He was shot in the head not once, but twice yet continued to fight. With his teammates under AK-47 fire and all their lives on the line, he refused to falter. It would later be said he battled the encroaching Taliban forces with an impressively calm demeanor, methodically supplying suppressive fire or precise, surgical killing shots as needed.
Throwing himself off the shale-strewn mountainside of the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan repeatedly was nothing. His goal was simple: protect his brothers. Petty Officer 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew G. Axelson was the last one off the mountain when the SEAL team first fell back and quite possibly the last to die.
When now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell last saw Matthew Axelson – Axe, as he was known – they were in a small hollow and the other man was down to his pistol. He’d been firing with laser focus at the enemy and had three full mags left. A Russian grenade launcher blew Marcus out of the hollow and just like that, it was over.
You see, Marcus believed Axe was dead because his head wounds were so utterly devastating both his previously blue eyes had turned black with blood. But when a team finally arrived to take the bodies of the fallen men home, they found him a short distance from where Marcus had last seen him – down to just one mag. It was clear Axe had continued fighting for a duration of another 30 rounds despite being at death’s door and in unspeakable agony. Axe protected not himself, but his hope for Marcus’ survival to the last second.
One of the last things Axe told Marcus as he struggled to focus through the agony of his wounds and the confusion of blood loss was, “You stay alive, Marcus.”
Marcus survived. His teammates did not.
Today – June 28, 2018 – marks 13 years since the fateful day of Operation Red Wings. On that day three men were killed on the mountainside in pitched battle and even more died when the quick reaction force’s MH-47 Chinook, call sign Turbine 33, was shot down. A total of 19 deaths, 19 men gone whose battle only became familiar to the general public when it became a Mark Wahlberg movie (Lone Survivor; if you haven’t seen it, you should, but read the book, too).
Over the years I’ve been wildly fortunate to have become friends with some amazing American heroes (most of whom don’t consider themselves heroes at all). I’ve also met the survivors: teammates left behind laden with guilt, the family members left crushed and in pain. Today is the anniversary of Operation Red Wings and we should be honoring the memories of the men lost. However, we should also remember those left behind.
I knew this day was coming. For me, the mental Operation Red Wings countdown begins in May. By the time June rolls around I have it on a big, flashing sign in my head. Jeff Axelson, brother of the late Matt Axelson, is a close friend of mine and it is terrible in its own way knowing I really cannot help, cannot imagine what he is going through. Nightmares might plague him, the pain might rip through his chest, acidic and fresh. There’s joy, though, in the shape of decades of memories. So much joy.
In the wake of his brother’s death, Jeff founded Axelson Tactical, designing and manufacturing custom-quality rifles. Jeff took a facet of his brother’s life – a love of firearms – and created an awesome, badass living memorial (just like Matt would have loved).
Cindy Dietz, mother of the late Danny Dietz, was at the cemetery this morning placing fresh flowers in bright shades of yellow and red on her son’s grave. An angel graces the space in front of Danny’s headstone; her son’s grinning, cherubic baby pictures were the first thing I saw when I turned on my phone this morning. As a mother I cannot imagine the sense of loss or the feeling of a ragged hole in my heart. But, as for Jeff, there is joy. Love. A lifetime of memories.
Cindy is a wonderful woman who has worked hard to raise funds for military veterans over the years. She has turned something horrific into a beautiful way of honoring her son’s sacrifice.
The stories go on. If I tried to fit them all in here we’d have a novel, not a brief post. Hopefully you get the idea.
It’s June 28, 2018, the 13th anniversary of the deaths of 19 men. Take a moment to read their names and send thoughts, prayers, good karma – whatever it is you believe in – to their families, teammates, and friends. We all need to remember who the real heroes are in life; I have a hint for you, it isn’t that guy in the superhero outfit on the big screen at your local theater. It’s the men and women who fight and die for this country, who make the greatest sacrifice defending your way of life. And it’s their families, people like Jeff Axelson and Cindy Dietz who have been living with the many emotions surrounding their loved ones’ deaths for over a decade.
Real-life heroes are the best heroes.
