On June 28, 2005, in one of the bloodiest days in the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the Navy SEALs, SEAL LT Michael Murphy performed heroic actions to save his men at the cost of his life. His conduct resulted in being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Murphy was killed in action while taking part in a kill or capture mission in Afghanistan during Operation Red Wings. He was a member of SEAL Delivery Team Vehicle Team ONE as the commander of Alpha Platoon and had deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Operation Red Wings was a counter-insurgency mission in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Murphy along with SEALs Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, and Marcus Luttrell were to locate and then either kill or capture Afghan top resistance leader, Ahmad Shah (codename Ben Sharmak), who commanded a large group of insurgents west of Asadabad.

Remembering Navy SEAL Michael Murphy Hero of Operation Red Wings
SEALs prior to Operation Red Wings (L to R): Matthew Axelson, Daniel R. Healy, James Suh, Marcus Luttrell, Eric S. Patton, Michael Murphy. (U.S. Navy)

A Portentous Insertion

The team was inserted by helicopter using a fast rope technique. A series of false insertions was performed to throw off any Taliban or insurgent forces in the area.

The crew chief of the MH-47 Chinook helicopter cut the fast rope away as soon as the SEALs inserted. This would leave evidence of a U.S. unit on the ground. Murphy and Axelson did their best to cover the rope with vegetation but the mission was off to an ominous start.

The mountainous area immediately posed problems for the team’s communications. The team had eschewed the more powerful and heavier PRC-117 radio for the lighter PRC-148 MBITR that provided a satellite link back to their headquarters.

Remembering Navy SEAL Michael Murphy Hero of Operation Red Wings
The mountains of Kunar province in Afghanistan. (New York Times)

The team moved to near the summit of Sawtalo Sar. The summit offered good observation of the village, where the target was thought to be located, but little cover and concealment. But just before dawn, a fog rolled in obscuring their view. Murphy decided to find another site and he and Axelson went in search of one.

They returned and moved the team to the new site about 1,000 yards away. It offered better observation for the snipers but was even more exposed. Worse, there was only one way in and out and if compromised, the team would have to shoot its way out.

The team was in position when, around noon, three Afghan goat herders with 100 goats wandered into the SEALs position. They were quickly rounded up and detained. The team sent a message back to their headquarters that they had been “soft compromised” which meant by civilians, not Taliban.

After a short discussion on their options, Murphy decided to cut them loose. “We gotta let them go,” he said according to Luttrell. Once the goat herders disappeared down the mountain, the SEALs gathered their gear and double-timed as quickly as possible back to their original position to continue the mission.

The SEALs Are Compromised

About two hours later, the SEALs heard movement above and to the left of their position. Shah’s men had been alerted and were using the terrain to their advantage to approach. The group consisted of around 40 men armed with AK47s and RPGs.

With the Taliban closing only about 20 yards from their position, the SEALs opened fire. Yet, with superior numbers and the terrain advantage, the insurgents began to flank the vastly outnumbered SEAL team. Dietz had managed to alert Bagram airbase that the team had been hard compromised. This set in motion a rescue force being alerted. But Murphy’s team had no way of knowing if the message had gotten through.

The team was forced to retreat down a steep, rocky slope. They half-slid half-fell down to a rocky ledge where they re-organized. Murphy had been shot in the abdomen; Dietz had had his thumb shot off.

The fire from the insurgents increased and the team leaped to another rocky ledge 30 feet below. Dietz was shot two more times and died. The SEALs were forced to leave him behind. Axelson was shot in the chest and the head.

LT Michael Murphy Sacrifices Himself for His Men

Murphy knew that their situation was desperate. He took out his satellite phone but the signal was blocked. The only way he could make contact was to get out in the open in plain view of the insurgents. Knowing what was going to happen, he moved.

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With bullets peppering the rocks around him, Murphy reached a position above Axelson and Luttrell and manage to get through to Bagram. “My men are taking heavy fire. We’re getting picked apart. My guys are dying out here… we need help.”

Just then a bullet tore through his back and went out his chest causing him to drop the phone. He picked it up and said, “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” Seconds later he died.

An RPG explosion blew Luttrell down the slope. He last saw Axelson using his pistol.

The Rescue Force Is Hit

The rescue force of two MH-47s carrying SEALs was on its way but ran into heavy gunfire. An insurgent fired an RPG that went right in the open rear compartment door of the MH-47 Chinook, causing it to crash into a ravine. All eight SEALs and eight aircrews from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment on board died. Operation Red Wings had become a disaster.

Luttrell was discovered by a friendly villager. Following the centuries-old custom of Pashtunwali, the villager brought Luttrell, who suffering from numerous wounds, to his village where he was protected from the Taliban under the Pashtun code of melmastia. One of the village elders brought a note from Luttrell, describing his plight, to the nearest U.S. base, a Marine encampment.

Five days after the team initially began the mission on July 2, a rescue force of U.S. Army Rangers then rescued Luttrell.

On July 4, 2005, Michael Murphy’s remains were found by a group of American soldiers, during a combat search and rescue operation, and returned to the United States. Nine days later, on July 13, Murphy was buried with full military honors at Calverton National Cemetery, Calverton, New York, less than 20 miles from his childhood home.

Murphy’s parents were awarded his Medal of Honor by President George Bush on October 22, 2007.

There have been numerous places and awards honoring the sacrifice of Murphy. Among them, an Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer (DDG-112) was named the USS Michael Murphy in his honor.

LT Michael Murphy’s heroism and self-sacrifice were portrayed in the films Lone Survivor and Murph the Protector.

Michael Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation

During his speech with Murphy’s parents in attendance, President Bush read Michael Murphy’s Medal of Honor citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life and above and beyond the call of duty as the leader of a special reconnaissance element with Naval Special Warfare task unit Afghanistan on 27 and 28 June 2005.

While leading a mission to locate a high-level anti-coalition militia leader, Lieutenant Murphy demonstrated extraordinary heroism in the face of grave danger in the vicinity of Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. On 28 June 2005, operating in an extremely rugged enemy-controlled area, Lieutenant Murphy’s team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers, who revealed their position to Taliban fighters. As a result, between 30 and 40 enemy fighters besieged his four-member team.

Demonstrating exceptional resolve, Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force. The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team. Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call.

This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom. By his selfless leadership, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”