Since Operation Red Wings started becoming public, there has been an undercurrent within the military community and in the media questioning, to varying degrees, the truth behind HM1 (RET) Marcus Luttrell’s version of what really happened in the course of the operation. Over the years, and in a more concentrated manner recently, I have compiled all the publicly available information and analyzed the data repeatedly. This includes information available via public record; documented writings found in Luttrell’s book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10;” and recorded versions of HM1 (RET) Marcus Luttrell’s narrative regarding Operation Redwing (sic).
NOTE: It’s Operation Red Wings, not Operation Redwing per the myriad incorrect references by HM1 (RET) Luttrell, including the title of his New York Times bestselling book, “Lone Survivor.”
This does not include the movie, only mentioned contextually here, which has little relation to what happened in the course of the operation; the techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs); or the conduct of Luttrell as a member of the United States Armed Forces in combat. Instead, my focus has been on the publicly available information where the primary focus lies on the myriad discrepancies between what Luttrell himself wrote and said in public; the recent direct quotations from Mohammad Gulab, the Pashtun civilian who, through extraordinary courage and at grave danger to himself and his extended family, saved Luttrell’s life; and the nonfiction writings of Ed Darack in “Victory Point,” the story of Operation Red Wings and the follow-on mission, Operation Whalers.
Darack embedded with the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment shortly after both operations and directly spoke with many involved. I spoke extensively with Darack, as well as with Ross Schneiderman, whose recent Newsweek article, “Marcus Luttrell’s Savior, Mohammad Gulab, claims ‘Lone Survivor’ Got It Wrong,” brought forward exclusive new information; Michael Cummings, who wrote an article for Slate titled, “How Accurate Is Lone Survivor?” on Operation Red Wings, and is an ex-infantry officer who also served with 5th SFG(A) and has operated in the AO where Red Wings occurred; and John Ismay, an ex-Naval Special Operations officer who was lifelong friends with Erik Kristensen, Navy SEAL and QRF commander who was KIA along with 15 other SOF operators when their MH-47 was shot down during an attempted rescue.
John Ismay also interviewed actor Eric Bana, who portrayed John’s friend Erik in the “Lone Survivor” movie, for an article in the New York Times, “Seeing my friend depicted in ‘Lone Survivor.” Additionally, John provided exclusive information about Erik and an unreleased version of his entire interview with Bana, as well as information not available to the public surrounding the activities and aftermath of Operation Red Wings. These men all worked individually, but toward the same goal of uncovering the truth about what happened beginning the night of 27 June, 2005, when the team was inserted to conduct a special reconnaissance (SR) mission. The SR mission team members were:
- Team leader Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1), based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
- Petty Officer Second Class Danny P. Dietz from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2 (SDVT-2), based out of Virginia Beach, Virginia
- Petty Officer Second Class Matthew G. Axelson from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1)
- Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell, of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1)
Based on the publicly available data outlined above and detailed in the following, it appears the United States Department of Defense and Department of the Navy have documented probable cause to recall HM1 (RET) Luttrell to active duty to conduct an Article 32 investigation for potential multiple offenses, including violation of Article 99 and other potential violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The table below defines Article 99, and the rationale for potential violations of these sections of Article 99 by HM1 (RET) Luttrell are outlined in detail based on documented information available on the public record. In addition to what is documented in this article, there is extensive additional, supporting information available. This is simply a summary:
|Article 99 of the UCMJ – Misbehavior before the enemy.|
|Organized forces in time of war or any hostile body, including civilians, that may oppose U.S. forces.|
|“Before the enemy” defined|
|A question of tactical relation, not of distance. A reasonable possibility of being called into action is sufficient.|
|Nine forms of the offense|
|Shamefully abandoning, surrendering, or delivering up command, unit, place, ship, or military property.|
|Casting away arms or ammunition.|
|Quitting place of duty to plunder or pillage.|
|Causing false alarms.|
|Willfully failing to do utmost to encounter the enemy.|
|Failure to afford relief and assistance.|
Published June 30, 2005
KABUL, Afghanistan – All 16 service members on board the MH-47 helicopter that crashed June 28 were killed in the crash, coalition forces have confirmed. Previous reports had said there were 17 aboard the chopper. The remains are being identified, and the victims’ names were to be released once their next-of-kin had been notified.
