The following script is from "Survivor" which aired on Dec. 8, 2013. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Tom Anderson and Michelle St. John, producers.
One of the most extraordinary stories of bravery to emerge from the war in Afghanistan began when a four-man Navy SEAL team found themselves badly outnumbered in a long and vicious firefight.
Only one of the SEALs survived. His name is Marcus Luttrell, and tonight you'll hear his account of a mission that went horribly wrong after he says his unit was surprised by -- of all things -- some goat herders and their goats.Marcus Luttrell's three SEAL team mates weren't the only American casualties in the battle. A chopper with 16 other Special Operations forces that had rushed to help Luttrell and his team was shot out of the sky. Everyone on board was killed.
At the time, in June 2005, it was the largest loss of life in one day for Naval Special Warfare since World War II. A former commander of Marcus Luttrell's, retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire, told us no SEAL will ever forget that terrible day.
Anderson Cooper: Was that the toughest day for you as a Special Forces commander?
Joe Maguire: Yes. You know, most people of my generation, they ask the question, you know, do you remember when Kennedy was shot? Well I remember that as well, but a much more moving day for me and one that's more defining is the 28th of June, 2005, when that helicopter was shot down and three of my men were killed on the ground.
Nineteen men lost their lives. Vice Admiral Joe Maguire was head of SEAL training at the time.
Joe Maguire: You would have to go back to World War II to have had one day where we experienced that many casualties at one time.
"You know, most people of my generation, they ask the question....do you remember when Kennedy was shot? Well I remember that as well,
but a much more moving day for me and one that's more defining is the 28th of
June, 2005, when that helicopter was shot down and three of my men were killed
on the ground."
Maguire says the entire SEAL community was devastated. It’s a community Marcus Luttrell and his twin brother decided they wanted to be part of when they were still teenagers.
Marcus Luttrell: He had it in his head that he was-- this is what we were gonna do. He was like, "It's gonna be great, man. We get to jump outta airplanes, we can shoot guns and blow stuff up. We get to scuba dive. And there's an 80 percent chance we're gonna die." And I was like, "Well, sign me up, man."
Marcus Luttrell became a SEAL at the age of 25 and says receiving the Special Warfare insignia was the proudest accomplishment of his life.
Anderson Cooper: Do you remember when you got the trident put on your chest?
Marcus Luttrell: Absolutely. February 2nd, 2001.
Anderson Cooper: You remember the date.
Marcus Luttrell: Like it was my birthday.
Out of 86 people who started out in his SEAL training class…only 20 graduated. It’s that sort of rigorous training that Vice Admiral Maguire says prepares SEALs for the kind of firefight Marcus Luttrell found himself facing in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
Joe Maguire: These are just you know unremarkable men who do absolutely remarkable things. They’re warriors. It’s a warrior class. It’s a warrior spirit. And they are extremely talented individuals and, you know, there’s this story that’s come to light because Marcus survived and Marcus feels like he survived in order to tell the story.
On June 28, 2005, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, a sniper and team medic, wasn’t sure he was going to survive. He was badly wounded and didn’t know anyone was trying to rescue him.
Marcus Luttrell: My back was broke, I had a frag laying everywhere. I just crawled into this rock embankment, started taking dirt and putting it in all my wounds so I wouldn't bleed to death.
Anderson Cooper: So you had no medical gear?
Marcus Luttrell: Uh-uh.
Anderson Cooper: Did you have a map?
Marcus Luttrell: It was all gone.
Anderson Cooper: Did you have a compass?
Marcus Luttrell: Gone.
Anderson Cooper: Did you have--
Marcus Luttrell: I didn't even have pants on.
Anderson Cooper: You had no pants?
Marcus Luttrell: No, that was completely ripped off me.
Luttrell had been fighting for hours. His three SEAL brothers were all dead or near death. Petty Officer Danny Dietz, from Littleton, Colo., had been in charge of communications. Matt Axelson, Axe for short, was from Cupertino, Calif. Like Luttrell, he was a petty officer and a sniper. Lieutenant Mike Murphy was the team leader. They were part of a larger mission called Operation Red Wings. Their job was to locate this man whom the four SEALs had only seen in grainy photographs. He was an elusive militia leader aligned with the Taliban named Ahmad Shah.
