Editorials

New account reinforces valor

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who published an enthralling nonfiction account of the events of June 28, 2005, the deadliest day in SEAL history.

In painstaking detail, Luttrell recounted in "Lone Survivor" how three of his colleagues on SEAL Team 10 were killed in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan as they tracked a high-ranking Taliban officer with ties to Osama bin Laden. An MH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying reinforcements was shot down by Taliban forces, resulting in the deaths of eight more SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers, an elite special-ops unit.

At the center of the story was SEAL Team 10's encounter with three goat herders who unwittingly interrupted a dangerous covert operation in the deadliest place in the world.

As Luttrell detailed in his book, he and his teammates -- Lt. Michael Murphy and Petty Officers Matthew G. Axelson and Danny P. Dietz -- were hiding in broad daylight in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border when the unarmed goat herders stumbled upon them.

The SEALs were faced with an unenviable dilemma: Let the herders go -- and risk that they would reveal their location to the Taliban -- or kill them.

Luttrell described the ensuing deliberation and vote. He wrote that Axelson wanted to kill the herders and Dietz was noncommittal. Murphy voted to let them go, a call with which Luttrell ultimately agreed -- and later came to regret. He wrote that his decision was "the stupidest, most Southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life."

An hour later, the SEAL team was surrounded by 80 to 100 Taliban fighters. Pinned down, heavily outmanned, and running out of ammo as the vicious battle wore on, Murphy stepped out from behind his cover and into the line of fire to attempt a satellite call for reinforcements. When we spoke in late 2007, Luttrell recalled that Murphy, after being shot while making the call, nonetheless said "thank you" after calmly reporting the team's location and requesting immediate backup.

Murphy, Axelson and Dietz all died on the mountain. Luttrell, who had to drag his wounded body several miles before finding refuge with an Afghan villager, was the only one to survive. He was awarded the Navy Cross by President George W. Bush. Dietz and Axelson received that award posthumously.

Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor for valor in combat. He was the first American to be so recognized for post-Sept. 11, 2001, actions in Afghanistan and the first SEAL since Vietnam to receive the award.

Now, with the cooperation of Murphy's father, Daniel, a new book is about to be released shedding additional light on this remarkable story. "Seal of Honor: Operation Red Wings and the Life of Lt. Michael P. Murphy, USN" was written by Ohio-based author Gary Williams and will be published May 5.

On the decision of whether the goat herders should live or die, Williams debunks that a vote was taken.

"Despite their open discussion that day, each man understood that the team structure was not a democracy -- there was to be no consensus, and there would be no voting," Williams writes. "After requesting and receiving appropriate and valuable input from the other members of his team, the final decision unquestionably would be made by the team leader, Lieutenant Michael Murphy."

Daniel Murphy sees the account in the new book as consistent with what Luttrell wrote.

"I think both Marcus' version and the way it's portrayed in 'Seal of Honor' is actually correct, depending on your perspective," the elder Murphy, a Vietnam veteran, said in a recent interview. "Marcus is looking at the decision from basically an enlisted man's idea that, 'I made a decision and the goat herders left and the men were killed.'"

That mind-set, Murphy told me, is actually revealing of his son's leadership style -- apparent even in the most desperate of situations.

Michael Murphy's favorite historical figure, his father recalled, was Abraham Lincoln. Daniel Murphy remembers his son spoke admiringly of how President Lincoln would go about making decisions. Already knowing what he wanted to do, Lincoln would nevertheless direct the conversation so his Cabinet and aides would ultimately arrive at his desired conclusion.

The elder Murphy says he believes in the same way, his son brought his team "to understand that the only option is to let them go, that there was no other decision that could be made."

There's no ill will between Luttrell and the Murphy family. As Daniel Murphy acknowledged, Luttrell's survival ensured that the world would learn of his son's selflessness.

In the same way, the divergent recollections of an unenviable deliberation allow us to steal a glimpse into the acumen of the quintessential post-Sept. 11 American hero: Lt. Michael Murphy.

Contact Smerconish, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, via www.mastalk.com.

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