“The MH-47 helicopter was transporting service members to support U.S. forces in contact with the enemy when it crashed. The forces were participating in Operation Red Wing, an effort to defeat terrorists operating in Kunar province,” a military press release stated.
ANA and Coalition forces still are actively engaged in Operation Red Wing, the military said.
“Fear is a force that sharpens your senses. Being afraid is a state of paralysis in which you can’t do anything.”—Marcus Luttrell
“He started screaming my name…’Help me Marcus.’ It got so intense that I just put my weapon down and covered my ears.”—”Lone Survivor” SEAL recounts deadly battle to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes 9 Dec., 2013.
Empirical realities of Operation Red Wings
When Ross Schneiderman of Newsweek contacted Luttrell with questions about the operation, his relationship with Mohammad Gulab—the Pashtun man who saved his life—for the Newsweek article published 08 May, 2016, instead of speaking for himself, Luttrell chose to speak through a lawyer.
Operation Red Wings began with an insertion of a four-man NAVSOF SR (special reconnaissance) team near the summit of Sawtalo Sar late in the night of 27 June, 2005. As with the specifics of the planning of this phase, 2/3 Marines played no direct role in command and control, as this was the SOF-supported portion of the operation. The team was inserted by helicopter within one mile of a populated area—sparsely populated, but populated nonetheless. Late in the morning of 28 June, 2005, unarmed locals soft-compromised the team.
Within approximately one hour of the soft compromise (the SR team was discovered by a group of goat herders), a group of between eight and 10 of Ahmad Shah’s men ambushed the SR team, utilizing AK-47 fire, PKM light machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire, and possibly an 82mm mortar system. As the SR team descended into the northeastern gulch of Sawtalo Sar (on the Shuryek Valley side of the mountain) under the press of the ambush, Shah’s men engaged the team with coordinated plunging, interlocking fire from multiple superior topographic positions.
The SR team attempted to establish communication with their combat operation center via satellite through a PRC-148 radio, which failed, and then attempted communication with an Iridium satellite phone. That failed as well, despite the heroic attempts of Lt. Mike Murphy to establish communications with the Iridium by moving to higher ground, which exposed him to direct enemy fire. Shah’s men killed three of the team within one hour.
Hours later, a QRF (quick reaction force) was launched, consisting of members of NAVSOF and Marines in separate aircraft. The USMC 2/3’s air officer requested that, before any insert attempt be made by any aircraft, members of the QRF positively identify member(s) of the SR team, either visually or by radio. The pilots agreed. No positive identification could be made. Despite this, aviators of one of two MH-47s of the 160th attempted to insert eight NAVSOF personnel near the summit of Sawtalo Sar.
During this insert attempt, one of Ahmad Shah’s men shot the MH-47 out of the sky with an RPG, killing all 16 personnel onboard. Shah’s men recovered virtually all of the SR team’s gear, including three M4s fitted with M203 40mm grenade launchers, rounds for the M4s and M203s, low illumination visualization equipment, an intact PRC-148 radio, a sniper spotting scope, and among many other items, a laptop computer with an intact hard drive containing classified material, including detailed maps of the U.S. and British embassies in Kabul.
Coalition forces could only presume that Shah would utilize what he and his men recovered from the SEALs in their future attacks against United States, coalition, and Afghan civilian and government personnel and facilities. A massive search and recovery effort was launched in the wake of the ambush and subsequent MH-47 shoot-down. A local villager who had befriended Marines at Camp Blessing, roughly eight miles away, had found and then protected the only survivor of the SR team—Luttrell. He sent another villager to Camp Blessing with a note from the survivor.
Ahmad Shah and his force
Initial intel, prior to the launch of Red Wings, put Shah’s force at up to 20 anti-coalition militia (ACM). Ahmad Shah was an insurgent leader in Afghanistan, which is why the Marines in the Pech launched Operation Red Wings. However, there is a huge difference between a local Afghan insurgent leader and an al-Qaeda operative. Prior to Operation Red Wings, Ahmad Shah was not a member of al-Qaeda and had never met Osama bin Laden. This intel came not from one source, nor one type of source, but from multiple, cross-referenced sources. Nonetheless, Luttrell states in his memoir, “A leader of a serious Taliban force (page 178)…he was also known to be one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates” (page 179). The small villages of the Korangal Valley/Sawtalo Sar/Shuryek Valley region—throughout the mountains of the Kunar, for that matter—cannot sustain numbers larger than 20 for very long—it is a logistical impossibility. The locals there can barely subsist, much less feed and house a small army.