Anderson Cooper: Who was Ahmad Shah?
Marcus Luttrell: He had a group that he ran called the Mountain Tigers. He was creating all kinds of havoc out there in that particular region that he was in, killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.
Luttrell was based at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, and says his team had no idea exactly how many fighters Ahmad Shah had with him.
Marcus Luttrell: So I remember telling the guys, you know, "Grab some extra rounds, we might need 'em."
It was pitch black when Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, Matt Axelson and the team leader Mike Murphy were dropped by chopper a couple miles from where Ahmad Shah was believed to be located. Luttrell says they hiked for hours through snowy, steep and treacherous terrain. As daylight came the four SEALs lay down and concealed themselves on the mountainside so they wouldn’t be detected. That’s when everything went wrong. Suddenly they were surprised. Not by gunmen, but by a goat herder.
Marcus Luttrell: I was laying next to a tree, probably 60 feet long. And-- he had come walking down it. And then when we jumped off of it, he jumped right off of it, right over the top of my gun.
Anderson Cooper: He didn’t see you at all?
Marcus Luttrell: He had no idea I was there. And I had no idea he was above me.
Anderson Cooper: Did he say anything?
Marcus Luttrell: Nothing, not one word. Just a look, that's all-- that's all he would do was just look at us. And I know that sounds funny, but there's a way some-- somebody's gonna look at you when you cut 'em off in traffic or something like that and they're mad at you or whatnot. And then there's a way someone's gonna look at you when they wanna kill you. And when it happens to you, you'll never forget it.
Two more herders showed up along with about 70 goats. The SEALs’ mission was compromised.
Marcus Luttrell: You hear the bells jingling and they just come up over every side of it.
Anderson Cooper: Goats?
Marcus Luttrell: Goats, yeah.
Danny Dietz tried to call back to base for instructions but couldn’t get through on their radio. The team had to decide on their own what to do with the goat herders.
Anderson Cooper: Run through the options that you-- that you talked about.
Marcus Luttrell: We talked about zip tying 'em, zip tying the goats, zip tying 'em and taking 'em taking 'em with us or zip tying 'em and leaving 'em. Zip tying the goats s-- or just executing the goats. We talked about zip tying and eliminating the threat, the human threat.
Anderson Cooper: You talked about killing them.
Marcus Luttrell: Yes. And then the last one was turn 'em loose.
U.S. military personnel are required to operate under formal Rules of Engagement that specify when deadly force can be used. “A commander has the authority and obligation to use all necessary means available – the rules say -- … to defend (his) unit from a hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent.” But the goat herders who’d surprised the team were unarmed.
Marcus Luttrell: We knew that they hated us and that they weren’t on our side and if they had the chance that they would like to see us dead. That’s the feeling we were getting.
Anderson Cooper: And you had every reason to believe if you let these guys go, they’re gonna run down the mountain and tell…
Marcus Luttrell: Right, but you can’t justify that feeling to our superiors in a court of law.
The SEAL’s knew that other U.S. military personnel had been court-martialed and imprisoned for violating the rules of engagement
Anderson Cooper: So you were concerned that if you killed them, you would be charged with murder.
Marcus Luttrell: Yes, absolutely.
Anderson Cooper: That's something you talked about that.
Marcus Luttrell: Absolutely.
Joe Maguire: Killing them was really not an option because they were noncombatants and they were unarmed…
Retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire says the only options the SEALs really had were to take the goat herders captive and try to get evacuated by helicopter or let them go.
Joe Maguire: You don’t shoot innocent people, you don’t shoot unarmed people unless of course they pose a threat.
Anderson Cooper: Even if those goatherders are going to rundown to the village and compromise your location?
Joe Maguire: That’s correct. You know you don’t kill innocent people
Luttrell told us the unit discussed what to do and were divided. In the past he’s been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.
Anderson Cooper: What did Mike finally decide to do?
