Cordell and Donna Axelson are the parents of Navy SEAL Matt Axelson who was killed in action on June 28, 2005 during Operation Redwing. They reside in Cupertino, Ca. This phone interview was conducted on May 12, 2010.
MilitaryMovies&News: Matt was born in Cupertino, Ca. right?
Donna Axelson: Yes.
MM&N: What was he like as a child? What kind of hobbies and interests did he have growing up?
DA: Matt was involved in a lot of sports. He did the typical things that kids do. He played soccer, little league, basketball. In high school he was on the golf team. He downhill skied in the winter, he had a mountain bike, he was on the swim team and he played tennis….you know, those kind of California things.
MM&N: Was he a good swimmer when he was younger?
DA: Yes, he was on the swim team and he did well. We belonged to a swim and racquet club so he was always in the water. Then when he decided to join the SEALs he and his brother took some scuba lessons to kind of experience that.
MM&N: Did he have any kind of early interest in the military when he was growing up?
DA: His grandfather, my dad, was career Navy and he was on the USS Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Matthew loved history, so he knew the family history there. And because both of my parents were WWII veterans….my mother was in the Marine Corps and my uncle was in the Army…..so Matt had that connection and their stories would come up from time to time. Plus, his dad and my brother were both drafted and went to Vietnam, so there was that that he would ask his father about occasionally.
Cordell Axelson: I was in the Army. I started off being a radio operator in an infantry company.
MM&N: Was Matt’s brother in the military?
DA: No he wasn’t.
MM&N: I know Matt studied political science in college. What were his original career plans before he decided to join the military?
DA: He really just went to college because he knew that was what you were supposed to do. And he was interested in political science because his dad for a period of years, while Matthew was in college, worked in Europe, so both boys had the opportunity to travel to Europe, usually to go to a Formula One car race. And Matthew did a Summer study in Switzerland and did political science kind of stuff but he really didn’t know what he wanted to do and that was part of the reason that he joined the SEALs. But also because he wanted to give back to the country before he settled down and got married and raised a family. I think that because he was able to travel he appreciated what America has, what we stand for – liberty and democracy…..and having seen other parts of the world like some third-world countries….plus, through his studies he realized how fortunate we were….
CA: That’s exactly how he worded it too. He said, “I want to give back. I want to give back.”
DA: The SEALs appealed to him because of the rigorous training that was needed.
MM&N: When he first joined the Navy he didn’t initially intend to join the SEALs did he?
DA: Yes he did. He looked into the SEALs. Before he enlisted he talked to a recruiter and he was only going to go in with the idea that he could try out with the SEALs. He went in in on December 28, 2000 and he had talked to a recruiter and they had given him kind of a physical fitness routine that lasted six weeks or twelve weeks or whatever. And it said the first week you run this far….you do this many pushups….this many pull ups, you know, that kind of a thing. So, he did that and he got in good shape physically….I mean he was in good shape anyway, but he got himself in tip-top shape so that when he went in, when he was at boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois, he knew that he had to go through a test there and he had to pass it in order to qualify to then try out for the SEALs. So he would not have gone into the Navy except to become a SEAL.
MM&N: How did you all feel about his decision to become a SEAL?
DA: We’ve always supported both of our children in whatever they decided to do. We love them and we raised them to be independent young men and if the SEALs is what he wanted to do then “by gosh,” we were behind him and supported him. In fact, I had to write two different letters to the Navy because Matthew when he was ten…..his brother had gotten a President’s Physical Fitness Award. I never really thought that my kids were competitive until this happened, so his older brother had gotten the award and when Matthew was in fifth grade he was determined to get it too and in the process hindsight tells us that when he was doing the pull ups he must have pulled a muscle along the left side of his body and it wasn’t too long after the physical fitness thing that we were in the mountains and we were hiking up a really steep incline and breathing hard and Matthew said, “My heart hurts.”