Among Shah’s group were two men who each carried, in addition to a weapon, a video camera. Two videos of the ambush were made: one that was used as a propaganda video, showing footage of the ambush and the weapons and gear pillaged from the SEALs, and another that was never released, or at least not broadly released (not on the internet, at least that I know of). I was able to get the second video. Both were authenticated by the military. Even without that nod, the authenticity of these recordings is obvious.
The number of men under Shah’s command represents the “currency” of the insurgent or terrorist. The more fighters, the “wealthier” the commander, especially if evidence of these numbers are distributed on the internet and other media. Osama bin Laden was known to hire “extras” to mill about during videos of him in order to project that he maintained direct control over a much larger personal force than he actually did. While none of the fighters on Shah’s videos were ever considered extras—it was an actual ambush—the highest number of men that can be counted at any one time (including videographers) is six.
There was a reason Ahmad Shah had not one, but two videographers with him, and that reason was to show his “wealth” as a terrorist, to ensure that all in his team were documented doing what they did. But even without the videos, the military established the number at eight to 10. This number is based on analysis of a type of signals intelligence gathering during and immediately after the ambush, as well as human intelligence gathered in Pakistan. I won’t discuss in detail this intel, because it is sensitive (the way the signals intelligence was gathered), and also, with regard to the human intelligence gathered in Pakistan, the collections involved special operations units.
The narrative of a four-man Navy SEAL team being deployed to take on a group of hundreds under the leadership of the right-hand man of the world’s most wanted individual has all the makings of an edge-of-your-seat military action thriller. But it doesn’t happen in reality. And it certainly wasn’t the case in Red Wings.
In fact, in Luttrell’s memoir, he and the SEALs never see Ahmad Shah. The timeline roughly goes as follows: From pages 189 to 200, the SEAL team lands (page 189) and walks through the night (with a glaring omission that instead of properly hiding the fast rope, they toss it under a bush, and Shah’s men find it later only to simply follow their boot prints in the mud to find the SEAL team). On page 197, dawn comes. On page 198, they’ve still not seen Shah. “Danny and I had to keep looking toward the village, trying to use the glass, peering at whatever there was to be seen. Which was nothing.” They have to move because of a fog bank. On page 199, they find the perfect spot to spy on the village: “And when we got there, I had to agree it was perfect, offering a brilliant angle on the village for the lens, the spotting scope, and the bullet. It had sensational all-around vision. If [Shah] and his gang of villains were there, we’d get him” (page 199). But they don’t get to him. By page 200, they are still looking when the goat herders stumble onto their position.
Regardless of number of men, Shah and his fighters had the SEALs surrounded (by up to 180 degrees), and fired at them from superior (higher elevation) positions with weapons of heavier caliber than the SEALs’ .223 (5.56mm)-caliber weapons. Shah himself fired at them with a PKM machine gun, which fires a 7.62x54R round. The PKM is loosely comparable to the M240, the medium machine gun used by U.S. Marine infantry that fires a 7.62x51mm round (it replaced the M60 machine gun). Shah also had at least one RPG gunner, a number of men firing AK-47s (7.62x39mm round), and possibly an 82mm mortar operator. The 82mm mortar HE round (high explosive) alone can wipe out a team much larger than four men, even if they are somewhat dispersed.
The only surviving member of the four-man team, Luttrell, wrote a brief (2 1/2 page) after-action report (AAR). According to Ed Darack and others who could not officially go on the the record, in the AAR, Luttrell stated that he estimated that the SR team was ambushed by 20 to 35 ACM. Twenty was the number that was initially released by CJTF-76 public affairs, and that is why the earliest media reports used the number 20 (in the Time magazine article, they state “…probably five to one” as related to the four-man team, meaning 20).
Further analysis, the results of which never made it into the press (derived from analysis of signals intelligence gleaned during the ambush and human intelligence derived in Pakistan after the ambush, and videos of the actual ambush), stated the number to be between eight and 10. However, in Luttrell’s book, he states he faced 140-200 enemy forces.
