This article is based on scores of interviews in the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with official records, military and media reports.

To flesh out the story of the four U.S. Navy SEALs who were sent to Afghanistan to track a reputed terror leader, reporter Martin C. Evans spoke with U.S. Navy officials, family members and military colleagues of the four men.

He also spoke with Navy officials about SEAL training, and with other military officials about conditions in eastern Afghanistan where the four SEALs were sent on their mission.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, reporter James Rupert spoke with experts on the fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. military officials, and the shepherd who rescued the lone survivor of a gun battle that took the lives of three of the SEALs.

On a June afternoon in 2005, Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy lay in hiding on the side of a ridge in the lawless eastern mountains of Afghanistan.

He carried little with him in the thin alpine air near Pakistan's border. A rifle. Clips of ammunition. Sophisticated communications and surveillance equipment. Some high-energy food. And, sewn onto his uniform, a red shoulder patch honoring a New York City firehouse in East Harlem.

Three years, 9 months and 17 days had passed since Sept. 11, 2001. The region surrounding the mountain where Murphy and his men waited was the hiding place of those who masterminded the attacks. On this summer day, 29-year-old Murphy was far from the comfortable Patchogue home where he was raised to look out for others.

There were three U.S. commandos hiding with him on that mountain, all, like him, members of one of the most elite and secretive units in the U.S. military, the Navy SEALs. A tall Texan who was a karate expert, and whose brother and father were SEALs. A scratch golfer from Northern California known as "a perfect sniper." And a communications expert from Colorado who was so determined to be a SEAL he enlisted three weeks out of high school.

They had only each other to rely on; help was miles away, if it could get there at all at elevations soaring to 10,000 feet.

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The mission Murphy and his men were assigned was a daunting one. A high-ranking jihadist leader, identified by the Naval Special Warfare Command as Ahmad Shah, was thought to be in the area, guarded by scores of heavily armed Taliban fighters.

The mountain's deep, rocky ravines and steep, forested sides gave the terror leader perfect cover. Sending a noisy force of several hundred soldiers would be pointless. It would be too easy for the target to meld into the local population, or to disappear along any of dozens of unmapped trails that would take him back over the Pakistan border.

So it was up to Murphy and the three other SEALS to secret themselves on the mountain, quietly identify their target, then capture or kill him. That was their mission. They counted on stealth and skill to protect them, knowing that numbers would not.

In war, the most highly trained soldiers often find themselves in impossible situations. Murphy's predicament was not unlike the one his father had found himself in decades earlier, when, as a young soldier, he fought and was wounded on a mountaintop in Vietnam.

For Murphy, the actions he took on the mountain have placed him in consideration, posthumously, for the Medal of Honor - the United States' highest military award.

As he and his men watched and waited on the mountain, an Afghan shepherd trailing a herd of goats chanced across their path. No words were spoken as they stared at one another. Their cover blown, Murphy faced the hardest decision of his life.

What to do about the shepherd?