War Scarred

10.30.136:45 AM ET

Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell Survived the Taliban, But His Struggle Was Just Starting

In 2005, the Taliban nearly wiped out a SEAL team in Afghanistan. Marcus Luttrell was the lone survivor, but the battle with his wounds was just starting. Then Hollywood came calling.

It was one of the most dramatic stories to emerge from the war on terror. On a moonless night in June 2005, four Navy SEALs dropped deep into the Hindu Kush in Northeast Afghanistan. Operation Red Wings was a reconnaissance mission targeting a Taliban commander named Ahmad Shah, whose attacks had taken a high toll on U.S. Marines in the area. The SEALs were America’s best-trained war-fighters, legendary for their physical strength, their mental toughness, and their ingenuity in extreme circumstances. So it was almost inevitable that the military would turn to them for a high value special operations mission deep behind enemy lines.

But not long into their mission, they stumbled onto some local goatherds. They faced a profound dilemma: let the goatherds go free and compromise the team’s position, or kill them, a potential war crime. After debating their options, the SEALs released the Afghans.

Within an hour, the commando team was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. An intense firefight erupted. The SEALs fought valiantly but were badly outgunned. Lt. Michael Murphy, the team leader, was killed on a rocky outcropping while calling for backup. Two other SEALs, Petty Officers Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz, were blown away on the steep mountainside. A rescue helicopter arrived, but it was brought down by Taliban fire; the entire crew of 16 was killed. In the end, only Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell remained alive, fighting off the Taliban single-handedly, living by his wits, a trained hunter now himself a hunted man.

Grievously wounded and delirious from thirst and fatigue, Luttrell crawled for seven miles looking for water and sanctuary. A rocket-propelled grenade hurled him into a mountain crevice that fortuitously hid him from the Taliban. Eventually he was discovered by friendly Afghans and carried down the mountain to their village. Invoking an ancient Pashtun code requiring them to protect and defend a guest to the death, the tribesmen guarded him from marauding Taliban fighters until the U.S. military arrived several days later.

It is an astonishing tale of survival and grit—and of luck or providence, depending on how you look at things. But even as he coped with his many wounds—physical and emotional—Luttrell mustered the strength to tell his story. He began working on a book about his experience in 2006, just a year after Operation Red Wings, and his co-author, British novelist Patrick Robinson, says that Luttrell was still “very sad and introverted” as they worked on the manuscript at Robinson’s Cape Cod house. Robinson, a former journalist, had to use all of his old newsman’s skills to draw Luttrell out, not because Luttrell couldn’t remember but because his memories were still so fresh and terrifying—sleeping in a guesthouse on Robinson’s property, Luttrell got up obsessively in the middle of the night to make sure the front door was locked, Robinson recalls. (More than once the Taliban had managed to blast through the door of the house where Luttrell had taken refuge in the Afghan village and attacked him.)

In 2005, the Taliban nearly wiped out a SEAL team in Afghanistan. Marcus Luttrell was the lone survivor, but the battle with his wounds was just starting. Then Hollywood came calling.

At The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit, Marcus Luttrell told “Monday morning quarterbacks” to stop critiquing the military and “stay out of our way.”

In 2007, Luttrell published Lone Survivor, the gripping, emotionally raw account of his ordeal. That book is now the subject of a heart-stopping new movie directed by Peter Berg, of Friday Night Lights fame and starring Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and Taylor Kitsch as Mike Murphy. Lone Survivor, which opens in December, brilliantly captures the horrors of combat as well as the ennobling side of war, the sacrifice and valor, to be sure, but ultimately the deep love combatants feel for one another. But it is far more than just a harrowing narrative of Luttrell’s battle to survive against unimaginable odds and of the tragic loss of his comrades in arms. It is also a coming of age story about the maturing and personal transformation of an American warrior. It sheds light on the moral ambiguities of combat but also on the presence of humanity in the darkest of places.

In 2005, the Taliban nearly wiped out a SEAL team in Afghanistan. Marcus Luttrell was the lone survivor, but the battle with his wounds was just starting. Then Hollywood came calling.

To this day, Luttrell remains in the grips of the two moral pivot points of his story, both powerfully depicted by Berg. He is haunted by the team’s decision, to which he assented, to free the goatherds, an act that he believes consigned his teammates to death. At the same time, his bond with Gulab, the Pashtun villager who saved his life at great personal risk, has sustained his essential faith in the existence of good in a tragic world.

For Luttrell, the events that took place in Afghanistan changed his life. His story of growth and healing, in a way, began on that remote mountain. Since then, it has unfolded fitfully, very publicly, sometimes painfully, and often inspiringly.

Luttrell’s book was a smash best seller that launched him in certain circles as a kind of American icon of the war on terror. He was in demand on the lecture circuit, where he transfixed audiences with his dramatic story and imparted lessons of leadership, sacrifice, and the uncomfortable truths of war. He was not a polished speaker, but his mix of Texas swagger, raw honesty, and brooding intensity made him a compelling, even riveting personality on television and in front of live audiences.