How many insurgents died during Operation Red Wings?
Multiple accounts, including that of the U.S. Navy, have put forward extremely high enemy casualty accounts during the battle between the SEALs and Shah’s men. The key here is that both the U.S. Navy and Luttrell claim the SEALs killed 35 enemy ACMs, not created 35 casualties (which includes dead and wounded). The reality is that we will probably never know exactly how many insurgents died on Sawtalo Sar that day. That said, the number of casualties sustained by the enemy, at the least, could not have exceeded the number of enemy involved in the fight. Further, if 50 insurgents attacked, then 35 dead insurgents mean the SEALs killed 70 percent of the opposing force, which is virtually unheard of in warfare. Nonetheless, Luttrell states in his memoir, “We must have killed 50 or more of them” (page 221).
Release of the book “Lone Survivor”
In early June of 2007, the book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10” was released. Marcus Luttrell was listed as the author, with Patrick Robinson listed as a contributor. “U.S. intelligence officials believed [Ahmad] Shah was close to Osama bin Laden,” among other items, was included alongside the account that Lieutenant Michael Murphy, the leader of the four man naval special operations reconnaissance and surveillance team, of which Luttrell was a member, put up to vote whether to kill unarmed civilians who soft-compromised them. No “vote” was ever mentioned in Luttrell’s after-action report.
Ed Darack stated, “I immediately ordered ‘Lone Survivor,’ thinking that the book would provide much more detail than the Post article did. I also contacted all of the members of 2/3 who played a role in Red Wings, asking them if they’d been contacted about providing after-action reports or interviews for ‘Lone Survivor.’ None had. I read the book, thinking that I could possibly use information in it as source material for ‘Victory Point.’ Information in ‘Lone Survivor,’ however, strayed so substantially from Luttrell’s after-action report, and so much general information in it was so inaccurate, that I could not use it as a source. For instance, the book describes ‘hundreds’ of Taliban, when in Luttrell’s after-action report, he stated 20 to 35. While analysis of intelligence later revealed a number somewhere in the range of eight to 10, the Navy used a number more in line with Luttrell’s original after-action on the official Medal of Honor citation for Lieutenant Murphy: ‘BETWEEN 30 AND 40 ENEMY FIGHTERS….'”
Naval Special Warfare chose Patrick Robinson to be the ghost writer, and this choice had been made just weeks after Operation Red Wings had drawn to a close. The choice by Naval Special Warfare to select Robinson to ghost write “Lone Survivor” was made, according to Robinson, because Naval Special Warfare felt that Robinson had demonstrated a thorough understanding of SEALs through his fiction books. Robinson and Luttrell then secured a book deal and a movie deal. The book was released within just days of Luttrell retiring from the Navy. “Lone Survivor” was reviewed for accuracy by Naval Special Warfare public affairs, and was approved. Luttrell was also given a regular discharge from the U.S. Navy. After the tremendous success of the book, Luttrell was reverted to a medical retirement.
A note on the “vote”: In “Lone Survivor,” and in countless articles written about Red Wings, Lieutenant Michael Murphy supposedly put to vote whether to kill unarmed Afghan civilians who soft-compromised his team. This ended up being a central pillar to the overall story, and hence, countless blog and online discussion board posts (and print and online articles) on rules of engagement and morality in warfare. Murphy putting something like this up to vote almost certainly did not happen. This is the one topic that many people inside the military have dwelled on and that Murphy’s parents, including his father, repeatedly raised concerns about. They are certain the “vote” did not happen, and yet Luttrell’s memoir reads, “The deciding vote was mine and it will haunt me ’till they rest me in an east Texas grave. Mikey nodded, ‘I guess that’s two votes to one….'” (page 207)
Mohammad Gulab: The Pashtun who saved Luttrell
When it comes to the darker side of this otherwise inspiring story, Robinson is unflinching. Luttrell’s escape from Ahmed Shah’s clutches does nothing for Gulab’s family’s longevity, and they must leave their ancestral home, perhaps indefinitely. And the prolific supporting arms fired and dropped in support of the recovery helos is enough to uproot generations of timber on which the Gulabs and their neighbors depend. The rough, suspicious reception given Gulab’s messenger at the American base, the callous treatment of Gulab and his family in the aftermath of Luttrell’s medevac, and the general view of the Afghans as a subhuman species highlight a cultural divide and a lack of appreciation.
