The True Story Behind “The Lone Survivor”

On June 28, 2005 a U.S. Navy Seal operation went wrong, resulting in the deaths of 19 American troops. Only one Seal operative survived that day. Through the strength of his comrades and the kindness of a stranger, Marcus Luttrell made it out alive through this terrible firefight.

Matthew G. Axelson, Daniel R. Healy, James Suh, Marcus Luttrell, Eric S. Patton and Michael P. Murphy pose in Afghanistan
(Photo courtesy of

Armed with weapons and gears, a four-man team was searching for Ahmad Shah, a military leader aligned with the Taliban, in a mission called Operation Red Wings. The team, consisting of Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Mat Axelson, were deployed in the remote northeastern mountains of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. While overlooking Shah’s suspected location, the Seal team was discovered, not by enemy forces, but by local goat herders with one hundred goats. The surprised Seal team had several options, none of them which benefited them. Killing unarmed combatants would violate the accepted rules of engagement and would likely result in court martial. If the Seal team tied the herders and left them behind, they still faced the problem dealing with a large group of goats without raising  any suspicion.

Left to make their own decision, the unit released the herders, knowing that it was possible that the herders would inform the Taliban forces. With their mission compromised, the Seal team tried to move to a defensive position, but barely an hour later, dozens of Shah’s forces emerged over the ridge line. An avalanche of AK-47 fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire came firing down the mountain. The terrain was just as lethal as the enemy. As Taliban forces approached, the Seals scambled, jumped, and fell hundreds of feet down the mountain. One drop broke three of Luttrell’s vertebrates.

Dietz was shot multiple times but kept fighting to protect his unit. As Luttrell hooked his arm underneath the shoulders of his badly wounded comrade to drag him down a slope, a bullet hit Dietz in the back of his head. He died in Luttrell’s arms.

A badly wounded Murphy knew that the best chance of survival was to call for reinforcement. Without a working radio connection, the team leader cast aside his personal safety and moved to an exposed location to get a working signal on his satellite phone. As Murphy phoned for backup, a bullet tore through his back. The lieutenant managed to complete his call and even continued fighting, but he could not survive.

Luttrell was holed up with Axelson, who had sustained a terrible head injury, when a rocket-propelled grenade blasted the two apart. Luttrell never saw Axelson again.

Luttrell miraculously survived the blast and managed to elude capture by the time reinforcement arrived. Alerted by Murphy’s call, two helicopters carrying Special Operation Forces rushed to the area of the firefight, but as one of the helicopter hovered to deploy troops, a rocket-propelled grenade shot it out of the sky. The eight Seals and eight Army Night Stalkers aboard died. By the time the sun set, 19 Americans were dead. Luttrell was presumed to be the 20th victim, but despite bullet wounds and a broken back, the Seal operative survived. Unaware of the tragedy that befell the rescue team, Luttrell crawled several miles through the mountain.

As the sun set, the thirsty Luttrell found a waterfall. As he slipped into the cool water, Luttrell found himself surrounded by a band of men. These men, however, proved to be more friend than foe. One of the men, Mohammad Gulab, assured Luttrell that they were not Taliban, and he and three other carried the wounded solider back to their village. Bound to a tribal code of honor, Gulab provided food, water, and shelter. Although the Taliban encircled the village and threaten to kill his family and neighbors, Gulab refused to turn over the American.

Finally, Gulab’s father traveled to a Marine outpost carrying a letter from Luttrell. The military launched a large combat search-and-rescue operation with planes and ground forces that attacked the Taliban and rescued their missing man. Luttrell may have been the firefight’s lone survivor, but he hardly emerged unscathed. Luttrell suffered from survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical after-effects in the ensuing years.

Luttrell’s story is both a brave and tragic tale. A new film portraying this heroic story, Lone Survivor, hits theaters Jan 10 and starts Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell.

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