They are a brotherhood. Their bond is borne of blood, sweat, and tears, forged through combat, and solidified in pain. For the men of the US Navy SEALs, there is simply no explaining or understanding their ties unless you are one of them. And for the men of Operation Red Wings, 9 years ago, June, 2005, the brotherhood met its greatest strain: death.
Operation Red Wings
There are surely few who are unfamiliar with Operation Red Wings. On June 28, 2005, four SEALs – Lt. Michael “Murph” Murphy, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew “Axe” Axelson, and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell – were carrying out an op to place eyes on known terrorist Ahmad Shah. After positioning themselves amongst the shale of a mountainside in the Hindu Kush east of Asadabad, they were compromised by a trio of supposed goatherders. Deciding it would violate the ROE to kill the three Afghans, the SEALs let them go and immediately moved out. Just a few short hours later, the men were fighting for their lives, and when the proverbial dust settled, only Marcus Luttrell had physically survived.
Operation Red Wings is both heartbreaking and infuriating simultaneously. Had our men not felt constricted by the ROE, they would be alive today. The loss of life is tragic, and one can only imagine the emotional torment and chronic physical pain Marcus Luttrell suffers to this day. And yet, a string of events took place on that desolate mountainside that serve as a firm reminder of what the brotherhood really is.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” KJV Bible
Call it what you like, but there is a massive dose of masculine, testosterone-laden love in the brotherhood. 9 years ago, Danny Dietz was shot at least 5 times, and he continued to fight for his teammates. While Marcus tried to drag him to a safer spot, Danny kept his rifle raised and laid down cover fire. And when the final round, which struck him in the head, took Danny’s life, Marcus held him in his arms as he died. Danny’s tenacious refusal to stop firing his weapon, specifically while grievously wounded and being dragged by his teammate, was a stunning example of the steadfast love of the brotherhood.
“Self-sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all reported miracles grow.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The value of true sacrifice cannot be emphasized enough. Sacrifice in the brotherhood goes beyond the willingness to bear extra weight or run farther to help a teammate, although those things and others are also important. This is the kind of sacrifice legends are built on, and that is where we find the story of Michael Murphy. Murph was shot in the abdomen near the beginning of the firefight, and Marcus vividly recounts the blood pouring from the big man’s stomach. When it became evident there was no hope for survival without using the SAT phone reserved only for the most dire emergencies, Murph knew there would be no signal unless he went out into the open. Going into the center of the firefight and onto a rise would certainly mean his death, and yet he went. The call went through, and because of his sacrifice, Marcus is alive today.
Murph was shot through the back while making the call, which was the third bullet wound he suffered. The impact caused him to drop both the phone and his rifle, but after a moment, he picked them back up, finished the call, and went back to the fight. He died minutes later, and his dying screams echo in Marcus’ nightmares to this day. Murph was a man willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for even the slightest possibility of saving his men. There is staggering power to the sacrifice of the brotherhood.
“A brave man is a man who dares to look the devil in the face and tell him he is the devil.” James Garfield
Although protection may seem an obvious trait, it goes far and beyond any measure of defense the average person would consider for another’s sake. Matthew Axelson, Axe, fought the encroaching Taliban forces with an impressively calm demeanor. To Axe, throwing himself off the mountainside repeatedly was nothing. His main purpose was to protect his brothers. He was the last one off the mountain when the four SEALs first fell back – literally – and Marcus noticed more than once his unswerving focus to laying down fire throughout the battle.
Axe was shot in the head not once but twice, and still he defended his teammates, until it was only him and Marcus. When Marcus last saw him, in a small hollow, he was down to his pistol – which he’d been firing at the enemy – and had three full mags left. A Russian grenade launched by the Taliban blew Marcus away from Axe, and he never saw him again. He had believed Axe was dead, because his head wounds were so devastating both his previously ocean-blue eyes had turned black with blood. But when a rescue team went to take the bodies of the fallen men home, they found Axe a short distance from where Marcus had last seen him – and down to just one mag. It was clear Axe had continued firing at least 30 more rounds, despite being at death’s door and in unspeakable agony, protecting his hope for Marcus’ survival to the last second.
“Never quit.” US Navy SEALs
Yes. Survival. To those who fail to see how the weight of survival can be a precious piece of the brotherhood, it’s simple, really. Your brothers loved, sacrificed, and offered protection for your survival. One of the last things Axe told Marcus, as he struggled to focus through the agony of his wounds and the confusion of blood loss, was, “You stay alive, Marcus.”
One of the hardest things to do for men who have seen the worst atrocities of combat and lost their brothers in action is to live. The cold, harsh reality is the pain of survivor’s guilt cannot be understood unless it has been lived. Marcus Luttrell was inserted onto that mountain in the Hindu Kush at night on June 27, 2005, and the very next day, he was alone. His brothers were dead. He had been repeatedly shot, his back was not just broken but shattered, and he’d suffered countless contusions and lacerations tumbling down the shale-strewn mountainside. It would have been all too easy to give up.
By some miracle, his rifle landed within his reach after every fall, and even after he had been taken in by villagers under the protection of lokhay warkawal, his rifle remained. And he picked it up, time and again, to protect those around him, despite his own crippling injuries and mind-blowing agony. Marcus is a protector and a survivor, and having the courage to go on, to live, without your brothers, just might be the hardest part of the brotherhood to live up to; living is key.
As we remember those lost during Operation Red Wings, not only Danny, Murph and Axe, but the 16 SEALs and Night Stalkers killed during the first rescue attempt, we stand in awe of the brotherhood they displayed. They were – are – the epitome of the SEALs refusal to back down and a sterling example of the myriad traits personified in the military brotherhood. The four traits listed here are just the beginning; the reality is the list goes on forever. Remember Operation Red Wings, and be endlessly grateful for the brotherhood.
Remembering Operation Red Wings
- LT Michael Murphy
- SO2 Matthew 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 Operatons Aviation Regiment):
- SSG Shamus Goare
- CW03 Corey Goodnature
- SGT Kip Jacoby
- SFC Marcus Muralles
- MSG James Ponder III
- MAJ Stephen Reich
- SFC Michael Russell
- CW04 Chris Scherkenbach