Gulab maintains the SEALs were far from the stealthy, superhuman warriors described in “Lone Survivor.” They didn’t die because they spared civilians, he says, they died because they were easily tracked, quickly outmaneuvered, and thoroughly outgunned. The militants, like many others in the area, heard the helicopter drop the Americans on the mountain, Gulab claims. The next morning, they began searching for the SEALs’ distinctive footprints. The way Gulab heard it from fellow villagers, when the militants found them, the SEALs were deliberating about what to do with the goat herders. The insurgents held back. After Luttrell and company freed the locals, the gunmen waited for the right moment to strike.
The battle, Gulab claims, was short-lived. He wasn’t on the mountain with Luttrell, but says everyone in the village could hear the gunfire. Gulab scoffs at the estimate by Naval Special Warfare Command that 35 Taliban died in the battle. (A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the matter.) But the Afghan claims the villagers and American military personnel who combed the mountain for the bodies of the dead SEALs never found any enemy corpses. (Andrew MacMannis, a former Marine colonel who helped draw up the mission and was on scene during the search and recovery effort for the dead SEALs and other military personnel, says there were no reports of any enemy casualties.)
More puzzling: While Luttrell wrote that he fired round after round during the battle, Gulab says the former SEAL still had 11 magazines of ammunition when the villagers rescued him—all that he had brought on the mission.
As reported in May 2016, in early 2014, about a month after his last conversation with Luttrell, Gulab says the interpreter abruptly announced it was time to return to Houston, and they did. The next morning, Gulab learned he was being sent back to Afghanistan. Luttrell’s wife, Melanie, gave him several thousand dollars in cash and bought him a variety of items—from socks to laptops, Gulab says. He appreciated the money and presents. But the film was now in theaters, and he was increasingly worried about the Taliban’s reaction to it. He says he wanted to stay in the United States, to look for a house in Texas and try to bring his family over. Yet Luttrell, he claims, had dropped the subject.
While Gulab returned to Afghanistan, “Lone Survivor” became a blockbuster, earning over $200 million globally. And by the time Gulab’s plane landed in Kabul, the Taliban had bootleg versions of it. “Soon,” one militant warned him by phone, “we will blow you to Hell.” This was not an idle threat. Not long after he returned to Afghanistan, Gulab was walking along a path in the woods when the militants detonated an improvised explosive device in front of him. During the day, Gulab slept at home, cradling a Kalashnikov. At night, he left his family and went to a secret location. The threats kept coming. One district commander, Mullah Nasrullah, was livid that his fighters had yet to kill the famous villager from Sabray. The commander even called Gulab. “There was nothing honorable about what you did,” the commander said. “The man you protected was an American soldier, not a Muslim.” Gulab didn’t back down. “I told the commander the man I saved was a human being. The question of honor has nothing to do with his religion.”
Around December 2014, Gulab received a call from an unfamiliar number. “Infidel,” the man on the other line said. It was the Taliban—again—but instead of threatening his life, this caller was mocking him. Months earlier, the Americans had released five Taliban leaders from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In exchange, a Taliban-aligned group freed a prisoner of their own: Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. They could have worked out a similar deal with Luttrell, the caller argued. “The American abandoned you,” Gulab recalls him saying, referring to Yousafzai’s article. “We could have spared your life,” the caller added. “If you had brought Marcus back to the mountain, we would have traded him for money and prisoners, and you could have kept the ransom.” Shocked, Gulab hung up.
About a month later, another call came. This time it wasn’t the Taliban. It was one of his contacts. India had approved his travel visa. That night, Gulab and his sons packed their clothes into two small suitcases and prepared to leave the country. The next morning, on January 9, 2015, Gulab held his wife’s hands in his and said goodbye. As he looked at the tears in her eyes, he felt a deep sadness. “My head was spinning,” he says, “and everything turned to black and white.” The next day, Gulab met one of his contacts, who handed him his plane tickets and several hundred dollars. Then, the Afghan and his sons boarded a flight from Kabul to New Delhi. It had been nearly 10 years since he had saved Luttrell. Now, as the plane climbed into the sky, Gulab looked out the window. He said goodbye to the mosques and government ministries, goodbye to the streets and alleyways, goodbye to the mountains and valleys. He said goodbye to his country forever.
