In the summer of 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL team consisting of Lt. Michael Murphy, and petty officers Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson and Marcus Luttrell departed for a reconnaissance mission high in the Hindu Kush Mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The team’s target was Ahmad Shah, a local terrorist leader with close ties to Bin Laden who led a group of insurgents referred to as the “Mountain Tigers”. Five days after insertion, Luttrell was the only SEAL to make it out alive.
After an initially successful infiltration, local goat herders stumbled upon the SEALs’ hiding place. Unable to verify any hostile intent from the herders,Murphy asked the team what should be done with them. Axelson reportedly voted to kill the Afghans, and Dietz didn’t offer an opinion, causing Murphy to state that he would vote the same as Luttrell, who said the herders should be set free.
Shortly after the goat herders disappeared over the mountain ridge, the SEALs were confronted by a force of Afghan fighters, estimated between 50-200 strong,causing Luttrell to believe that the released herders had given away their position.
The insurgents set up a “well organized, three-sided attack”, which forced the SEALs to begin running down the slope. After 45 minutes of fighting, Dietz abandoned the cover of the forest and ran into the open intent on placing a distress call for immediate support from Bagram Air Base, but was shot in the hand.
Murphy then moved into the open himself, after noting the team’s radio transmitters weren’t functioning properly in the mountains, and placed the emergency call for support from his cell phone. He was shot in the abdomen during the conversation. Nevertheless he returned to his cover after the call and continued to battle.
After two hours of fighting, only Luttrell remained alive, although he was lying unconscious behind a ridge where he had been knocked out by the blast of a rocket-propelled grenade.
Two MH-47D helicopters, four UH-60 Blackhawks and two AH-64D Longbows attempted to come to their rescue to provide extraction in the mountains of Kunar. One of the MH-47 helicopters, carrying eight Navy SEALs and eight 160th Nightstalkers, was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade shot through the open rear ramp, causing the pilot to lose control of the craft. It hit a mountain ledge, and then fell to the bottom of a ravine, killing all sixteen on board.
Shah, the original target of the SEAL team, later gave an interview where he claimed that his forces had set a trap for the American forces, “We certainly know that when the American army comes under pressure and they get hit, they will try to help their friends. It is the law of the battlefield.“[
The only survivor of the attack, Luttrell tried to hide himself as he waited for rescue from the search helicopters flying overhead. Driven by thirst, shot in the leg and with three cracked vertabrae,he traversed 7 miles over the remainder of the day. He remained unnoticed until, falling from a ledge, he was discovered by an Afghan shepherd named Gulab , who summoned his companions to help carry the wounded Luttrell to the village of Sabray-Minah. The villagers took care of Luttrell, providing food and medical attention, and protecting him from the Taliban that came to the village demanding that he be turned over to them.
Meanwhile, nearly two days after the initial confrontation, the military had 300 men searching for the team, and had located the downed helicopter and verified that all 16 aboard had been killed. A spokesman for the Taliban, Mofti Latifollah Hakimi, confirmed that the helicopter had been shot down by insurgent fire, and promised to deliver the video made during the assault to media outlets.
Despite multiple attempts, the search helicopters were unable to locate the wounded Navy SEAL. On July 2, the village elder, armed with a note from Luttrell, went down to seek help from Camp Blessing, a Marine outpost several miles away, and approached First Lieutenant Matt Bartels with his information.
With this news, the U.S. forces drew up extraction plans which according to Lt. Col. Steve Butow were “one of the largest combat search-and-rescue operations since Vietnam”. As the rescue teams closed in upon the village they ran into Luttrell and some of the villagers who were moving him from one hiding place to another.
Six days after the operation, an American search team located Murphy’s body. For the next four days, they held out hopes that Axelson might be found alive.