When we got back to town we took him to see the doctor and they did just every kind of pediatric cardiology test, they even gave him a treadmill test at ten years old and there was nothing wrong with his heart. Eventually they discovered that the reason he felt like his heart hurt was actually when he was running a mile at school and he felt the same way….it was because when he was breathing heavy and his heart was beating somehow that muscle was affected. So I had to write a letter to the Navy explaining all of that and I also had to write a letter because he’d had an allergic reaction to an insect bite when he was five. Anyway, I had to support him in writing letters that said he was a healthy kid, that those were just things that happen.
MM&N: As far as his wife Cindy, did they meet in college?
DA: They did, yes.
MM&N: How has she coped in the years since losing Matt. I guess you still keep in touch with her?
DA: We do. I think that it’s been particularly difficult on both Cindy and Jeff (Matt’s brother) because when you have a child…..when Matthew was young he was part of our life everyday and when he went away to college then he became part of our life when he came home at Thanksgiving and Christmas and vacation and we were learning to release because he was growing up….but for his wife he was part of her everyday life even though he was in the SEALs and gone a lot….and he was her future, and the same way with Jeff, his brother….they had plans for the future. So, as hard as it’s been for Matthew’s dad and me I think it’s been harder for Cindy and Jeff.
MM&N: How much about his SEAL operations did you know about before he went to Afghanistan? Was he able to talk much about that?
DA: You know, he didn’t. It was kind of humorous…when he would call and we would talk to him I’d do just the “mom-chatty” kind of thing and then his dad would ask him questions and he’d share a little bit with his dad. We knew that he went to a lot of schools because he was really interested in all of the different training opportunities that were there. When he went to sniper school we kind of prayed him through that…and I knew a bit I because I was reading a book called, “Cold Zero,” by Christopher Whitcomb about the FBI Hostage Rescue Team…and they go through sniper school at Quantico.
As I just happened to be reading that at the same time as Matt was going through sniper school I would ask him questions like, “So Matthew, did you have to do this and that?” and he would go, “Yeah.” and I’d say, “Did you have to wear this and put on that?,” and he’d go, “Yeahhh.” “Then did you have to do this and that?” and then he’d go, “Mom, how do you know all of that?!?!” Then when he went to that driving school somewhere in Texas he was really animated talking about that because that was just really different. Then when he jumped out of the airplanes at 30,000 feet (this is called HALO-ing) I know he shared a lot with his dad about that. So, we knew the training he was going through but he didn’t, at least with me, go into a lot of detail about a lot of things.
CA: That’s very true. But that’s part of their (SEALs) setup I guess where they don’t talk a lot about what they do.
MM&N: Now as far as what happened with Operation Red Wings, how did you all first hear about his disappearance?
DA: My husband was in San Diego with our son, Jeff, because we have a house down in San Diego and Corky had gone down there to do some work on the house with Jeff. There were quite a few SEALs in San Diego because there was a wedding of a SEAL that weekend that those guys were friends with. So, I was home here by myself and two uniformed Navy men came to the door. It’s interesting because I was out watering some plants when they walked up the walkway and I walked over and I said, “Hi, my son’s in the Navy. Right now he’s serving in Afghanistan.” It wasn’t like it struck me that they were coming up to tell me bad news. What they told me was they had lost communications with the guys. That was all that they told me. So, I called San Diego and shared with my husband and my son about what had happened. And we had our church start praying for them right away. At first, just the fact that they had lost communication wasn’t near as bad as being told that he had been killed right off, so…..
CA: …..They initially said he was Missing in Action. Jeff and I were in San Diego as Donna said, and there were 3 or 4 SEALs at the house. We were just getting ready to have a barbecue. As soon as they heard about it they got involved and called trying to get more information about what was going on from their own personal contacts. So we felt pretty close to what was going on. It wasn’t like we were waiting for someone else to give us a call. We were right there with SEALs who were trying to track down some information.
DA: One of the things….and the SEALs have been better about it since the beginning, but one of the things that happens when you have a child who gets married is then their first of kin is now their wife not their parents. So they sent a SEAL to be with Cindy and tell her and the SEAL stayed with her the whole time. He didn’t just give her the information and leave.
