With the FBI analysts’ confirmation that the note did indeed come from Marcus Luttrell, things began to speed up. The area of the team’s E&E had been solidified, and the search could be narrowed down to the Shuryek Valley and the eastern side of Sawtalo Sar. While the steepness of the terrain still provided plenty of challenges to the Rangers and Special Forces conducting the search, it was now workable. Furthermore, they now had a location and a contact for Marcus, and confirmation that he, at least, was still alive.
As soon as the note was verified at around 0200, Special Forces and Ranger personnel were immediately directed by the JOC to move to Objective Barracuda, which was the code-name for the village of Sabray, where Marcus was being harbored by the local villagers, led by Gulab, the son of the village elder.
At about midday, the first elements made contact with Marcus Luttrell. According to Marcus’ recollections, the first one he saw was an Afghan commando, followed by two Rangers from 2nd Ranger Battalion. The word spread quickly that Marcus had been found, and the Rangers got him to higher ground, where his wounds were further treated while the Rangers and SF ODA set security and prepared for the birds to come extract him.
The two 920th Rescue Wing HH-60 Pave Hawks would fly the extraction mission, covered by AH-64 Apaches, A-10 Warthogs, and an AC-130 Spectre. At 1452Z, the flight, callsign Halo 43, received its tasking, and Skinny and Spanky began their planning process.
Because of the Blackhawk’s vulnerability to ground fire (as had been graphically demonstrated in Mogadishu, Somalia, 12 years before), and the fear of losing yet another helicopter after the shoot-down of Turbine 33, the HH-60s had only flown at night, and would go into the extract in a pair, with one helo landing, and the other flying top cover, its door gunners vigilant for any threats to the bird on the ground. It was decided that Skinny would fly top cover, while Spanky went in, landed on the LZ, and retrieved Marcus, Gulab, and Gulab’s family. Spanky, on learning he was going to get the most dangerous part of the mission, became even more focused.
The pilots had not gotten a good look at the terrain near Sabray on their previous flights, and Spanky later recalled that the imagery they had to work off of didn’t give an entirely accurate appreciation of just how steep the terrain in the Shuryek Valley was. Regardless, they departed Bagram Air Field at 1750Z, heading east toward Kunar.
En route, Halo 43 received a radio call from Bagram, informing them that the extract grid coordinate had changed, and that the LZ was 2 kilometers over from where they had planned. They received the call while 10 minutes out from the LZ, prompting some frantic recalculation to ensure they got to the right spot. In the dark, in the mountains, a 2 kilometer error was going to make the rescue all but impossible if they didn’t figure it out.
As the copilots calculated the new grid coordinate, it made less and less sense. The flight computers were not changing the time or distance to the new grid. After what he described as trying to pull his hair out through his helmet, Skinny’s copilot, JP, figured out that there had been a misunderstanding by the source sending the new grid.
Military grid coordinates operate on a metric system, where each digit represents so many meters. Thus, a 4-digit grid is accurate to within 1 kilometer, a 6-digit grid is accurate to within 100 meters, etc. What had happened with the new grid coordinate was that the end of the 10-digit grid coordinate had changed, and someone had misinterpreted a 2-meter change with 2 kilometers. The LZ hadn’t changed at all.
As they neared the mountains, the cloud cover got heavier. The moon was not up, and the clouds were obscuring any starlight, rendering the pilots’ and crews’ night vision nearly useless. The AC-130 on station was supposed to illuminate the LZ with its IR floodlight, commonly known to the men on the ground as “The Eye of God.” This IR flood, invisible to the naked eye but incredibly bright on night vision, is usually used to mark targets for the gunship’s weapons, to include a 25mm chain gun, 40mm Bofors cannon, and a 105mm howitzer. But as they neared the LZ, they received the call from the AC-130, “Halo, negative burn, negative burn.” The AC-130 had to stay above the clouds, and couldn’t burn through them with the floodlight. The LZ remained shrouded in pitch darkness. The pilots were already having to use their FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) cameras to navigate, because the illumination was so poor.
On the ground, the Rangers and SF were waiting with Marcus, watching the lights of the Taliban moving on the opposite slopes, as Ahmad Shah’s men tried one last time to capture the wounded SEAL. Based off of his recollections and observations from the previous few days, Marcus helped the Rangers call in air support on the enemy positions. Spanky recalled the muzzle flashes and rocket strikes flickering over the mountainsides.
