy SEALs carried out an op to put eyes on known terrorist Ahmad Shah.
The men had positioned themselves on the shale mountainside in the Hindu Kush east of Asadabad when they were compromised by a trio of supposed goatherders.
Knowing it would violate the rules of engagement to simply shoot the goatherders they let them go, and within a matter of hours found themselves in a battle for their lives.
A battle three of the four men died. The last man standing was Marcus Luttrell and although he’s the only one left to talk about it, this isn’t only his story. It’s the story of all these men on the most courageous day of their lives.
This is the story of Operation Red Wings and why it is not only historically valuable but relevant to our lives in general.
Table of Contents
Side note: if you’re not familiar with the book Lone Survivor, go get it.
There’s a movie, too, and it’s fairly well done but the book is much better and Marcus Luttrell himself wrote it with established author Patrick Robinson.
“I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.” (SEAL Ethos)
“You Stay Alive, Marcus.” (Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew Axelson)
His goal was simple: protect his brothers. Petty Officer 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew G. Axelson was the last to jump down the mountainside when the SEAL team first fell back – meaning he kept providing cover as his brothers jumped – and most likely the last to die.
Matt Axelson wasn’t just shot during that final battle in June 2005, he was shot repeatedly and in ways you’d expect to be immediately fatal.
Axelson was shot not once but twice in the head and kept on fighting. That’s some serious badassery; that’s a level of practically inhuman strength.
On the side of that mountain, with his teammates under fire, he refused to falter.
After Axelson’s death, Luttrell would say of Axelson that he fought the encroaching Taliban forces with a calm demeanor, methodically supplying suppressive fire and precise, surgical shots as required to defend their lives.
Who invented chill? Matt Axelson invented chill.
When now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell saw Matthew Axelson alive for the last time the two men were hunkered down in a small hollow and Axelson was down to his handgun.
According to Luttrell, Axelson had three full magazines left at that moment in time. And then, the moment was forever lost: a Russian grenade launcher blew Luttrell out of the hollow and he never saw his teammate alive again.
Originally, Luttrell believed Axe must have died then and there because his head wounds were so devastating both his blue eyes had gone black with blood.
But when a team was finally able to locate and take the bodies of the fallen men home they found Axelson not in that spot but a short distance from where he’d been last seen…and down to one mag.
It appeared Axe, who must have been in unspeakable agony, had continued fighting for approximately 30 more rounds. Axe defended Luttrell to his last breath.
Luttrell said one of the last things Axe said to him in that hollow was, “You stay alive, Marcus.”
Acts of Valor
There were so many acts of valor and mind-blowing courage that day it’s impossible to list them all here.
Danny Dietz was shot at least fives times and continued to fight. And when Luttrell dragged him to what he hoped was a safer spot on the mountainside, Dietz kept his rifle raised and laid down cover fire even as he was dragged backward over the shale and dirt.
Dietz embodied what it means to be courageous under fire and to keep a clear head even in the face of sure death.
The story of Michael “Murph” Murphy is the stuff of legends.
Luttrell vividly recalls the blood pouring from Murph’s abdomen after Murph was shot in the stomach near the beginning of the firefight. Of course, Murph kept going.
And when it became clear all of the men would die unless Murph used the SAT phone meant for only the direst of emergencies, he knew he had to make it work.
Making it work meant sacrificing himself. There was no signal at all where the men were positioned; Murph needed to find an open, high point, and so he went.
While Murph made that final call – the call that ultimately saved Luttrell’s life because it gave the military the situation and the last known location – he was shot in the back.
It was the third bullet wound he suffered. Being struck by the bullet caused him to drop both the phone and his rifle.
But he only hesitated one horrifically painful moment before he picked them back up, finished the call, and resumed fighting.
There is staggering power to the sacrifice of the brotherhood.
Surviving takes courage, too. For the men who have seen the worst atrocities of combat and lost their brothers, surviving can take incredible will.
Then there’s the fact that the pain of survivor’s guilt cannot be understood unless it has been lived.
Luttrell was inserted onto that mountain in the Hindu Kush at night on June 27, 2005 and on June 28, 2005 he found himself grievously injured and alone.
His brothers were dead, he’d been repeatedly shot, his back was shattered, and he’d racked up countless contusions and lacerations diving down the mountain.
He was in mental and physical agony but he refused to give up.