But for all the adulation and attention that came with the publication of Lone Survivor, Luttrell remained withdrawn and remote. Some of his SEAL teammates recognized in him the thousand-yard stare of a combat veteran who had seen too many unspeakable things.  “It was like a fog was draped over him at all times,” says his wife, Melanie Luttrell.

Even as he coped with the profound effects of his combat trauma, Luttrell also had to learn to navigate a bewildering new world of book agents, lawyers, Hollywood moguls, PR advisers, and profile writers. Along the way, there were charlatans who tried to exploit his growing celebrity, and even supposed friends, perhaps jealous of his wealth, expected handouts. He lost friendships and gained a new wariness.

“This was a lot for Marcus to deal with,” recalls one of his friends who didn’t want to be identified talking about Luttrell’s recovery. “He was full of sadness and anger and confusion over everything that had happened on that mountain and at the same time everyone back home wanted a piece of him.”

What kept Luttrell going on his arduous path to recovery was what he called his “new mission-set”: paying tribute to his fallen SEAL brothers, Murph, Axe and Danny, and bearing witness to their sacrifice.

Luttrell’s other North Star was his relationship with Gulab. The Pashtun tribesman and his family have been the victims of repeated revenge attacks by the Taliban, who burned down his house and blew up his car. Luttrell has poured his energies into helping Gulab, including getting the U.S. military to help rebuild his village. The bond of saved and savior is deep and emotional. Sometimes Gulab will call Luttrell in the middle of the night from Aghanistan. Neither speaks the other’s language, but they like to hear the intonation of each other’s voices.

Today, as Luttrell prepares to be thrust back into the spotlight with the release of Lone Survivor, his friends say he is more confident and poised, as well as more skilled at balancing his private life and his public obligations.

Luttrell is a more fluent public speaker, his suits are a little more finely tailored, and he leavens his tragic story with a bone-dry Texas wit. He has transformed himself into a shrewd businessman, interested in ranching, real estate investments, and the publishing world. He has also found purpose in philanthropy. In 2010, he founded the Lone Survivor Foundation, an organization that pays for returning service members to recover on one of four horse ranches around the country. Its unique feature is that it is geared toward stabilizing veterans’ families, who also take part in the program.

“Marcus started the foundation to see if he could create an environment similar to what helped him recover,” says Pete Naschak, who runs the Lone Survivor Foundation for Luttrell on a voluntary basis. “The goal was to see if we could help stabilize returning soldiers and their families, create a solid support system, and provide tools to cope with the issues caused by combat,” adds Nashcak, who was one of Luttrell’s senior SEAL leaders in Iraq.

Those who know Luttrell best say that his 2010 marriage to Melanie Juneau and the birth of their two children have centered him and helped restore his fun-loving, irreverent spirit.   He is now promoting his second book Service, which chronicles his tour in Iraq after Operation Red Wings, but is also a meditation on why generations of Americans have been willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, for family, country, and freedom.

Luttrell’s friends are happy with his progress. “When I first met him, he knew little beyond the end of a machine gun,” recalls his co-author Robinson. “He was a very damaged person and was in shock. Two of his closest friends had died in his arms.”

Today, says Robinson, who just spent time with Luttrell in Texas, the former SEAL is a “completely different person,” thoughtful and self-possessed, “a real Texas businessman.”  One advantage for Luttrell: a clear sense of where he comes from and a powerful rootedness—in family, in his native Texas, and, later, in the elite teams of the Navy SEALs.

He comes from a large family on a horse farm in East Texas, where he was raised with a near-tribal sense of his Lone Star identity. He grew up hunting wild pigs, fishing for bass, and wrestling alligators. And he is a member of a Texas warrior caste—the latest in a line of Luttrell men who served on foreign battlefields. He followed in the footsteps of his revered twin brother, Morgan, to become a SEAL.

There is no closer brotherhood in the American military than the SEALs. Their identity is forged in the brutal regimen of their training, known as BUD/S, for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. They are tested in a rite of passage that involves almost unimaginable physical and mental stress. Those who make it—only 25 percent of applicants—learn to rely on each other for everything. The goal is to form unbreakable bonds so that when they deploy as a platoon they always have each other’s backs.

They are further unified by their code—or ethos, as it is known—that is instilled in them from the first day of BUD/S. It states, in part, “My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans … I do not advertise the nature of my work nor seek recognition for my actions.” Though the ethos is aspirational, SEALs like Luttrell tout it as an article of faith.

The ideal of the selfless warrior is at least as old as the Greeks, who also understood the dangers of excessive pride. Homer’s Iliad perfectly captures the tension between hubris and humility in the conflict between Achilles and Hector, his two warrior-heroes who fought to the death. Achilles was beautiful, charismatic and vain. He was god-like in his abilities as a warrior and a seeker of personal glory.

