Ringed by razor-wire barriers, Asadabad is a lonely U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan. In June 2005, it was home to the U.S. Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd regiment. The Taliban had welcomed them with a rain of rocket attacks. Every day and night, the base was rocked by mortars and probed with sniper shots. No wonder the Marines called it "A-bad."
To rid themselves of Taliban forces in the area, led by a warlord named Ahmed Shah, the Marines put together Operation Red Wings, then called on the Navy SEALs based near Kabul.
That fateful call set in motion the bloodiest battle in the 45-year history of the SEALs, the largest air search-and-rescue mission since the Vietnam War, and yielded the first Medal of Honor for a SEAL in the war on terrorism.
Senior Crew Chief Dan Healy was in charge of planning the SEAL component of Operation Red Wings. A legend among SEALs in Hawaii and California, Healy was a few months into his first deployment in Afghanistan. Working out of a cubicle choked with maps and intelligence reports, he became obsessed with finding the Taliban warlord killing Marines in A-bad.
On the morning of June 27, Healy called together four members of SEAL Team 10: communications officer Dan Dietz, sniper Matthew Axelson, medic Marcus Luttrell and Lt. Michael Murphy, the unit's commanding officer.
Raised in Littleton, Colo., Dietz had recently married his wife, Maria. She went by the nickname "Patsy" and was madly in love with Dan. As a youngster, Dietz wanted to be a ninja until he found out it wasn't really a profession. After becoming a SEAL, he slept through his alarm one morning. As Dietz rushed in late for duty, he impressed everyone with his abject apology and even volunteered his own punishment.
Matthew Axelson was the sniper. "Axe," as the team called him, was a quiet high achiever whose family lived off an equally quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Cupertino, Calif. His plan was to serve his country until he turned 25 and then become a schoolteacher in Chico. His wife, Cindy, was impressed by his humility. When people asked Axelson what he did, he would just say he was "in the Navy." Besides golf, good beer and California, Axelson loved being a SEAL.
From the small ranch town of Willis, Texas, medic Marcus Luttrell had trained since he was 15 to join the SEALs. He ran for hours with concrete blocks on both shoulders. He and his twin brother, Morgan, both dreamed of becoming SEALs, and they both made it. Later, the twins commissioned a special tattoo: each would have half of the SEAL trident tattooed on his back.
Lt. Michael Murphy, the team's commander, hailed from Patchogue, N.Y. He stitched a patch from the New York City Fire Department inside his uniform. He proposed to his fiancée, Heather Duggan, under the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 2003. The couple planned to marry as soon as he returned from Afghanistan.
The plan was simple. A helicopter would drop off the SEAL team a few miles from a village where the warlord Shah had been sighted from the air. They would rope down and find a concealed position. If they spotted Shah, they would radio "eyes on target" and an 80-man force would swoop in to capture or kill him.
With their weapons and gear, the four SEALs boarded a U.S. Army 160th Special Aviation helicopter, and it thundered off toward the drop zone: a field of waist-high grass and rotting stumps. The men slid down ropes from the hovering chopper, then waited in frozen silence for 15 long minutes, listening for enemy movement. They heard only wind and the rattle of tree branches.
As a storm moved in, the SEALs lined up and hiked into the tree line. Using a special GPS, they found their way to a rocky nook overlooking the sleeping village. Then storm winds pushed in a thick, gravy-like fog that cut off the team's view of the village. They had to move - a dangerous decision so close to a Taliban stronghold.
Murphy found a finger of rock that looked down on the target - a perfect observation post, but a risky one. If they were attacked from behind, they could be trapped. Still, they settled in, hiding under brush and fallen trees. Shortly after dawn, the SEALs heard an eerie noise, a sort of tinkling sound that grew louder. Goats. Hundreds of them, with bells around their necks, flooded down the slope. Then came the shepherds, two greybeards and a boy, driving the flock right into the SEALs. In a flash, Murphy and his men captured them.
Now came a painful choice. Shepherds often spy for the Taliban. The team briefly considered shooting them, but they decided against it. "We are not murderers," Murphy said. He ordered the prisoners to be released.
As soon as the shepherds were gone, the SEALs ran over rocks and stumps, scaling the slope to their old location. They had to find a defensive position before the enemy found them.