Remembering Operation Red Wings
- LT Michael P. Murphy
SO2 Matthew G. Axelson
SO2 Danny Dietz
SOC Jacques Fontan
SOCS Daniel R. Healy
LCDR Erik Kristensen
SO1 Jeffrey Lucas
LT Michael McGreevy, Jr.
SO2 James Suh
SO1 Jeffrey Taylor
SO2 Shane Patton
Night Stalkers (160th Special Operatons Aviation Regiment): SSG Shamus Goare
- CW03 Corey Goodnature
SGT Kip Jacoby
SFC Marcus Muralles
MSG James Ponder III
MAJ Stephen Reich
SFC Michael Russell
CW04 Chris Scherkenbach
Some memories of Matthew Axelson Jeff Axelson wrote down years ago and agreed to share here, unedited:
My head was pressed up against the hard hot steal of the chopper. The back of it pulsation from something, maybe the hit we took before we started our spin. It felt wet too. Was it blood? I tried to reach it to find out but my hands were stuck under my gun. I was sweating profusely and felt like I was coming out of a drunken stupor. I saw my brother sitting across from me, worry in his eyes, but a little smile on his face. His crooked smile, that one of mischief, like he knew something I didn’t. That stupid smile that I would have punched him in the arm for giving me when we were kids. I tried to yell at him, but not a word came out. I wanted to yell, “What the hell happened Matt? Where are we?”, but I felt muffled. The next thing I knew we were on the ground fighting for our lives. Bullets ripping through the thick jungle brush above our heads. I followed Matt as he started to run down the small creek bed. Darting up and down the bank as we rushed through the thick blackberry bushes and into some ivy under a large oak. We both sat there still as the gun fire subsided, for a moment, covered almost completely by the dark green leaves.
I looked to my left at Matt’s face. He still had that smile. Although harder to spot now though the dark green paint covering his face. His piercing blue eyes shinning through the brush.
This time there was no worry in them. He looked calm… Suddenly he moved, with out warning he touched my shoulder as he leaped from our hiding place under that great oak and sprinted down the creek bed again. The gunfire erupted again. Tearing through the trees around us. I moved as fast as I could after him but my legs felt so heavy, I felt as if I was sinking shin deep into the creek mud with every step.
He was moving fast, faster than I could go, I tried to yell at him, but again I could not find the air. I went from hot to cold as a wind swept down the small creek bed. Matt was quickly approaching the next bend in the ravine. Still moving so gracefully across the mud and water, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing, exactly where to step. He came to a stop on the inside corner of the bend and took cover next to a large granite stone. He fired a couple shots around the stone and looked back at me with a smile. He calmly waved me to take cover. I looked down for a second to try to see what was slowing me up, and when I looked up I caught a glimpse of him dashing around past the stone. I was stuck in my spot. I could barely move my feet. The sound of the gunfire slowly faded away towards the direction where my brother went…
My eyes opened suddenly and I was in my bed at our house in San Diego, twisted up in my sheets and shivering in a cold sweat. My hands were trembling and my heart felt sick with dread. As I slowly untangled myself of my sheets I glanced over at the clock. It was 3am. I reached for my bottle of water and tried to relax back to sleep. I laid there for a half hour or so trying to push the dream I had had out of my head. It reminded me of a dream I had back in 2002 after I read the book “Black Hawk Down”. Terrifying, vivid and clear. I was in the sky though looking down. Helpless again to do anything, just stuck watching a ferocious fight unfold. That one ended with Matt, Ross and I back at a base drinking beers.
This one left me feeling much more helpless and unable to fall back to sleep. I got up and walked to the couch in the TV room and threw in Dennis Millers DVD. Figured Id get a few laughs and fall back to sleep, Dad was down from Cupertino to help me fix the house up, so we had a long punch list to accomplish in the morning. I needed to rest up.
The soft coastal sun came in the window to wake me up a few hours later. It was the end of June in San Diego and the fog, which we called June Gloom, always made the mornings cool. It was great hammer swingin’ weather. I rolled off the couch and into the shower. As I gathered my thoughts for the day under the hot water I found myself swept back to my dream. It’s a strange feeling having a Brother off in a war. You often find your mind fighting off thoughts, the worst kind of thoughts sometimes. I would throw out a quick prayer to the big guy upstairs and find my way back to dreaming of the future where Matt and I could sit out by the fire pit nursing some Miller Lites and talking story.
