Scattered Clouds 50° Good Afternoon
Scattered Clouds 50° Good Afternoon

Chapter 9: The Tragic End

Since a SEAL's strength is his ability to get in and out unseen, their cover was effectively blown and a decision had to be made.

What should they do about the goat herder? As the team leader, Murphy was forced to make a fateful decision.

If he were allowed to leave, the herder might tell insurgents in the area of their presence, putting their lives in jeopardy. Taking him prisoner would slow their movements and could bring others out to look for him. Aborting their mission would risk the lives of those who would have to come to extract them and possibly allow an important insurgent leader to go free.

Murphy made clear to the others that killing the shepherd, a noncombatant, to ensure his silence was not an option.

"You know what, we are not murderers," he told the three others SEALs. "We're not just going to kill someone."

They would spare the herder and take their chances.

While much of what transpired after the goat herder was allowed to go his way is not known, at about 2 p.m. the four SEALs found themselves all but surrounded by several dozen heavily armed Taliban fighters, whose familiarity with the rugged terrain allowed them to slip in unseen.

The Taliban knew the escape routes, and the paths the SEALs could use to flee the area. All they had to do was choke them off and pin the GIs down. The four Americans were trapped.

Trying to reach safety, the four men began fleeing down the mountain's steep sides, making leaps of 20 to 30 feet. Realizing they were trapped, Dietz, the communications guy, sought open air to place a distress call back to the base. But before he could, he was shot in the hand, the blast shattering his thumb.

Murphy, now desperate to make radio contact for help, then climbed out into the open, exposing himself to enemy gunfire. While making the call, he was hit, though not fatally, by at least one shot. But his words got through to Bagram Air Base.

"Hornets nest," Murphy yelled into the satellite phone.

Then he ran back down to help his three men.

An account written by a U.S. Marine captain and published by the on-line magazine DefenseWatch, said U.S. forces who received the distress call sent a Predator drone mounted with an infrared camera to locate the SEAL team. Images beamed back from the battlefield told commanders that the SEALs were now surrounded. Within minutes, an Army MH-47 helicopter carrying eight SEALs and eight Army commandos was aloft, flying toward the battle scene at 50 feet off the ground and upward of 150 miles per hour.

It was flanked by two attack helicopters, whose job it was to protect the chopper from ground fire. But the attack helicopters, burdened with the weight of armor and ammunition, and laboring in the thin air of the mountain altitudes, fell behind the troop carrier, making it vulnerable to enemy fire.

As the troop carrier approached where the SEALs were trapped, a rocket-propelled explosive fired from the ground slammed into the MH-47's side.

It is not known how many of the SEALs saw their rescuers' chopper explode and crash, killing all 16 aboard - including James Suh, 28, a SEAL from Florida who was Murphy's closest friend.

At some point, Luttrell found himself trapped, only to be saved when Murphy came to his rescue.

Luttrell has told the families of the other SEALs that an explosion blew him farther down the mountain and away from the fighting.

It was the last time he saw the others alive.

In the fighting, an official investigation found, Axelson, Dietz and Murphy suffered multiple gunshot wounds, plus blunt-force injuries incurred as they jumped and tumbled down the ravine. Dietz was hit 16 times, including gunshot wounds to both thighs and both shoulders, his chest, jaw and head. Axelson had been hit with gunfire at least 22 times, including one shot that struck the back of his head. Murphy was hit at least seven times: bullets pierced his arm, leg, abdomen, back and his face below his left eye.

As darkness fell, Luttrell, bleeding from several wounds and apparently unable to communicate with his command, hid from his pursuers. When the sun came up days later, an Afghan shepherd walked out of his mountain home after hearing a strange noise in the woods. He found Luttrell, wounded and scared, and after persuading him that he meant no harm, took him to his home to protect him from his pursuers.

Luttrell had now been saved twice. And, if it was the first herder who betrayed them, it was now a second herder who saved the sole survivor.

Armed gunmen, who videotaped themselves looting watches, weapons, boots and electronic equipment that they say were from the bodies of Axelson, Dietz and Murphy in a scene that was posted on YouTube - came to the village to demand custody of Luttrell. But following their own local code of ethics and tradition, which require villagers to offer sanctuary to anyone who is in danger, whether friend or enemy or stranger, the villagers told the gunmen they'd have to kill all the men in the village before they'd turn the American over.

They later smuggled a note written by Luttrell to U.S. troops stationed at Asadabad across the mountain range.

The tall Texan was now safe.

Within a few days, a Navy chaplain phoned Maureen Murphy in Patchogue to say her son was missing in Afghanistan. The next day, a SEAL who had once been Michael Murphy's commanding officer flew from San Diego to Long Island to wait with the family. He moved into a nearby motel.

Every day he would spend from morning to midnight at the Patchogue house, calling back to San Diego each night to see if there was word. On July 4th, at about 11 p.m., the officer went outside to make his nightly call. This one was different - it lasted much longer than his earlier calls. Inside, Daniel Murphy sensed something was very wrong.

"I saw him coming toward me and I said, 'Is everything okay?' " the father recalled. "He said, 'Mr. Murphy, I'm sorry.' "

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