But the Navy has been better since then about when there’s an event going on they let the parents know as well as the wife because sometimes when the wife is real distraught the information doesn’t get to the parents. But during that time when he was missing we talked to Cindy at least once daily and they were getting messages and communications and I’m not sure what but we were in touch.
MM&N: How long from the time you found out that he was missing was it before they actually found him and you knew what happened?
DA: Well, we found out on the 29th of June that he was missing. Then Marcus was recovered on July 3rd and they found the bodies of Mike Murphy and Danny Dietz on July 4th and Matthew was still missing. Marcus, when he did his de-brief, had told the people where to find the bodies, and Marcus had assumed that because he and Matthew were hiding behind that same log or that rock when the RPG came and knocked Marcus over the edge and into a hiding place where he kind of hid out and was unconscious for a while….Marcus assumed that the RPG had killed Matthew. But in fact, it seems that it also knocked him out of that area and Matthew then proceeded to lead the Taliban down the valley because the reason it was so hard to find his body was because he was a good half a mile to a mile from where Marcus told the military he would be.
When they went in to look for his body they were in there for a week or so, maybe even longer, until they finally found him on July 10th. We were positive during that time hoping that….because we didn’t know any information about his injuries that Marcus knew, so we were hopeful that Matthew was just hiding because he had a reputation on the Teams of being a GREAT escape and evasion guy. We were actually in the car on our way to the San Francisco airport for the flight to Hawaii for the Monday service for the servicemen from Hawaii when we got the call that they had found his body, we turned around and came home. Then the next day we went down to San Diego for the memorial service down there.
MM&N: Now wasn’t there indication that Matt had continued to fight even after Marcus thought he may have been killed?
DA: Absolutely there was. Because he eventually ran out of ammunition and they found lots of empty shells from his pistol around where they found his body. My understanding is they have some other evidence that he led the Taliban a distance away and continued fighting.
MM&N: Now wasn’t Morgan Luttrell Matt’s best friend?
MM&N: Do you still keep in touch with him? I believe he recently went back overseas.
DA: I talked to him back in October when he had the training accident and broke his back and was in the hospital back there in Virginia. I talk to him occasionally but I’m more in touch with Marcus because Marcus is a civilian and he’ll call….he left me a lovely message on Mother’s Day, and we’ll text from time to time. So with Morgan, by the time he went to officer candidate school and is still in the military, we don’t see him like we’d like to.
MM&N: Do you have much contact with the family members of the other guys lost that day?
DA: We keep in touch with Cindy Dietz in Colorado. We do not have much contact with the Murphy family.
MM&N: What are your thoughts on the Lone Survivor book? Did you find it to be pretty accurate? I guess it was really difficult to read the parts about the battle and everything….
DA: Of course it was. One of the things that we tell Marcus everytime we have a chance is how grateful we are that he survived to be able to tell the story. Because if he hadn’t survived all of those men would have just been a statistic on the evening news. But because he survived he’s been able to tell the story and continue to tell the story. As far as how accurate it is….as far as I’m concerned it’s as accurate as Marcus can make it. There was a movie a few years ago called, “Vantage Point,” and it was about an incident where somebody tried to shoot the President in Spain and it gave the incident from three or four different vantage points, and as far as the book goes, Marcus re-told the story the way Marcus remembered it and that’s good enough for us.
CA: The book is about Marcus, it’s Marcus’ story not Matthew’s and like Donna said, we’re just so thankful that because Marcus survived we know a whole lot more about what really happened.
MM&N: I know they’re planning on making a movie based on the book. What are your thoughts on that? Is that something you’d like to see? Or would you rather not see it?