Down and out in New Delhi
Once Gulab escaped, he assumed the worst was behind him. He was wrong. Life in India’s crowded capital proved harder and far more expensive than he expected. “There are a lot of bad people trying to cheat [refugees],” says Ziaulhaq Fazilhaq, a 28-year-old Afghan who befriended Gulab in New Delhi. Fazilhaq found Gulab and his sons an apartment—a small room and bathroom with no kitchen—and helped them register with the U.N. refugee agency. Because Gulab had saved the life of a Navy SEAL, his new friend assumed it wouldn’t take long for him to move to the States. Months later, Gulab was still waiting. His savings were gone. Unable to make rent, he and his sons spent weeks living in the apartment or a tent, depending on what he could afford.
Months passed with no movement in his case, and Gulab was getting desperate. The U.S. was performing security checks, and there was nothing to do but wait. Finally, in August, Gulab’s contacts told him to bring his wife and daughters back to New Delhi. Once again, he borrowed money for their flights. In late September—about nine months after he arrived in India—the U.S. government approved his visa and that of his wife and seven children. Experts say Gulab was lucky. Due to bureaucratic logjams, “We have applicants who have waited for five years, coming up on six years,” says Lara Finkbeiner, the deputy legal director at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
About 10 days after he got off the plane in the U.S., he spoke to a friend in Kunar province. He still hadn’t heard from Luttrell and wanted to fly to Houston to hash things out. Now that he was in the States, he hoped the former SEAL would help him find a job. But his friend advised against it. Not long after Gulab arrived in the U.S., this friend said, someone from Luttrell’s camp asked the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to send him back to Afghanistan, afraid he would harm the family. (Both the State Department and Department of Homeland Security declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.) The Luttrells wouldn’t directly confirm or deny the claim. When Gulab heard this, he panicked. He says he was afraid the U.S. would send him back to the Taliban. “If I’d known that Marcus was such a dishonorable person,” he says, “I would not have come to America.”
Gulab claims Luttrell promised to link him up with Patrick Robinson, Lutrell’s co-author on “Lone Survivor,” so he could tell his version of how they met, and the Afghan could keep the profits from his own book. Gulab also maintains that Luttrell promised him a 50-50 split on whatever he made from the movie. Later, the villager claims, he asked the interpreter if Luttrell and Universal would draw up a contract. Gulab recalls the translator telling him not to worry about it and saying, “Whatever [Luttrell] says, he will do.” Gulab never received a dime for the book or the movie. Gulab only received a portion of the advance for his own book and Lutrell took one-third of the profits from Gulab’s book, “The Lion of Sabray.”
“I’ll never regret saving Marcus,” he says, “[But] I regret what I did to help the movie. [And] I pray that one day Marcus tells America the truth.”
Red Wings II: Quick reaction force, search, rescue, recovery, and presence operations
Navy SEAL, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen was the task unit commander on a SEAL mission that went terribly wrong. John Ismay, close friend of Erik Kristensen, says, “I dreaded the idea of seeing my old roommate’s death depicted on screen in the movie ‘Lone Survivor.’ I already knew the ending, and didn’t want to see the movie. But when Erik’s mom, Sam Kristensen, asked some of his friends to accompany Erik’s cousins, Jen and Allison, to see an advance screening of ‘Lone Survivor,’ I went. You always do what a gold star mother asks.”
Eric Bana’s observations during an interview with Ismay went as follows: “And there are a few constants in Erik’s character I loved reading about.” One of them was Erik’s humility. Despite his rank, Mr. Bana said he realized “he didn’t take himself too seriously. I know that’s a common theme with Special Forces. But when the time came for orders to be given, he assumed that mantle and was extremely capable. I really loved that side of him.”
When communication was received that the SR team was ambushed, the focus of the operation immediately shifted from disrupting ACM activity to finding, aiding, and extracting the SEALs of the reconnaissance and surveillance team. The operation was now known as Operation Red Wings II.
After the broken transmission from the SEAL SR team, the position and situation of the SEALs became unknown. Members of SEAL Team 10, U.S. Marines, and aviators of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment were prepared to dispatch a quick reaction force, but command for launch from higher special operations headquarters was delayed for a number of hours. A quick reaction force finally launched, consisting of two MH-47 special operations aircraft of the 160th, two UH-60 conventional Army Aviation Black Hawk helicopters, and two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The two MH-47s took the lead.
