Leadership Lessons: Lone Survivor

  • Published
  • By Keith Barr
  • 319th Air Base Wing historian
You may have read the 2007 book, or seen the 2013 movie based on the book Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. But, did you know that Air Force Reserve Guardian Angels from the 305th Rescue Squadron, Davis-Monthan AFB, 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick AFB, made the Luttrell evacuation after his ordeal?

In Afghanistan, during the early months of 2005, Taliban and al Qaeda warriors were planning a comeback in the western end of the mountain range known as the Hindu Kush. This was the same area where Osama bin Laden's fanatical followers trained and planned the events of September 11, 2001. One such bin Laden ally was Ahmad Shah, also known as Mullah Ismail. He was a key leader of militants in the region. Commanding possibly 140 to 150 armed fighters, Shah was well educated, trained in military tactics, and could speak five languages. He and his forces were bent on destroying the elected government of Afghanistan and the US forces that supported them in order to replace them with a government and military of their own. They had successfully executed a number of bombings, killing and injuring U.S. Marines. After months of trying to pin down his location and two false starts, by June 27, 2005, a mission to move on Ahmad Shah was "a go."

By the morning of June 28, a four man US Navy special reconnaissance SEAL team composed of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew Axelson and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell was deep behind enemy lines east of Asadabad, Afghanistan. Operation Red Wings was in progress.

A couple hours after daylight, the team got themselves into a perfect position for scoping the village where intelligence had indicated Amad Shah was hiding. Luttrell had taken a position under a felled tree and was observing the village through binoculars when he heard the sound of soft footsteps. Unexpectedly, a man wearing a turban and carrying an ax jumped off the log and right over Luttrell. The SEALs jumped to their feet and trained their rifles on him. He turned out to be one of three local goatherds with about 100 goats. The goats all had tiny bells around their necks. After some heated discussion, Lieutenant Murphy determined to let the prisoners and goats go free.

About an hour and forty minutes after the goatherds disappeared, the SEALs had taken up a defensive position on a mountain wall some forty yards from the summit. Suddenly, Lieutenant Murphy gave the alert signal and was looking straight up the slope. Corpsman Luttrell looked in the same direction and observed on the summit a force of between 80 and 100 Taliban warriors armed with AK-47s, some with rocket-propelled grenades (RPG).

The ensuing firefight lasted about an hour and a half with the SEALS in a tumbling retreat down the mountain, landing in a number of defensive positions. Near the end of the action, with Dietz killed and Axelson suffering from a severe head wound, Lieutenant Murphy, himself gravely injured, made his way to open ground so he could make a cell phone call for back up. Luttrell could hear Murphy saying, "My guys are dying out here...we need help." A few minutes later the lieutenant was shot once more in the back and died of his wounds. 

Meanwhile, the dying Axelson and Luttrell had taken cover in a hollow in the mountain wall when one of the Taliban fired an RPG into their position. Axelson was probably killed by the blast and Luttrell was blown out of the hollow and down a ravine where he landed upside down in a hole. Although his legs were riddled with shrapnel and his nose, shoulder, and back were broken from the retrograde action down the mountainside, miraculously Luttrell had not been wounded by any of the thousands of bullets fired at him that day.

The last call that Murphy made on his cell phone, the one that cost him his life, was successful. Lt. Cmdr. Eric Kristensen, acting commander of the SEALs in Asadabad, ordered an MH-47 helicopter and quick reaction force into action. The force consisted of Kristensen, seven other SEALs, and eight soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; the army's fabled Night Stalkers. The helicopter arrived at the designated position the rescue team planned to rope down to and opened its stern ramp. As the ramp lowered, Taliban fighters launched an RPG which exploded inside, destroying the helicopter and killing all aboard. According to Marcus Luttrell it was, "the worst disaster ever to befall the SEALs in any conflict in our more than forty year history."

Staggering, wounded, and hunted, Luttrell evaded capture until a man named Sarawa located Marcus and protected him under a tradition of hospitality and protection known as Lokhay. With Taliban forces scouring Sarawa's village, Marcus Luttrell relayed a message carried by the village elder to a Marine firebase. The note said in part, "This man gave me shelter and food, and must be helped at all costs."

When the old man's message was confirmed special operations personnel turned to the 305th Rescue Squadron, 920th Rescue Wing for the pickup. The 920th is the only specialized rescue unit in the Air Force Reserve whose job is to retrieve downed airmen and occasionally pickup wounded personnel the Army can't get to because of weather or darkness.

In an interview years later, Lt. Col. John "JP" Phalon recalled the crew members on the HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters that took part in the mission for the 305th, "[Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey] "Skinny" Macrander was the lead pilot. I was his copilot. [Major Jeff] "Spanky" Peterson was the pilot of the number two bird, and Gonzo Gonzales was his copilot. The flight engineers were Jason Burger and Mike Cusick. The Aerial Gunners were Josh Donnelly and Ben Peterson. The PJs were John Davis, Brett Konczal, Josh Apel, and Chris Pierchicci.  Attitudes spanned the gambit between grave and giddy. I can remember thinking how fortunate we were to be able to do something really profound."

The pararescuemen of the 920th are still on the job. In November 2014, three of their number received recognition by winning the oldest and most esteemed award of its kind in Air Force history, the Mackay Trophy. Since 1912, the Mackay Trophy has been given annually in honor of the most meritorious flight of the year by an Air Force Airman, Airmen or organization.  The 920th Rescue Wing pararescuemen, along with twelve Airmen from the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., were added to the Mackay Trophy in recognition of their actions during a mission that took place Dec. 21, 2013, in South Sudan.