DA: We met Peter Berg (Director) and when he came here he talked about his concept for the movie. What he wanted to do was start the movie out with some missions that the men were on that were positive and successful and then move into Operation Redwing and possibly end with talking about some of the things that have resulted from that. Marcus called when he was approached about selling the book and he asked me what I thought and my response to him was that my main concern was his mental and emotional health and if he didn’t feel that he could continue to re-live the battle on the mountain and that if it would be detrimental to his health then, NO, don’t do it, but it was really up to him because he knew himself better than I did….but my main concern has always been for Marcus.
I would like to see the movie made into a movie. I think America needs to appreciate our military….and maybe because I live in California we don’t see that respect and appreciation that you get if you’re more on the east coast or in the central part of the United States. But one thing I have said to Peter is that I would like to be on the set, particularly when they do the filming of the firefight…..because I think If I can see it….you know, Hollywood with all of the special effects and stuff they do it won’t be as hard for me to see it when it’s finished.
MM&N: Has there been any discussions yet as far as the possible actors who might play the role of Matt and the others?
DA: Peter asked us what we thought and we gave him two names of people that we thought would do a good job. We were more interested in men who were good actors rather than men who look like Matthew…..so, Jeff, our oldest son, suggested the names of two men and the names were Ryan Phillippe and the other guy was the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan”……Barry Pepper. Those are the two names that we suggested to Peter that we felt would do a good job portraying Matthew, but of course it’s Peter’s choice.
CA: The movie we think would really be good…..as Peter talked about doing it from a different perspective, not just the things that were in the book…..put a lot less on the SEAL training because there’s a lot out there about that…..more about the successful missions before they got into trouble and then spend some time on their rescue and recovery efforts too because that was really massive from what we understand. It would make it known that many branches of the military were involved in the rescue effort – Army, Marines, Air Force, not just the Navy.
DA: The last time I talked to somebody at Peter Berg’s office she was saying that he’s currently filming a movie called, “Battleship,” about that game kids play where they say, “C-5,” and they hit a destroyer or whatever, and she was saying that anytime you talk to Peter his passion is Lone Survivor.
MM&N: I think I read recently that it might be 2013 before it came out. Is that right?
DA: I hope not. She was saying that if he had his druthers he’d start filming in January. I don’t know but I would be truly disappointed if it is never made it into a movie.
MM&N: Did they say anything about filming locations?
DA: They keep changing. Originally they said it was going to be in Morocco and then we heard it was going to be on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, then they mentioned it might be in New Mexico…and then India has even been a place that’s been mentioned….so, who knows? When I heard the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas, I said, “Oh, yay!” because that would be accessible but India and Morocco are just out of my range.
CA: It has to do not only with similar terrain but access to people who look like they should….
DA: …..They’ve got to get 50-100 Taliban fighters.
MM&N: Now have you all had a chance to read “SEAL of Honor” yet?
DA: No, we haven’t. The guy who wrote it, we met him at the Medal of Honor ceremony in Washington D.C. and he said he was going to do kind of what you’re doing, call and interview us but he never did.
MM&N: Well, I know there was a memorial built in Cupertino that featured Matt and fellow SEAL James Suh. I guess you all felt pretty honored about that?
DA: What happened is….I’m a teacher and because Matthew’s name was withheld for so long because the fourth SEAL was still being looked for and they didn’t want his name revealed because then of course the Taliban would say, “We’ve captured the fourth SEAL, Matthew Axelson.” There was a period of time where they said they had captured a SEAL. When his body was found and his name was released our local paper wrote an article about him, a young man who had actually been a student of mine in fourth grade and had gone on to middle school and high school with Matthew called our home and said, “Hi, Mrs. Axelson, this is Tony Bandermann, do you remember me?” Tony was kind of a little mischievous fourth grader and so of course I did. He said that he’d like to go to the Cupertino City Council and ask them to do something to honor Matthew’s sacrifice and he wanted to know if it would be okay with me. And I said, “Tony, that would be lovely. Thank you very much.”