Marcus Luttrell: Oh, we cut 'em loose.
Anderson Cooper: What was the feeling you had when you let them go?
Marcus Luttrell: I got that sinking feeling in my stomach, I’m like, “This is bad,” everybody did.
Anderson Cooper: A couple times you said looking back on it you wished you had made a different decision, you wished you'd killed them. Do you still believe that?
Marcus Lutrell: Sure, if it got my friends back. I mean, who knows what the outcome would of been. You can't-- Yes. I wish I would have is the answer to your question.
Luttrell says it was only about an hour after they freed the goat herders that the first enemy fighters appeared. They were on a ridge on this mountainside above where the SEALs had dug in.
Marcus Luttrell: We had to break out our shovels and use our boots and actually build these little shelves to stand in. And when we were done we’d lean back against the mountain like this. The first guy I saw had an RPG over each shoulder and an AK-47 and then there was about 30 or 40 guys in line with him.
Anderson Cooper: Had they seen you?
Marcus Luttrell: Not yet. And my rifle was right here, I just cradled it, I rolled up my head like this and I shot him in the head. The game was on right then.
According to Luttrell, Ahmad Shah’s forces moved in to outflank the SEALs. We obtained this video, recorded by enemy forces, from an American writer and photographer with military sources. The date stamp and other scenes that are too gruesome to show you indicate it was recorded the day of the fighting.
This is how the firefight is portrayed in a new film called "Lone Survivor" which opens later this month. It’s based on a book Marcus Luttrell wrote. It’s a Hollywood movie, not a documentary, but Luttrell and other former SEALs consulted on the film and Luttrell says it captures the intensity of the battle. The enemy fire was continuous. AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades. Luttrell says when the rounds started coming in from both sides, it broke the SEALs’ position.
Marcus Luttrell: And that shelf that I had made crumbled and fell apart and just, it was like somebody opened up a trapdoor underneath me. I just fell. And I started tumbling. And then I hit Mikey, and I busted him right off of his little perch he was on. And we just both started pinballing in those trees.
Anderson Cooper: You're basically tumbling down the mountain.
Marcus Luttrell: Yes, sir. Yeah, I landed on my back and broke my back, and Mikey landed on his face and crushed his face.
Luttrell says the four SEALs continued to fire on the advancing fighters, but repeatedly fell or were forced to jump down the mountain.
Marcus Luttrell: Every time you fell you broke something. I mean about an hour and a half into this, Danny’s been shot three times that I know of. I was dragging him, sit him up, he'd-- we'd fight for a little while, we'd got shot outta there, I'd drag him somewhere else.
Anderson Cooper: Even after Danny was shot multiple times and you’re dragging him he was still firing?
Marcus Luttrell: Yes sir, as best as he could. We got to an area where I was telling him there was another way we could fall and when I put my arms underneath him, I put 'em underneath his shoulders, and when I spun him around to take the fall, I spun him into a bullet. And it hit him in the back of the head and killed him.
Danny Dietz was the first SEAL to die. Now it was just Luttrell, Matt Axelson, and Mike Murphy left alive.
Marcus Luttrell: I caught up with Mikey. And he asked me where Danny was and I was like, "He’s dead." Well we tried to go get him. But once you fell a certain distance, you couldn’t get back up the way you came, it was too steep. It just wasn’t working.
Anderson Cooper: What happened then?
Marcus Luttrell: Axe walked out from behind the rock I was firing on. I almost shot him. He sat down Indian style, against my left hip and leaned against my right leg. He goes “I'm sorry, bro, I can't help you because I'm blind." He goes, "They shot me in the face."
Luttrell says the SEALs were surrounded. They hadn’t gotten through on the radio, so he says Lieutenant Mike Murphy, decided to move to a completely exposed position so he could get a signal on his satellite phone and call for back up.
Marcus Luttrell: Mikey was out, had pushed out onto this boulder out in the middle of the draw, it’s wide open, no cover, no nothing. He was on our satellite phone.
Luttrell saw his lieutenant make the call, a call Mike Murphy knew would likely cost him his life.
