Looking Back

I never knew the men who died on June 28th, 2005, as part of Operation Red Wings, but their loss still moved me greatly. At the time, it was the greatest one-day loss of life in the special operations community. It’s hard to fathom that it was 17 years ago today.

June 25th would have been Matt Axelson’s 46th birthday. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in Afghanistan.

Matt Axelson was, by all accounts, a quiet, thoughtful guy who could have done anything in the world he wanted to. Still, he chose to become a Navy SEAL. Our boss here at SOFREP (and one of Axelson’s SEAL sniper school instructors) referred to him as “a real-life Cool Hand Luke.” Apparently, the tall, good-looking SEAL that everyone called “Axe” bore a strong resemblance to Paul Newman.

In remembering the men of Red Wings, I’m not going to retell the story of that fateful day or discuss the decisions made during that mission. That has already been done in many places by many people. There was a best-selling book and a blockbuster movie; the story has been told and retold. Rather, I’d prefer to show some photos and offer brief remembrances of these brave men, all of whom (with the exception of Marcus Luttrell) died in the service of their country. Had there not been a lone survivor, we would have never known many of the details of what happened that late June day on Sawtalo Sar, high in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Danny Dietz loved his dogs, Nox and Murphy. They were constant companions when he was home. Image Credit: gallery.kingsnake.com

It’s worth noting that Danny Dietz did not meet his end, as shown in the film Lone Survivor. Dietz had been shot numerous times (yet continued to fight), and Luttrell had him in a fireman’s carry trying to bring him down the mountain when he caught that last, fatal round. He was a native of Littleton, Colorado, and was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on 28 June 2005. If you want to learn more about who he was, a book was written about his life. It’s called Danny: The Virtues Within. It’s a good read; Dietz overcame a somewhat rebellious youth to become a SEAL. A gifted artist, he was arrested at one point for spraypainting graffiti before turning his life around.

Medal of Honor recipient (posthumously) Michael P. Murphy. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

LT Micheal P. Murphy led the four-man SEAL recon element of Operation Red Wings. Murph was an honors graduate of Penn State University and had been accepted to law school when he decided to become a SEAL. At first, his father, Dan, a Navy veteran who had been wounded in Vietnam, was against his oldest son’s decision to join the military. He did not want to see him go through the pain and suffering that he did as a result of combat. In time, the elder Murphy came around when Michael explained how it would be far worse for him to spend years behind a desk wondering, “what if?“.

After a lengthy firefight, and when every member of his team had been wounded and needed care, Murphy left his cover and concealment in favor of an area where he could get a clear satellite signal to call in a quick reaction force. Ever the gentleman, even while taking rounds, Murphy was sure to say “thank you” as he ended his last call.

Luttrell, in Afghan garb, as he was rescued. He recalls his concern for being mistaken for the enemy as he approached the rescue helicopter dressed like this. Image Credit: newsweek.com

Marcus Luttrell survived the ordeal and currently lives on a ranch in Texas with his wife Melanie, his son Axe and his daughter Addie. His book about Red Wings is quite an interesting read. As I read it, I recall thinking, “You could make five movies out of this book.” In the end, one film by the same name was made from the book Lone Survivor. The film was never meant to be a documentary, and some have criticized it for being too Hollywood. I think it struck a fair balance in telling the main story while making a marketable film. I chose the term “marketable” over “entertaining” because I don’t consider a film telling the real-life story of how 19 fellow warfighters were killed in a single mission to be entertaining, per se. However, I think the movie did a good job of preserving the memories of those who died.

The Quick Reaction Force

Two MH-47 Chinooks, call signs Turbine 32 and Turbine 33, carried the eight Army Night Stalkers and eight Navy SEALs who responded to Murphy’s call for help. As Turbine 33 was in a hover and about to fast-rope the men aboard to the ground, a surface-to-air missile took it down. The helicopter hit the side of the mountain and killed all aboard. Turbine 32 was taking sustained ground fire at this point and pulled away hard to circle the mountain and look for survivors.