The Rangers had been scouring the mountains for over a week. The heat and altitude had taken its toll, with more than one Ranger having to be medevaced as a heat casualty, and many more needing to use IVs to recover the fluids they had lost hiking over the mountains with full combat loads. One had earlier been knocked unconscious by a branch broken off by a descending resupply bundle. But no matter how bad the conditions were, and how worn out they were, they kept up the search. That was the mission, and they’d stay until the mission was accomplished.
Having found expended 5.56mm casings left over from the firefight with Ahmad Shah’s fighters, the Rangers knew they were in the right area. Still hoping that the SEALs might be alive, a platoon set up overwatch in a stone house on the mountainside, watching for any sign of the missing SEALs. Others continued combing the mountainside.
Eventually, the Rangers were joined by a team of SEALs, from SEAL Team 10. The Rangers hadn’t known the SEALs were out there, and in fact, the CRO had kept them back at Bagram while they chafed to go out and search for their brothers. He needed them on-site if and when the missing operators were found, to assist in the repatriation and recovery process. Having familiar faces nearby helps the mental recovery of a man who has been cut off and alone behind enemy lines. The CRO needed the SEALs to be ready to help their brothers make the transition back, even more so as the days continued to drag on. He did not know they were out in the AO, and still does not know who gave them the go-ahead to launch to help the search. Even after that long, the lines of communication were still blurred.
The SEALs told the Rangers that he needed their help; they had been informed by a local that, for some money, he would show them where a body was. They needed the Rangers help to provide security and help move the body to where it could be more readily recovered. The Rangers readily agreed, and half the platoon accompanied the SEALs, while the other half remained behind to hold security.
They moved down the mountain and found the body of Matthew Axelson. He had apparently moved some distance away from the fight before he died, in spite of his wounds.
The SEALs insisted that they would carry Axe’s body. He was their brother, it was only fitting. They got him out of the more mountainous terrain to where a helicopter could come pick them up.
The Rangers suffered some loss of morale at that point, as the only one of the SEALs they had found was dead. Some of them did not know that Murphy’s and Dietz’s bodies had been picked up already, and still held out some hope that the SEALs were still alive and hiding in the mountains. Finding Axelson’s body took away some of that hope. Not long after, they were told about the earlier recoveries, and that the mission was over.
The HH-60s departed Bagram at 1715Z, and reached the LZ at 1845Z. This pickup was much simpler than the effort to extract Murphy’s and Dietz’s remains, and went without incident. By 2015Z, the helos were back at Bagram.
The helicopter carrying Axelson’s body taxied to 100 yards from the Mortuary Affairs building on Bagram Air Field, as was standard. Again, the CRO met the bird, and lent a hand to carrying Axelson’s body to the morgue, just as he had with Murphy and Dietz. The crew had, once again, brought an American flag to drape the body bag.
Still under threat from Taliban indirect fire, Bagram’s runway lights were kept dim, only actually illuminating a small area. As the CRO and the SEALs carried Axelson’s body to the morgue, figures loomed out of the dark.
SOF personnel had lined the 100 yards between the aircraft and the morgue. Most were invisible in the darkness until the bearers were right on top of them. As the body passed, each man came to attention and saluted, before disappearing back in the dark as the body moved toward Mortuary Affairs.
This show of respect hadn’t happened before, it only occurred when Axelson returned. In a way, it was a note of closure. The CRO would later say, “It almost made me feel as if a higher power was saying, ‘Welcome home, it’s over.’”