The problem still remained that the LZ was completely shrouded in darkness, and invisible to the pilots. Unless they could get some reference to get a fix on it, the rescue was going to be a no-go.
At the last moment, one of the A-10s flying above dropped down through the clouds and briefly illuminated the LZ with his targeting laser. That was enough. Halo 43 started in toward the LZ.
Skinny went first, though he was flying top cover, swooping in low enough for the crew chief to toss a chemlight onto the LZ before climbing back into the sky, hoping to draw fire while getting into a better position to cover Spanky’s bird as it landed on the LZ. The chemlight provided Spanky with a visual reference on the LZ.
The LZ itself proved to be a narrow shelf among the village’s agricultural terraces, with a sheer rock wall on one side and a 1500-2000 foot drop on the other. The level ground was actually narrower than the HH-60’s rotor disc.
As Spanky took his helicopter in, at about 10 feet above the ground, they found themselves in a complete brown-out. A brown-out is where the helicopter’s rotor wash has kicked up so much dust and debris that it becomes impossible for the pilot to see the ground, or just about anything, for that matter. It is an extremely dangerous situation at the best of times. On the side of a mountain, in the dark, trying to land on a tiny shelf, it is much, much worse.
In those conditions, without being able to see the ground, especially with a 1500 foot or longer fall on one side, there is a high risk of rollover. If one tire rests on something higher than the other, it acts as a pivot point. Even hovering under brownout conditions becomes hazardous, as the pilot has no references to keep the hover stable.
For some time, which seemed like forever to the pilots and crew, they hovered in the dust, trying not to crash. Gonzo, Speedy’s copilot, told the crew in the back that if they were of a praying disposition, now would be a good time. The PJs and crew lay down in the back, to hopefully reduce the damage if they did crash.
Through the dust, Gonzo could catch glimpses of the rock wall to their left. He later estimated that they were 15 or 20 feet from the wall. One of the PJs in back saw the tail rotor come within 6 feet of the trees.
Spanky was trying to hold the bird level, searching for any reference at all. He later recalled thinking that they were going to die, that he’d failed, not only his crew, but Marcus and the rest of the guys on the ground.
When Gonzo warned him about the wall on their left, and with increasingly frantic warnings coming from the crew in the back, Spanky tried to correct to the right. The Blackhawk has two sets of controls, both of which can affect the bird at the same time. This is to allow the pilot or copilot to moderate the other’s maneuvers. Gonzo grabbed the stick and moderated Spanky’s correction, keeping them from going out over the edge.
Then, through the dust, in the dark, Spanky saw something. It was a bush on the terrace ahead of them, waving wildly in the rotor wash. He said it reminded him of the hanging plants he’d known as a kid. It provided him the hover reference he needed to get the bird steady. He eased the helicopter to the ground and landed. Once the pitch of the rotor blades changed, the dust began to settle. Spanky would later admit that he never would have tried such a landing if there had been any other option, even in daylight.
The PJs disembarked, and the first thing they saw was an Afghan tribesman approaching the helicopter. Without any identification, they first thought he was a threat, and the lead PJ had his weapon trained on him. Then a second, smaller man stepped forward, trying to communicate that they were friendly. The PJ wasn’t sure what to do until one of the Rangers approached and made link-up, verifying that the first man was in fact Marcus Luttrell. He was in Afghan tribal dress, largely because his uniform had been torn to pieces by bullets, RPG shrapnel, and the fall down the mountain.
The PJ asked Marcus an authentication question, to determine for certain that he was indeed the missing SEAL. In this case, the question was, “What’s your favorite superhero?” Marcus, strung out from his injuries and the stress of the Taliban threatening to take him for the last four days, at first looked at him like he was wondering why he was being asked such a ridiculous question on the side of an Afghan mountain in the dark. Then he remembered, and answered correctly. “Spiderman.” It was one of the pieces of verifying information that had to be left at the JOC before any SOF team went outside the wire, in case just such a situation arose.