So Tony is the one who went to the city council and presented the idea of doing something to recognize Matthew and he suggested they name a room in the library after him. The city council with their foresight said to Tony, “You know, we have this memorial park in town and there’s not a memorial there. How about if a group would consider getting together and building a memorial that would not only recognize Matthew’s sacrifice but the sacrifice of all of our veterans. I love to tell the story at school because it’s about how one young man had an idea, he presented it and it then kind of developed a life of its own.
So the city council turned the project over to the parks and recreation department and they had a town hall meeting in November of 2005, and to a person everyone who came to that meeting thought it would be a great idea to build a veterans memorial. That’s when we were asked to be part of it by the parks and rec and we said we would be thrilled to be. I had seen some sculptures by a sculptor W. Stanley Proctor when we were in Sedona where he takes real people and he uses them to do sculptures. I said to the parks and rec department if you’re thinking about putting a sculpture at the veteran’s memorial consider using this artist. When the committee was formed they asked the artist to come out and meet with us. He was the one when he decided to take the commission that said he liked to use real people and would we mind if he used Matthew. We thought that would be such an honor and when he said he wanted two people he asked if we could think of another one of the men to use and because Matthew and James (Suh) were very close, and James’ family lives just about an hour and twenty minutes from here, we suggested James and when we approached his family to get permission, they like us, were extremely honored.
So, at the memorial the sculpture is of Matthew and James but around the base of the pedestal all 20 of the men have pavers, including Marcus, and on the bottom line of his…..most people have their birth dates and death dates, but on Marcus’ it just reads, “Survivor.” The idea was to honor all 20 of the men that were involved in Operation Redwing. On the pedestal it tells the story of Operation Redwing. It gives the names of all the men that were killed and then around the base are 12″ x 12″ pavers with each of the men’s information on it. The thing that we appreciated about what Tony got started is that the memorial is not all about Matthew but it’s all about veterans and we consider it as Matthew’s legacy because it’s the community he grew up in. My husband says it’s Washington D.C. quality right here in northern California. Laura Bush came and visited it when she was here in February and we got to meet her and show her the memorial.
MM&N: I’ve seen some pictures of it online, it’s definitely very impressive and I’m sure you’re very proud of it.
DA: We are. We also have a golf tournament every year, the fourth Monday in August to fund raise for the veterans memorial and to remember Matthew. So, we always have a couple of teams of SEALs who come and play and we’re going to try and get Marcus to come out and participate but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s a busy man
MM&N: Well, I know you have tons of incredible memories of Matt but is there maybe one favorite memory that kind of stands out to you looking back at Matt’s life?
DA: You know, like you said…..there’s just so many. One of the things that I did when he got married is I went through all of the pictures from the time he was born up until he got married and I pulled out pictures of his life and got a hundred of them and made them into a little book for his wife “Matthew Axelson Birth to BUD/s,” and every single one is memorable.
CA: We did a lot of things when they were growing up. I’d take them backpacking and things like that but right now when you asked that question, what came to mind was how Matthew really liked automobiles, he loved to work on cars. We rebuilt a couple of cars here, he and his brother and I. And in fact right now, we’re rebuilding Matthew’s ’69 Corvette that we plan on keeping in the family forever. I don’t know if that will really happen or not (Laughs). And we have an old British Triumph in the garage that Matthew and I were going to rebuild when he came back. I still have that but I haven’t done anything with it yet. But that was one of the things he really enjoyed……
DA: And Matthew, for Father’s Day the year he was killed, had ordered online a book all about how to restore Triumphs and it arrived in the mail after he was killed…..but that was something that he and his dad talked about doing.
MM&N: So what kind of car did Matt drive?
DA: He had the ’69 Corvette and more recently he had a Toyota Rav 4 that he bought for he and Cindy because they were going to start a family. He didn’t take the Corvette to Hawaii so when he went into the Navy the Corvette stayed here at the house.
MM&N: Thank you for talking with me. Your son was a true American hero and his sacrifice is deeply appreciated by everyone.
DA: Thank you. If there’s anything else we can do to help just let us know.
For more photos visit: MattAxelson.com