Chapter 8: Military life

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As a lieutenant who came through Officer's Training School, Murphy was the second-ranking member of his platoon, a unit of up to 44 men.

But you'd never know it from the way he dealt with fellow SEALs.

He shared his home with several SEAL roommates in Hawaii, including one who recalled that Murphy would spend his free time alternating between pulling practical jokes on them and indulging reading tastes that ranged from the Greek historian Herodotus to Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and the political writings of Michael Moore.

His home was where others would drop by after work on Friday nights, before carpooling for beers and laughs at Duke's Waikiki, a popular bar.

Some of them were the same guys who were with Murphy now in the desolation of Afghanistan.

One was Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, 29, a karate expert from Texas, whose back is tattooed with the image of half a Navy SEAL trident. His twin, also a Navy SEAL, wears the other half.

Another was Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz, 25, a communications specialist. He had been married almost two years to a sailor stationed with him in Norfolk, Va. But conflicting deployments had kept him from her for most of that time.

The fourth man on the mountain, Petty Officer Matt Axelson, 29, a sniper from Cupertino, Calif., was known as quiet and cerebral. He once inscribed a photograph given to another SEAL with the words: "But within the willingness to die for family and home, something inside us longs for someone to die beside, someone to lock step with, another man with a heart like our own."

The four men were secreted on the side of Sawtalo Sar, a steep mountain that cradles the Shuraik Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province. The valley is home to Pashtun goat herders and woodcutters, who coax wheat from the rocky soil and who sometimes take money from warlords to shoot at and disclose the whereabouts of U.S. troops.

Axelson had trained as a sniper. Dietz was good with communications equipment. Luttrell was a fourth-degree black belt in karate.

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Because of his rank, but also his warm personality, Murphy was the glue of the group. Other SEALs said his understated and unassuming nature made him accessible, but that when faced with a decision, he took in suggestions, then made it.

The valley floor stretches south from the Pech River and is 5,000 feet above sea level. The mountain above climbs almost a mile higher. At the place where Murphy and his men waited, the slopes are steeper than a stairwell and heavily forested.

The four men had been dropped in darkness the previous night by a helicopter from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Overhead surveillance detected that a large group of heavily armed guerrilla fighters had slipped into Afghanistan from Pakistan through a pass in the Hindu Kush mountains. The numbers indicated to the U.S. military that someone important was being protected.

Ethnic Pashtun tribes are Sunni Muslims who control both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Fierce fighters who have stubbornly resisted outside domination for more than two millennia, they wore down and then ousted the Soviet Army in 1989. Out of their numbers came the Taliban, anti-modern, conservative interpreters of Islam, whose reign of terror turned Afghanistan into both a fundamentalist stronghold and a haven for al-Qaida. The Taliban remains so strong that local barbers balk at cutting mens' beards, afraid of being marked for death for offending the Muslim conservatives.

This region of Afghanistan lies close to the heart of the Islamic extremism that on Sept. 11, 2001 killed 2,997 people in Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington. Since the 1980s, Kunar's mountains have been a stronghold for Arab militants who, under Osama bin Laden, formed al-Qaida. Many analysts who monitor bin Laden say Kunar and its adjacent Afghan and Pakistani regions are likely hiding places for him even now.

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The four SEALs were scouting Ahmad Shah - a man in his mid-30s who grew up in adjacent mountains just to the south. Under the assumed name Muhammad Ismail, Shah leads a guerrilla group known to locals as the "Mountain Tigers" that in recent years he has aligned by turns with the Taliban, Arabs and other militant groups that welcome having a secure toehold in mountains so strategically close to the Pakistani border.

Last September, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told the Times of London that he believed bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan's Kunar Province, near where the four Americans were dropped.

That June day, as the four men waited, they were spotted by a goat herder working his flock through the valley.

 

 

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THE TEAM

LT. MICHAEL MURPHY

Age 29; leader of the `counter-terrorism' operation.

PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS MATTHEW AXELSON

Age 29, from Cupertino, Calif., he reportedly laid down covering fire so a teammate could escape alive. Friends called him "Cool Hand Luke." He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest medal.

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PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DANNY DIETZ

Age 25, from Littleton, Colo., Dietz was mortally wounded but stood his ground against 30 to 40 Taliban militia. He also was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

PETTY OFFICER 1ST CLASS MARCUS LUTTRELL

Age 31, from Willis, Texas, the sole survivor of the operation. Believed to be the "spotter" on the team, he was protected by a Pashtun shepherd, who would not turn him over to angry Taliban fighters.

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