It was one of the most dramatic stories to emerge from the war on terror. On a moonless night in June 2005, four Navy SEALs dropped deep into the Hindu Kush in Northeast Afghanistan. Operation Red Wings was a reconnaissance mission targeting a Taliban commander named Ahmad Shah, whose attacks had taken a high toll on U.S. Marines in the area. The SEALs were America’s best-trained war-fighters, legendary for their physical strength, their mental toughness, and their ingenuity in extreme circumstances. So it was almost inevitable that the military would turn to them for a high value special operations mission deep behind enemy lines.

But not long into their mission, they stumbled onto some local goatherds. They faced a profound dilemma: let the goatherds go free and compromise the team’s position, or kill them, a potential war crime. After debating their options, the SEALs released the Afghans.

Within an hour, the commando team was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. An intense firefight erupted. The SEALs fought valiantly but were badly outgunned. Lt. Michael Murphy, the team leader, was killed on a rocky outcropping while calling for backup. Two other SEALs, Petty Officers Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz, were blown away on the steep mountainside. A rescue helicopter arrived, but it was brought down by Taliban fire; the entire crew of 16 was killed. In the end, only Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell remained alive, fighting off the Taliban single-handedly, living by his wits, a trained hunter now himself a hunted man.

Grievously wounded and delirious from thirst and fatigue, Luttrell crawled for seven miles looking for water and sanctuary. A rocket-propelled grenade hurled him into a mountain crevice that fortuitously hid him from the Taliban. Eventually he was discovered by friendly Afghans and carried down the mountain to their village. Invoking an ancient Pashtun code requiring them to protect and defend a guest to the death, the tribesmen guarded him from marauding Taliban fighters until the U.S. military arrived several days later.

It is an astonishing tale of survival and grit—and of luck or providence, depending on how you look at things. But even as he coped with his many wounds—physical and emotional—Luttrell mustered the strength to tell his story. He began working on a book about his experience in 2006, just a year after Operation Red Wings, and his co-author, British novelist Patrick Robinson, says that Luttrell was still “very sad and introverted” as they worked on the manuscript at Robinson’s Cape Cod house. Robinson, a former journalist, had to use all of his old newsman’s skills to draw Luttrell out, not because Luttrell couldn’t remember but because his memories were still so fresh and terrifying—sleeping in a guesthouse on Robinson’s property, Luttrell got up obsessively in the middle of the night to make sure the front door was locked, Robinson recalls. (More than once the Taliban had managed to blast through the door of the house where Luttrell had taken refuge in the Afghan village and attacked him.)

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