Upon reaching Sawtalo Sar, the two MH-47s received small-arms fire. During an attempt to insert SEALs who were riding in one of the MH-47 helicopters, one of Ahmad Shah’s men fired an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade, which struck the transmission below the rear rotor assembly, causing the aircraft to immediately plummet to the ground, killing all eight 160th Army special operations aviators and crew, and all eight Navy SEALs who were passengers. Both commanders of the 160th—ground commander LCDR Erik S. Kristiansen of SEAL Team 10, and aviation element commander Major Stephen C. Reich—were killed in the shootdown. Command and control (C2) at this point was lost, and neither visual nor radio contact could be established with the SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team. At this point, which was late in the afternoon, storm clouds were moving in over the region.
In July 2005, a few weeks after the crash of “Turbine 33,” the call sign of the MH-47E that Kristensen and 15 other SEALs and Task Force 160 “Nightstalker” special operations airmen perished aboard, a squad of paratroopers and Rangers descended the steep slope, charred black from burning jet fuel, with tree trunks sheared off from the exploding chopper.
In unpublished photos taken of the crash site by an Army photographer, blackened tree stumps poke up from the flattened slope. Ammunition magazines for M4 rifles, springs, and unfired cartridges litter the sooted ground. Paratroopers hold up a pair of Oakley mirrored sunglasses with one lens missing. A flight crew helmet has been torn open, a tactical flashlight bent and flattened, and the lining of a SEAL’s helmet lies on the ground.
The Taliban had pilfered the site of Turbine 33 as well as the site of the ambush where Murphy was found on the high ground, having gone to call for the QRF. They found SEAL operators Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz in another location down the mountain in the forest. Later, militants would display captured U.S. weapons and laptop computers in a video. Night vision goggles, weapons and helmets from both sites were recovered over the next two years from Taliban fighters killed in firefights and found in arms caches in the Korengal Valley.
Special operations forces
According to Darack, as the bodies of the special operations personnel were recovered and the survivor rescued, Shah and his men absconded into Pakistan, where they produced and distributed one of two videos they shot during the ambush for propaganda. Although the massive coalition presence during the recovery effort achieved the desired end state of the operation (disruption of ACM activity), this was a short-lived and pyrrhic “victory.” Foreign fighters flowed in to join the emboldened Shah due to his overnight infamy (the media had reported only a few facts of the operation, and the dramatic loss of so many U.S. troops was the lionized focus of this coverage). Within weeks, Shah’s attacks began anew, including an IED (improvised explosive device) strike on a convoy of Marines in late July 2005, and renewed mortar and rocket attacks on both military and civilian targets.
Operation Red Wings was an incredible tragedy for the families, friends, and associates of those lost. From a tactical/operational standpoint, and from an analysis of its influence on furthering security in the region (the operation’s purpose), the opening phase of Red Wings was an unmitigated, monumental disaster—one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in recent military history. Because so many resources were pushed to aid the recovery effort (the search and recovery was called Red Wings II), other planned operations (not just in that part of the AO, but throughout Afghanistan), had to be delayed and many cancelled altogether. Ahmad Shah, a once unknown local Taliban aspirant, gained instant global fame, and saw his rank, finances, and armament (including those taken from the SEALs) burgeon, enabling him to renew his attacks with greater intensity and frequency until he was killed a few years later.
Operation Red Wings angel flight
HM1 (RET) Luttrell first started thinking of writing a book because he was frustrated by media accounts of the battle. “People were writing these stories, and anything they didn’t know how it happened, they just made up,” he said in a telephone interview from the horse ranch he runs with his twin brother near Houston. So he talked to his Navy superiors, hired a lawyer, and searched for a writer. The book ended up getting over a million dollars in advance. Luttrell then hired a Hollywood agent and went on to make a movie based on the book. Peter Berg’s 2013 film “Lone Survivor,” starring Mark Wahlberg as real-life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, was shot at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico on a $38 million budget (shoestring for Hollywood), but didn’t have to pay location fees. The movie went on to become a Hollywood blockbuster grossing over $200 million. The film was shot with full DoD support, including active-duty military, aircraft, weapons, and equipment at a cost the DoD refuses to reveal.