Marcus Luttrell: He took two rounds to the chest 'cause he spun like a top and it dropped him. And I tried to wait-- I made my way up to him. And he's my best friend. And I'd already lost Danny, and I knew that Axe was dyin', and I didn't wanna lose him. And then he started to crawl left. And I was out in the open, waving my hands. I was like, "Just come down to me." That's all I wanted him to do, was just come down to me. And-- I heard his gun go off. And a lotta gun fire in his area. I was trying with everything I had to get to him, and he-- he started screaming my name. He was like, "Marcus, man, you gotta help me. I need help, Marcus." That it got so intense that I actually put my weapon down and covered my ears, 'cause I couldn't stand to hear him die. All I wanted him to do was stop screaming my name. And-- they killed him. And I-- and I put my weapon down in a gunfight while my best friend was getting killed, so that pretty much makes me a coward.
Anderson Cooper: How can you say that?
Marcus Luttrell: Say what?
Anderson Cooper: Why do you-- why do you think that?
Marcus Luttrell: Why do I think what?
Anderson Cooper: That putting your weapon down makes you a coward?
Marcus Luttrell: Because that is a cowardice act, if you put your weapon down in a gunfight. You know, they-- they-- they say every man has his breaking point. I never thought I'd find mine. The only way you break a Navy SEAL is you have to kill us. But I broke right there. I quit right there.
Still, Marcus Luttrell says he managed to pick up his weapon and found Matt Axelson, the only other SEAL left alive.
Marcus Luttrell: He was below me. And he crawled underneath this rock overhang and I crawled in there, I was looking, I was like, “We’re gonna die, man. We’re going to die right now.
Anderson Cooper: You said that to Axe?
Marcus Luttrell: Uh. And I you know, I made peace with God a long time ago about dying. But most of the time we don’t know when we’re gonna die, they just shut our light off. And it’s a weird feeling when you know the reaper’s at the door.
Matt Axelson was badly wounded, but Luttrell, the team medic, said there was nothing he could do.
Marcus Luttrell: And a RPG hit behind him and blew him on top of me. I just remember how loud it was and how white it went and when I pushed him off of me another one hit and blew us out of there and blew him one way and blew me another. I never saw him again for the rest of my life.
"I made peace with God a long time ago about dying.
But most of the time we don’t know when we’re gonna die, they just shut our
light off. And it’s a weird feeling when you know the reaper’s at the door."
Marcus Luttrell says he isn’t sure how many hours they’d been fighting, but as darkness fell, he was all alone.
Anderson Cooper: How'd you get through that night?
Marcus Luttrell: It was rough. That was the longest night of my life 'cause the sun had gone down. It was dark. It was pitch black. I was-- I-- you know, I'd fall. I'd knock myself out. I'd come to, I’d keep crawling. That’s just what I kept doing.
The next day, he was desperate. Still pursued by enemy fighters, he had been shot twice in his legs. He had three cracked vertebrae, and was bleeding profusely, but he says his biggest concern was finding water to drink.
Anderson Cooper: People wouldn't consider thirst as being a big deal. But it-- it-- it becomes all you can think about after awhile.
Marcus Luttrell: That’s it. It was the only thing I could concentrate on. It was the only thing I could think about. And not even my wounds. Any-- all the wounds I had sustained, my back, my broken b-- all the-- nothing. All I cared about was the thirst. That was it. I was willing to kill anybody or anything or do whatever I had to do to get water.
He says when he finally found water, he didn’t get to drink for long. He was suddenly surrounded by a small group of Afghan men.
Marcus Luttrell: And I found a waterfall. And I managed to get to the top of it. I took my gloves off, washed my face. I leaned into the water fountain and got two sips out of it before some guy was screaming at me again. And two guys with guns were maneuvering around on me. I have my gun at my hip, tension outta my trigger, my safety was off.
Anderson Cooper: You had a grenade too.
Marcus Luttrell: Uh-huh, when he was walking towards me, I pulled it and I pulled the pin out and I said, you know, if you try anything, I’ll kill all of us. I don’t care. I’ve had enough.