The Taliban were not long in coming. Initial intelligence reports put Shah's forces at 80 fighters, but some 200 Taliban appeared on the ridges above them. The enemy held the high ground and started flanking the SEAL team on both sides; they were about to be surrounded.
Luttrell began firing, followed quickly by Axelson and Dietz. Excellent marksmen, the men started dropping the turbaned fighters. Still, they were outnumbered 50 to one. Wood splintered all around them as the Taliban sprayed AK-47 fire. The SEALs couldn't hold out for long. The radio only spoke static. They couldn't phone home.
Murphy ordered them to retreat down the hill, gaining distance and time. But the Taliban pursued their prey relentlessly.
In a singular act of bravery, Dietz volunteered to climb to a nearby slope to get a radio signal out of the narrow, jagged valley. He ran up a parallel steep slope as bullets made the dirt jump behind his steps. At the top, he frantically worked the radio. A stray shot took off his right thumb. More bullets pulverized the radio. Most likely, Dietz took at least two shots as he scrambled down the mountain to rejoin the team. Without medical treatment, he would die within an hour. Still, he kept firing at the ever-closer enemy.
Without an air rescue, or close-air support from a plane, the SEAL team would die. The radio was gone, but Murphy had his cell phone. Stepping out of cover, the lieutenant walked into the open for a clear signal. He knew the enemy only needed seconds to target him. Murphy punched in the number for the SEAL command post at Bagram Air Base, and managed to report their dire situation right before a bullet tore his right side. Help was on the way. Somehow, he summoned the strength to respond, "Roger that, sir. Thank you." As Murphy staggered back to his men, bullets rained down on him. Bleeding and dying, he had given his men a chance.
No matter the pain, the SEALs had to keep moving and shooting. They scrambled and stumbled down the hills, stopping only to fire back at their pursuers. It would take almost an hour for help to arrive - an eternity in battle. Would their ammunition and luck hold?
Back at Bagram, Lt. Cmdr. Michael McGreevy instantly approved a daylight rescue, though standard procedure was to fly helicopters only at night, when they were less vulnerable to ground fire. No one disagreed with his decision. They knew the stakes. He burst out of the SEAL command, almost bowling someone over. "They're in a TIC!" McGreevy yelled - "troops in contact," or a battle to the death.
McGreevy ran into the barracks to round up any SEALs or Night Stalkers (elite Army units) he could find. The men sprang into action, grabbing gear and guns while running for the door. Onboard trucks heading for the airfield, sergeants divided men into "chalks," and Healy counted heads. The posse was coming. Rotors already turned on the lead helicopter as the men clambered onboard. Healy said to a nearby enlisted SEAL, "Get off. I outrank you." Friends say it was typical Healy. He was taking charge, consumed with saving the lives of his men.
Four helicopters beat into the sky, climbing at top speed. Less than 20 minutes later, the pilot had bad news. The two Black Hawks, including Healy's, were too heavy to vault over the peaks of Afghanistan's eastern Konar province. As precious minutes ticked past, the choppers diverted to Jalalabad, where 16 men were ordered off the Black Hawks. With more than 10 minutes lost, the two helicopters decided to outrun their slower, armored escorts. Contact with the trapped SEAL team had been lost. There was no time to spare.
Soon, they were in the landing zone. The lead chopper moved into position, and the SEALs and Night Stalkers stood up to rope down from the helicopter. No one saw the two-man Taliban crew load a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. In less than a second, the grenade found its mark and a fireball erupted inside the helicopter.
The SEALs onboard the second Black Hawk were horrified to see the lead chopper explode, tilt its nose upward and spill men to the ground. The remaining air crew, belted in, were trapped inside a flaming comet, plunging down into a boulder-choked ravine. Healy, McGreevy and a dozen others were gone.
Inside the second helicopter, the SEALs desperately wanted to land and make the enemy pay. But the radio gave different orders: leave now. No one had to explain. They had lost one aircraft and 16 men, and weren't going to lose another. Full of silent, angry and sad men, the second helicopter flew home.
As night fell, the SEALs planned another rescue mission for their comrades. Survivors would be saved and the fallen would be taken home with honor. The agonizing mystery: no one knew the fate of the men on the ground.