Hector was also a great warrior, but he fought as a duty rather than a passion; he was the ideal citizen-soldier who went to war to protect his family, his city, and his community.  Robert Schoultz, a former SEAL captain who teaches ethics and has written extensively about SEAL culture, uses the Achilles-Hector dichotomy to capture the same tensions among our modern-day warriors. Many young SEALs aspire to become like Achilles, Schoultz says, though Hector would be the truer representative of the SEALs ethos.

Luttrell seems to begin his odyssey as a SEAL more in the mold of Achilles than Hector.     

His book is spiked with bravado, even as he trumpets the SEALs’ virtues of humility and selflessness. In a typical passage he writes of “no earthly force being able to resist our thunderous assault on the battlefield … We’re invincible, right? Unstoppable. That’s what I believed to the depths of my spirit when they pinned the Trident on my chest.  I still believe it. And I always will.”

Luttrell, like many young warriors, also painted the enemy with a broad brush. He summed up his attitude toward the Afghans in one interview by saying, “I didn’t care about their religion or their traditions. I was ruthless to those people. I didn’t care anything about them. Anything they stood for, nothing. My main objective was to create as much havoc and terror and chaos on them as they did to those people in the Twin Towers.”

But when he came face to face with Gulab and the Afghan villagers on the mountain, Luttrell’s preconceptions were turned upside down. In a moment of supreme cognitive dissonance, the people he believed he was there to vanquish, it would turn out, wanted to save his life. As he said years later in one of his public talks, “I get taken in by the very people that I’ve been out there killing and, you know, disrespecting. It was a conundrum.”  And more than that, they were doing so according to the dictates of their 2,000-year-old tribal code, known as Pashtunwali.

It took time for Luttrell to fully process the meaning of Galub’s gesture, but once he did, it changed him. Luttrell, now more Hector than Achilles, would recognize in Galub and his fellow tribesmen a code of honor not dissimilar to the SEALs’ ethos that he and his teammates had lived up to with their own blood on that very mountain.

In the movie version of Lone Survivor, filmmaker Peter Berg depicts the episode as an epiphany for Luttrell. “The idea of sacrificing himself for someone else was a familiar idea, not anathema,” says Berg. “He understood that spirit in Gulab very quickly and was able to recognize a code of honor very similar to his own.” Moreover, Berg casts it as an important teaching moment for a young warrior. “He didn’t realize how much humanity and character existed in many of these Afghans and I think the experience in a way opened up his eyes to the humanity in all kinds of cultures.”

The experience did not make Luttrell want to turn in his machine gun and join the Peace Corps. He would stay firmly planted within his own tribe—the SEALs. After returning to the U.S., he soon transferred to another SEAL team and within a few months deployed to Iraq, where he plunged into some of the war’s most intense urban fighting in the city of Ramadi in Al Anbar province. It was a controversial decision, given all Luttrell had endured, but it kept him rooted in a fraternity that understood that his trials and trauma may have been the best therapy. “He needed to go back there,” says Melanie Luttrell. “He needed to be back with his brothers.” But when Luttrell’s back, which had been broken in several places during Operation Red Wings, finally gave out, he had to leave the SEALs. He calls it the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.

For all of Luttrell’s progress, he has not healed completely. To this day he experiences pain from the physical beating he took on the mountain and from the more than 20 operations he endured to fix his broken body. (He has a titanium cage built around his spine.) He doesn’t sleep much, maybe three or four hours a night. Melanie Luttrell says there isn’t a night that goes by when he doesn’t close his eyes and reenact the events of Operation Red Wings. Sometimes he still hears the desperate calls of Mike Murphy as he lay dying on the mountainside: “Marcus, can you help me?” And Luttrell remains on a hair-trigger about certain things, like assumptions people make about his team having done the “right thing” by releasing those goatherds all those years ago. He still doubts that he did and bitterly resents anybody who didn’t carry a rifle on that mountain who asserts otherwise.

But for all the challenges that remain, Luttrell appears to have the wisdom to surround himself with the people who understand him and know how to support him. Often it’s family, including his brother Morgan. Sometimes it’s his former SEAL buddies. And most recently, Gulab has been staying with the Luttrells on their ranch outside of Houston. Though they barely speak a word of each other’s languages, the two men have an easy rapport. Peter Berg, who has seen them together recently, says Luttrell treats Gulab like a fellow SEAL. “He’s not overly appreciative,” he says, “he’s understandably appreciative in a low key way. No one is bragged about or given points.” And yet, Berg observes, Luttrell respects Gulab “in a way that most of us wouldn’t understand.”

Lately, Luttrell has been helping Gulab get a book deal so that he can tell their story from the Afghan perspective. And for years, Luttrell has been offering to help Gulab gain U.S. citizenship and resettle in America, where he and his family would be more secure and able to live more comfortable lives. But Gulab says no. In the end, he is a tribesman, devoted to his culture and traditions deep in the Hindu Kush. That is certainly something Luttrell understands.