It was the second time in the mission Marcus Luttrell had to decide: were the men in front of him civilians or enemy fighters?
Luttrell also didn’t know that an American rescue operation had already been mounted and had gone terribly wrong.
Both those stories when we come back.
Some 36 hours after his four-man Navy SEAL team was dropped into enemy territory in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, Marcus Luttrell says he was all alone. He didn't know that Special Operations Forces had attempted a rescue operation, but that mission had ended in tragedy, when one of the choppers was blown up with 16 people on board. Luttrell was badly wounded. He had been shot twice, several vertebrae were cracked, and he had shrapnel wounds in his legs. At least two of his SEAL teammates were dead, the third had been shot multiple times and was missing. Desperately thirsty, pursued by enemy fighters, Marcus Luttrell says he had just found some water to drink when he was surprised by several Afghan men, who he at first thought were members of the Taliban.
Marcus Luttrell: When I got to that waterfall and got those two sips out of there I looked around I was actually thinking this is a pretty good place to lay down and die.
Anderson Cooper: You were ready to die?
Marcus Luttrell: I wasn’t ready to die. I just knew I was dying.
That’s when an Afghan man appeared. Luttrell later learned his name was Mohammad Gulab.
Marcus Luttrell: He came up over this rock ledge and started screaming at me “American, American” and I swung around on him, I mean I had my finger on the trigger, tension out, safety off, and he started walking at me, and he was like “OK, OK” and he lifted up his shirt to show me he didn’t have a weapon. He was like "OK,OK." I lowered my weapon and I pulled a grenade and pulled the pin and I was saying,” I’ll kill all of us.”
Anderson Cooper: You were prepared to blow yourself up along with everybody else?
Marcus Luttrell: Yes. I wasn’t going to get taken.
Anderson Cooper: Why do you think you didn’t kill him?
Marcus Luttrell: I can’t tell ya. I don’t know why.
Luckily for Luttrell, Mohammad Gulab who lived in a nearby village was not a member of the Taliban.
Marcus Luttrell: He gave me water, and then he rolled me over and he had seen where I had been shot, and I was bleeding real bad. Three other guys plus him picked me up and started carrying me down to their village.
SEAL commanders didn’t know what had happened to Marcus Luttrell and his three teammates. Petty Officer Danny Dietz was dead. Petty Officer Matt Axelson had been gravely wounded and was separated from Luttrell. Lieutenant Mike Murphy had been killed after making a satellite phone call for help. Retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire told us how much he admires Murphy for making that call.
Joe Maguire: They are in a life and death situation. He’s been shot Matt’s been shot Danny’s been shot. He finished the call. And at the end he said we could really use your help. We said help is on the way. Mike finished the call with, "Thank you."
Anderson Cooper: Even though, I mean…
Joe Maguire: "Thank you," yeah, he went out there and he gave above and beyond to do that.
Anderson Cooper: And he knew, going out on that rock, what that meant –
Joe Maguire: He probably wouldn’t have come back.
As a result of the call, two Chinook helicopters like these with Special Operations Forces on board raced to the mountainside where the four SEALs had been fighting. The Chinooks went in without the Apache gunships that usually provide cover.
Joe Maguire: It was the pilots and the task unit commander that made a conscious decision that "OK, we're going to press and we’re going to get there because we have to make a difference." To me when people ask what would you say would be-- would sum up you know the greatest mistake in military operations, to me it’s just a simple two words, too late.
As portrayed in the new movie "Lone Survivor," one of the Chinooks was hovering to offload Special Forces. That’s when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into it. All Special Operations Forces on board - eight SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers were killed.
Joe Maguire: It hit hard, and you know we lost all souls on board.
Marcus Luttrell likely wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for Mohammad Gulab. He ended up in his village for four days, being moved between different houses and even a cave to prevent him from being captured. He was finally rescued by U.S. forces who had been scouring the mountains.
Anderson Cooper: They’d been looking for you?
Marcus Luttrell: Right, for as long as I’d been missing, so they were beat to hell.
Anderson Cooper: What was that feeling when you saw the first American in the village?