It would be six days before he was rescued by American forces.
“I crawled into the side of that mountain and covered myself with rocks, took mud and anything I could find, packed it into the open holes in my legs… Then night came around. I finally got feeling back in my legs. I stood up, best I could, walk-crawled for at least four miles off that mountain and then onto another one. Then I got shot again the next day. Then I crawled three more miles,” Luttrell said in perhaps the most succinct summary anyone will ever give of the most horrific day of their lives.
Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know quite a few American heroes and Luttrell is one of them.
So if you’re wondering what he’s like in person, well, he’s a guy. He’s a medically retired SEAL, a husband, a father, a public speaker, a hunter, and the kind of guy you’d expect to find in Texas.
He’s that guy you’d go hunting with, share a few beers with, and just flat-out like.
On a hunt a few years ago on his family’s property out here in Texas we did a spot-and-stalk on Blackbuck and let me tell you, the man may have been injured and is most certainly still in pain, but he can move.
He moves quickly, silently, and effectively – I watched him go from stalking and moving mode to proned out and on target before I could blink, and of course he dropped the running antelope with a single, precise shot in the same heartbeat.
I’ve spent time with Luttrell in various locations but for some reason it’s that shot that has stuck with me. The man has skills borne of experiences that will never be replicated and guess what, they have practical applications.
Luttrell, after being shot multiple times and crawling for a day and a half, would eventually run into, as he put it, his “first real friend, Mohammad Gulab.”
For days, Gulab and his village sheltered the wounded Luttrell. They tended his wounds, fed him, clothed him, sent a runner to the closest American base with a letter from Luttrell, and protected him from the Taliban.
Even in the face of the Taliban threatening Gulab, his family, and his village — the Pashtunwali villagers refused to capitulate.
It would be several days before a team of U.S. Army Rangers would arrive to extract Luttrell.
But Gulab’s story doesn’t end there.
For him, the horrors were only beginning. Due to his helping an American, Gulab was marked for death by the Taliban. His nephew would be murdered and the Taliban would attempt to murder Gulab in a number of ways.
From running him off the road to planting a grenade outside his daughter’s bedroom, wounding his daughter, the Taliban didn’t quit.
Gulab would spend the next 10 years fighting for his life and the lives of his family. Finally, after far too long, the American government assisted him in coming to the USA and he now lives with his family in Texas.
You cannot discuss Operation Red Wings without talking about the men of Turbine 33.
When Murph made that call on his SAT phone a QRF – quick reaction force – team was sent.
That QRF included an MH-47 Chinook, radio call sign Turbine 33, containing eight SEALs and eight 160th Army Special Operations Aviators.
When the helicopter got close and attempted to insert the SEALs into the firefight, Shah’s men fired an RPG-7 at the Chinook and took it down, killing all sixteen men.
The Lone Survivor Foundation
Wanting to do something more tangible with the events of June 28, 2005 Luttrell decided to start the Lone Survivor Foundation in 2010.
He began the foundation to help service members and their families who were and are recovering from combat trauma. They focus on PTSD, mTBI, and chronic pain.
Between 2010 and 2018 the Lone Survivor Foundation provided more than 25,200 hours of therapeutic services in a military-friendly environment to vets and their families, all at no cost to those receiving it.
Team Never Quit
You could ask Luttrell what he learned from Operation Red Wings, what he would change, and whether he is happy with the choices he made that day but it all comes down to this: never quit.
If you want to hear more in his own words, Luttrell has a podcast through his foundation Team Never Quit.
In Memoriam: The Men of Operation Red Wings
- LT Michael P. Murphy
- SO2 Matthew G. Axelson
- SO2 Danny Dietz
- SOC Jacques Fontan
- SOCS Daniel R. Healy
- LCDR Erik Kristensen
- SO1 Jeffrey Lucas
- LT Michael McGreevy, Jr.
- SO2 James Suh
- SO1 Jeffrey Taylor
- SO2 Shane Patton
Night Stalkers (160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment):
- SSG Shamus Goare
- CW3 Corey Goodnature
- SGT Kip Jacoby
- SFC Marcus Muralles
- MSG James Ponder III
- MAJ Stephen Reich
- SFC Michael Russell
- CW4 Chris Scherkenbach
It’s been fifteen years since 19 men were killed in what could easily be called the darkest day in the SEAL teams’ history.
Never forget. And never quit.