As reported by Newsweek, “[Luttrell’s claims] are exaggerated nonsense,” says Patrick Kinser, a former Marine infantry officer who participated in Operation Red Wings and read the former SEAL’s after-action report. “I’ve been at the location where he was ambushed multiple times. I’ve had Marines wounded there. I’ve been in enough firefights to know that when shit hits the fan, it’s hard to know how many people are shooting at you. [But] there weren’t 35 enemy fighters in all of the Korengal Valley [that day].”
Prior to actually writing this article, I felt it was important to contact Luttrell and give him an opportunity to speak for himself to the SOFREP community. Below are the emails and the single phone conversation that transpired. I didn’t want to just use the quotations of others, so I contacted Luttrell via email to give him an opportunity to speak. I ultimately reached his “agent.”
The emails are addressed to Luttrell, his attorney, and his agent.
This was the original email and all of the questions.
Upon receiving a response that Luttrell would not be able to answer until 31 May, 2016, I provided a clarification.
On 31 May, 2016, I received a call from Jess Stoner, who identified herself as Luttrell’s “agent for public speaking engagements and things like that.” Ms. Stoner did not identify whether or not Luttrell was present with her, but did acknowledge we were on a speaker in a vehicle. Ms. Stoner was very amicable for the vast majority of the 10-minute conversation; we established who I was and she tried to pin down why exactly I was writing the article. She mentioned several times what a great relationship she and Luttrell have with Brandon Webb, SOFREP’s founder and CEO. Ms. Stoner then claimed to be struggling between the second and third questions I asked Luttrell, and then claimed I made an error because they were the exact same question. I explained to Ms. Stoner several times that these questions were unrelated, as one pertained to the KIA on Luttrell’s team and one pertained to the KIA from the QRF, but she continued to claim they were the same question.
Finally, I told Ms. Stoner to please simply forget about those questions because the major point I wanted to understand and communicate to the SOF community is the following: “Given that Luttrell just had his lawyer issue a statement saying he stood by everything in his book, why is there such a major discrepancy between the book and what he said on 60 minutes?”
She immediately said in a completely different tone, “This conversation is over,” and hung up. A short time later, I received an email from Jessica stating, “Hi Michael, We have no comments on your questions below”.
In closing, I’ll allow HM1(RET) Luttrell to speak for himself.
Mike Adams is a former sergeant major who served in several USSF groups, as well as a contractor for the intelligence community.
This article is dedicated to my now-dead mentor and friend, Dan Ross ex-MACV SOG: RT Arkansas, RT Pennsylvania, RT Illinois, 5th SFG(A) and FMG. Dan was the ultimate model of a “quiet professional.”
Rich, Mokoto “He Lived to Tell the Tale (and Write a Best Seller” New York Times Aug 9, 2007
McGirk, Tim. “How the Shepherd Saved the SEAL.” Time Magazine, July 11, 2005. Naylor, Sean D. “Surviving SEAL tells Story of deadly mission.” Army Times. June 18, 2007.
Naylor, Sean D. “Surviving SEAL tells Story of deadly mission.” Army Times. June 18, 2007.
Robinson, Patrick. “Writing Lone Survivor: The Honor and the Anguish.” The Huffington Post. February 1, 2010.
Darack, Ed. “Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers – the Marine Corps’ Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan” Penguin Publishing Group. 2009
Ismay, John. “Seeing my friend depicted in ‘Lone Survivor’” Jan, 2014
Aly Weisman. “One Man In The Department Of Defense Controls All Of Hollywood’s Access To The Military” Mar, 2016
Cummings, Michael “Multiple Blogs on Operation Red Wings” http://onviolence.com/?e=230 May, 2016
Schneiderman, Ross. “Marcus Luttrell’s Savior, Mohammad Gulab, Claims ‘Lone Survivor’ Got It Wrong” May 11, 2016
Note: Ed Darack specifically requested I include the following: “One thing I’d like to ask, since you’re calling for an Article 32, and I know nothing about such an action, is that you note that I can’t endorse such a call personally. I only make this request because there is a bit in the article based on my past work. John Ismay is also not making any recommendation as to disciplinary action / recall to active duty and court martial.