Marcus Luttrell: I was out of it pretty hard. My head was down and they were carrying me, I remember lifting my head cause they were screaming my name…he was like “Marcus is that you?” and I was like, “Yeah, right here bro.”
Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor, was finally going home, but returning to regular life in America hasn’t been easy.
Anderson Cooper: You’ve spent time with Marcus, what was it like for him coming home?
Pete Berg: Rough, very rough.
Pete Berg, who directed the movie "Lone Survivor," first met Luttrell after he’d read his book. Berg was shocked by Luttrell’s condition when he went to visit him in his house in Texas.
Peter Berg: I went in there and it was almost like living in a shrine. It was nothing but pictures of his dead brothers and flags and helmets and mementos and pieces of uniform from his dead brothers. And on the-- in the middle of the living room floor was-- basically a tombstone with the names of the-- all of his brothers that have died in that operation. And Marcus would-- would sit in that house-- in that-- in that moment, in that experience, in that gunfight. He was almost living inside of it when I first met him.
Marcus Luttrell has suffered both emotionally and physically, but his family and friends say he is getting better. He has a service dog, Mr. Rigby, who never leaves his side. He’s also gotten married. He and his wife Melanie have two children.
Luttrell has also had time to piece together what happened to him when he was badly wounded on the mountain in Afghanistan, including details of Gulab’s role in saving his life.
Now, eight years later, the two men have become close friends and Gulab occasionally flies from Afghanistan to Luttrell's family’s ranch in Texas to visit.
Gulab and Marcus: I love you. He says, "I love you too, that’s why I came for you" he says, "my brother.”
We wanted to know why Gulab was willing to risk his life to help a complete stranger. He told us it was because of a tribal code of honor called Pashtunwali.
Anderson Cooper: Explain Pashtunwali.
Mohammad Gulab: Pashtunwali is a respect, a respect for a guest that comes knocking at your door. And even if he is in need, or if he is imminent danger, we must protect him. I knew I had to help him, to do the right thing, because he was in a lot of danger.
Anderson Cooper: You knew that they would come for him.
Gulab: They did. The Taliban came and sat down with me. I said, "No, I
will not hand him over to you."
"Pashtunwali is a respect, a respect for a guest that comes knocking at
your door. And even if he is in need, or if he is imminent danger, we must
Anderson Cooper: What did they threaten?
Mohammad Gulab: They told me that, "You will die. Your brother will die. Your cousins will die. Your whole family will die. It is not worth it. Give us the American." And I said, "No, I will protect him 'til the end."
Gulab has suffered for protecting Luttrell. He says his house was burned down and a cousin killed. In Afghanistan he’s had to go into hiding with his wife and 10 children. Luttrell is hoping to get him a green card, so he can settle at least part time in the United States.
Marcus Luttrell: We’re family.
Anderson Cooper: You consider him family.
Marcus Luttrell: Absolutely. I mean, we're br-- we're brothers in blood. We sh--bled together. He very well could of just left me laying there on the side of the waterfall and let me die but he didn’t.
For his bravery Marcus Luttrell was awarded the Navy Cross in a White House ceremony. Matt Axelson and Danny Dietz were also awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. For sacrificing his life to make that telephone call, Lieutenant Mike Murphy was given the Medal of Honor. His parents accepted it. It was the first time the country’s highest military honor was awarded for service in Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shah, the man Murphy’s team was looking for, was killed in a separate operation in 2008. After retiring, Vice Admiral Joe Maguire runs the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides support for veterans and their families. Marcus Luttrell created and raises money for a similar group, the Lone Survivor Foundation. Luttrell has also visited families of his fallen SEAL brothers.
Anderson Cooper: You traveled around the country to do that.
Marcus Luttrell: Yes, sir.
Anderson Cooper: What was that like?
Marcus Luttrell: That sucked. Think about it like this. If you had a son that was out on that mountain with me, if one guy had to live who would you be praying for to--, your son or for-- would you be praying for me? And every time they look at me, I am the one who made it out and delivered the news on how hard their son fought but I am also the one who lived and their son died. Why? Why did you live and why did my son die? I don’t have the answer for that.