Gloating, Ahmed Shah phoned The News, a daily in Islamabad, Pakistan. He said his men had killed five commandos and brought down a helicopter. He would release a video soon. The news reached the United States the morning of June 29. No names were released. As the rest of the country prepared for July Fourth weekend, several frantic families waited for news of their loved ones.
Back in Asadabad, rescue teams had landed and were marching toward the crash site and the ground team's last known position. Nearly every type of U.S. Special Forces - Rangers, Night Stalkers, SEALs - joined the mission. Afghan Special Forces provided translators and guides. Overhead, Navy and Air Force planes filled the sky, searching for the missing Americans and pounding enemy positions. The cavalry had come.
On the ground, Luttrell climbed through the brush. Alone and burning with thirst, he had spent the night hiding in a shallow cave as Taliban footsteps crunched around him. He had no way to contact the Americans flying overhead. If he showed himself, the Taliban would shoot him before they could land.
Dizzy and blurry-eyed, Luttrell collapsed on a mountain trail. He stirred as a shadow covered him. He looked up at a bearded shepherd. The man gave him a thumbs-up sign. Should he trust him? Could he? Luttrell snatched a hand grenade off his vest and pulled the pin. Only the Texan's thumb prevented the explosion. Undaunted, the man helped Luttrell to his feet. Together, they lurched toward the village of Sabray, where Luttrell was deposited on a heap of cushions in a stone hut.
Under heavy fire, rescuers scoured the battlefield. Within two days, they found Dietz. His autopsy report later revealed he had 16 mortal wounds and many others. He had died fighting, killing at least a score of Taliban. Nearby, they found Murphy. Riddled with bullets, he, too, had died a warrior.
As the search went on, the Taliban seemed to hide behind every tree, squeezing off a few shots and running. But they were being beaten back. The Americans had arrived in force.
All the men lost on the helicopter were recovered by July 3. Their bodies were respectfully prepared for transport to the United States, as the search continued for Axelson and Luttrell. Could they still be alive?
On July 4, in Willis, Texas, the phone rang. Holly Luttrell answered it, fearing the worst. She listened intently and then told her friends the good news: her husband was alive. One friend, Lt. J.J. Jones, ran into the yard, asking the crowd of relatives, neighbors and SEALs to be quiet. Then he shouted, "They got him, guys! Marcus has been rescued!"
Luttrell was taken to safety by helicopter, then flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for emergency medical treatment.
Still, the SEALs kept searching for Axelson. They found him July 10, among fallen timber. His distance from the other SEALs indicated that he had kept fighting, alone, for perhaps an hour. The Taliban found him incredibly difficult to kill.
Operation Red Wings and the rescue effort broke the back of the Taliban in Afghanistan's eastern Konar province.
In August 2005, the Marines launched Operation Whalers to destroy Taliban remnants. The 18-day campaign of mountain battles drove the last of Shah's men into Pakistan. As a result of the sacrifice made by the SEALs, Night Stalkers, Rangers and Marines, the people of Konar province were able to vote in that September's parliamentary elections - the first elections in decades.
Shah reportedly died in Pakistan in 2006, in a shoot-out with a villager.
Luttrell, Dietz and Axelson received the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest decoration for valor. A memorial for Healy was conducted in Exeter, N.H., on July 17, which would have been his 37th birthday; the funeral procession was a mile long.
In a White House ceremony last October, President Bush awarded Murphy the Medal of Honor; his parents tearfully accepted it on his behalf. On Nov. 27, Murphy's grave at Calverton National Cemetery in New York received a special Medal of Honor headstone.
These brave men who lost their lives will not be forgotten.
Richard Miniter is the author of two New York Times best-selling books, "Losing bin Laden" and "Shadow War." He is an internationally recognized expert on terrorism.
Murphy's Medal of Honor
In a White House ceremony last October, President Bush presented a Medal of Honor posthumously to the grieving parents of Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy. The 29-year-old officer died June 28, 2005, during combat operations in Afghanistan. He was the fourth Navy SEAL to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the first since the Vietnam War, and the first U.S. servicemember in Afghanistan to receive the nation's highest award for heroism. In a private meeting before the ceremony, Dan and Maureen Murphy gave the president a gold dog tag as a tribute to their son. Murphy is buried at Calverton National Cemetery in New York.
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life 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, Konar 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, courageous actions, and extraordinary devotion to duty, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."