I toweled off and made my usual pattern around the house. I stopped at the computer and flipped it on to see the headlines for the day. My heart fell and the dread swept in even more deeply to my soul. The headline read, “Chopper down 8 Navy Seals Killed”. My dream from a few hours prior ran across my eyes again. I quickly shut the Computer off.
Matt and I grew up in Cupertino on a court. It was the perfect youth. We had trees and fences to climb, dogs to harass and love, kick the can to play, hills to bomb down on our Powell Peralta skate boards, and a great creek just down the hill to adventure in. And that was just the start of our neighborhood, which we pompously turned into our own playground.
Stevens Creek was the name of the blackberry and poison oak infested ravine that we would escape to to pretend we were warriors or adventurers. Even the cold months did not stop us from wreaking havoc on the eco system by targeting birds and squirrels with BB Guns and building make shift dams to try to created a pool large enough to allow for a rope swing We even tried to introduce Goldfish into the creek for future generations to find. We had heard that Goldfish would grow to fit their environment, so we thought, “Boy would it be cool to be able to come down here next year and fish for trout sized goldfish”. Needless to say our poor golden-scaled pioneers never made it.
We would roll out of that creek shivering and muddy as the streetlights began to flicker on, dashing back home with huge grins.
We always had to rely on our friends to shoot cause mom was adamantly against guns. But as boys do, we always seemed to find a gun or two to play hunter with. We were good kids; we just were boys at heart. We did everything from trying to stalk down the local squirrel to yelling at the golfers as they teed off on the course that ran adjacent to Stevens Creek.
As we got older the focus turned inevitably to Rambo style tactics down in the creek. We would make supply runs to the local army surplus store to buy our gear. We would scrap together our allowances and buy Camo pants, shirts and face paint. Dad even let us use some of his old army canteens, belts, and ponchos from his Vietnam days.
We always had a reverence for those things. Dad never spoke of his time in the war, but his eyes told us the depth of meaning it carried for him. As a kid you cant understand those things, but your heart feels it.
We would even steal his old bayonet off the wall in the garage, and take turns wearing it on our belts as we quietly tracked our way down the rock creek bed from tree to tree. As I look back I’m sure he noticed it gone, but we always made sure to put it right back on the wall, just right, so he would not notice.
One day after school we got our hands on some fire works from Terel. Nothing too grand like we had hoped, but good fun bricks that were suppose to pop off one after another so we could mock machine gun fire. We suited up for a stealth mission to ruin a golf tee off or two.
As we entered the creek down stream from the course by about a half mile we put our game faces on. We had a few houses to sneak by and a few dogs to try to keep from ruining our position before we found our objective. We practiced finding our lines from embankment to embankment as we moved quickly up river. Matt and I were out front and Terel with his buddy Jerome trailed behind us. As we neared the bridge we ducked under a root clump and watched quietly for the Druggies who often hung out there smoking dope in their White fuzz lines Jeans jackets. We had to sneak by them a couple times in the past and they would chase us if they spotted us, so we were cautious.
Suddenly our ears started to ring with explosions “Bam-Bam-Bam-Bam….Bam-Bam-Bam-Bam”…. Our eyes darted to our rear as an array of firecrackers fired off. “What the…” I said as I looked back at Matt who was focused again on the Bridge hoping the Smokey Jeans crew was not headed our way. Almost before I could blink Jerome was sprinting past us with Terel hot on his tail. They ran right past us without even a glance. I like to think we were so well camouflaged that not even Col. Chapman could have found us. Turns out that Jerome was messing around with his lighter and set a brick of firecrackers off right next to Terel’s ear. We did not see them for a while but their pursuit was very audible for quite some time.
When we finally found them they were posted up under a giant oak looking toward to golf course already over the incident. Terel could not hear so good out of his right ear for a day or so after that, and if I remember right his hair was a bit singed on that right side too.
It always amazed me that with all our shenanigans and risk taking none of us ever got seriously hurt. Good angels I guess.