Although the original plan had been to extract Gulab and his family, the family was not on the LZ. The PJs brought Marcus and Gulab onto the Blackhawk, and started looking Marcus over. The one who had first met him and verified his identity found himself wondering why they hadn’t taken off yet. They were still perched on a tiny LZ on the side of a mountain, and there were still Taliban out there in the dark. Then he remembered that it was his responsibility to alert the pilot that they were ready, so he called forward to Spanky that they were good. Spanky pulled them up off the mountainside, and they were headed away.
The bird headed to Asadabad first, the closest major US base, only about 15 kilometers to the east. At 1942Z, they arrived at Asadabad and dropped off Gulab. He would be questioned and measures taken to protect him and his family from retaliation by the Taliban for their role in sheltering Marcus. Marcus only had a moment to say goodbye to the man who saved his life, then the bird was pulling for the sky again, heading for Jalalabad.
At 1956Z, both Blackhawks landed at Jalalabad, and Marcus was taken to a MC-130 that was waiting to return him to Bagram Air Field. He arrived at BAF at 2045Z, and was met by 4 doctors and the repatriation team. The process of repatriation and recovery had to begin.
Marcus refused the litter the medical personnel had brought for him. Though he had been shot in the leg, he insisted on walking off the bird. He was a SEAL; he would walk.
One of those who met him was the CRO. He had left the JOC long enough to go meet Marcus, to shake his hand, and know, for certain, that one of his brothers was home safe. Then he went back to work to retrieve the rest.
Later, Spanky would recall his crew celebrating as they got back. He said he didn’t think any of them quite understood just how close they had come to crashing and dying on the mountainside that night.
The 3rd Battalion Rangers had set out at sunup to begin their part of the search. While relatively lightly loaded, with Rhodesian vests and no body armor, they had gone from only a few hundred feet above sea level in Georgia to over 8000 feet above sea level in Kunar. One Ranger who was there mentioned that it took only about an hour to realize just how difficult the mission was going to be. The team leaders were issued extra IV bags in case their men suffered heat injuries in the summer heat, struggling over the rough terrain.
The Rangers patrolled the mountains in the heat for the entire day, finding nothing, though at least one incident of a Ranger firing at what he thought was an enemy in the trees was reported. When they set in a new patrol base as darkness descended, two Rangers were almost hit by a descending resupply bundle, dropped by the aircraft overhead for the missing SEALs.
Earlier in the day, a team of 2nd Battalion Rangers had discovered remains of what they first reported as another SEAL. The Rangers had been patrolling the area of Sawtalo Sar for days, looking for any sign of the missing team. The terrain was brutal, and the heat (it was the middle of summer in Afghanistan, after all) was oppressive. The nearby Shuryek valley was at 5500 feet above sea level, and the summit of Sawtalo Sar stood at 9230 feet. The Rangers were patrolling the fingers coming off Sawtalo Sar’s main ridge, which Marcus had begun calling “Murphy’s Ridge.” A great deal of the movement was up and down steep, rocky inclines covered in scrub and tall trees.
One of the Ranger patrols had been working their way along one of the fingers when, looking down into the ravine below, they spotted what looked like a body. Leaving part of the patrol on the high ground to hold security, several of the Rangers descended into the ravine to investigate.
After clambering down into the ravine, the Rangers found the bodies of both Michael Murphy and Danny Dietz. The Taliban had found them first, and stripped them of their weapons and most of their equipment. Shah’s men had made a video which had gone up on the internet and Al Arabiya TV earlier, showing off the weapons they had taken off the bodies of the dead SEALs, including camouflage-painted M4s with ACOGs, suppressors, and M203 grenade launchers. They had even displayed a shaky image of what they claimed was one of the SEALs’ ID cards. That appeared to be accurate.
As soon as they determined that they had found two of the missing SEALs, the Rangers called back to Bagram to inform the JOC. Given the altitude and the difficulty of the terrain, the JOC started putting together a High Angle CSAR Team, consisting of 5 PJs and 1 Combat Controller (CCT), to go in and retrieve the bodies.
At 1822Z, the team boarded a MH-47 helicopter and took off from Bagram, heading toward Kunar in the wake of the two Blackhawks that had left less than an hour earlier. Their objective, code-named Objective Thresher, was an LZ from which they would move on foot to link up with the Rangers. They landed at 2113Z, and began the 1.5 kilometer trek to the Rangers’ position.