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.
Thank you all, gentlemen……thank you.
The men of Operation Red Wing should never be forgotten. As a fellow Texan, I am of course proud of the courage displayed on that mountain that day by Marcus Luttrell. I’m thankful that he survived so that he could rejoin his family and tell the rest of us about that fateful operation. For in doing so, we know of the extraordinary heroism displayed by his team members as they faced almost certain death. Devotion to country, duty and principles. Courage under fire. And, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to lay down their own life for their fellow man. This is how I will choose to remember Matt Axelson, Danny Dietz, and the other men who paid the ultimate price in Operation Red Wing. May they never be forgotten because they were examples of how truly great Americans can be…something that we should strive for in our own way each day.
Rest easy Brothers. We’ll keep watch on the wall now.
…and when Marcus Luttrell came back home to Texas, a POS killed his dog, the dog he named after the names of the Team members he lost during Redwing.
That twerp is in prison now, and I doubt he is doing easy time since everyone in that prison knows who Marcus Luttrell is, and what he did to a hero’s dog…
Thanks to all these brave men for their sacrifice and faithful service.
“There is no substitute for victory”, but since 1945 the US has settled for settling; for making statements; for sending messages.
While all combat units are expendable, subject to whatever entertains the civilian leadership (statements, demonstrations, messages), it is a coward’s lot to squander magnificent soldiers just to show it can be done. Yes, combat units are “gunfighters”, told to shoot and when not to shoot, tools not trophies, cannon fodder. But if a nation is going to play war, it should understand that war is about killing people and breaking things. If a nation is going to have its soldiers killed and broken, it should do them the honor of achieving a resounding and lasting victory in trade for their lives.
Yep. The US military hasn’t lost anything since 45’, but the politicians have.
Vietnam would disagree.
The US military actually stomped the ever living shit out of its opponents in both those wars. Even the dreaded “tet offensive” in purely military terms, was one of the greatest US military victories ever. Even one of the greatest one sided battles of all time. Nixon’s unrestricted air campaign on North Vietnam also worked, very well. The North Vietnamese were forced to make the Paris accord to stop it, and only re invaded the south when they were sure the Congress wouldn’t back up Nixon’s threat to return. The hippies and liberals don’t like to hear this, but the military and Nixon had that war won before that. North Vietnam “beat” America, but purely by drawing out the war long enough for America’s toxic politics to cause it to give up.
50+ million Soth Korean’s not living in the gulag of North Korea for 60 years would disagree.
You’re such a fool.
the weak points of the US military will always be the media, real politik, and public opinion. Tactically and strategically, the goals set are almost always achieved. The problem is that high level leaders, civilian and sometimes military as well, don’t think of war correctly. They assume the war is fought, with clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end, and then resolved to reach whatever end.
In reality, war is just politics taking another form. Ho Chi Minh brought a more eastern mentality to the conflict and it paid off well. He knew he couldn’t best the American and South Vietnamese together militarily. He could however, devastate the morale and will of the enemy populace by dragging out a lower intensity conflict for years until political will to continue was dashed, and he could do this because political constraints prevented escalation of the non-war past it’s current stagnant state. Once South Vietnam was alone military victory became possible.
The bombing of Hanoi, the prospect of near annihilation of the city brought the “long war” practitioners to the bargaining table. Had the US decided to win the Vietnam war, using whatever means necessary to ensure victory and destroy the war-making capability of North Vietnam, the “long war” would have never surfaced. The long war only works against an undecided, uncommitted enemy.
In 1972, the predicted Tet offensive presented a once-in-a-blue-mood opportunity to capture Hanoi and cut off both the VC and NVA from the ability to retreat to the safety of North Vietnam. All but a single training division of the NVA were engaged in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese president requested support for an invasion of Hanoi and Haiphong, in a bid to put an end to the aggression from the North. The brainiacs in the US government refused, because we were not in favor of a war of conquest, but only in convincing the North they could not win; status quo ante bellum (sending messages).
I took a oath to protect the United States of America constitution
as part of a volunteer in the army.
And the people who tell the army what to do, how are they doing on that whole protecting the Constitution thing?
I’m not maligning your good-faith effort — we need people like you — but what Sam I Am is saying (and I am too) is that your intentions and what the government uses the army for are two very different things.
The citizens of America bear the responsibility for what the .gov does with the citizens army, Ing. If our pols misuse the force they must be held accountable. If not, we have no one but ourselves to blame.
And with that, I also agree. Although I’m not sure how anyone can hold this vast federal/global bureaucracy in check anymore…it’s like trying to turn the Titanic. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don’t even know it needs to be turned.
How do we hold them accountable? Do Americans as a whole even want to anymore?
“How do we hold them accountable? Do Americans as a whole even want to anymore?”
The last time a united America had a vision was 1945; it was dead by ’48. “Without a vision, the people perish.” And the republic along with them.
When there is nothing to work for except personal comfort, the people grow fat and disillusioned (see Gibbons, “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”). Then they turn to squabbling among themselves. All the while, the “Barbarians” are at the gate.
Listen sweety, don’t bother talking about America like you’re from here, or that you have a clue.
Americans have proven we don’t need everyone to be ‘on-board’ to get sh_t done, and all the wet-sh_t aholes (including our allies) come along eventually.
“Thereby, to stand a pace off from the conflict and stand silent, or express an opinion by any means, is also to act as a combatant in war.” [J.M. Thomas R., TERMS, 2012, Pg. 138]
“I took a oath to protect the United States of America constitution
as part of a volunteer in the army.”
Many of us did. Many of us were volunteers. Many were drafted.
I am fully aware that we are/were hired guns. However, we are not trash to be discarded at convenience. The dead, wounded and dying should know their sacrifice was for victory, not messaging. If the political leaders want to just send messages, deliver explosives via commercial shipment, and get what results you can.
Sounds like you read that somewhere.
“Sounds like you read that somewhere.”
The specific words and phrasing are not something I read. However….I read 50+ books each year, so there may be a synthesis of experience and reading. The “gunfighter” analogy I have used for over thirty years; something I invoked to orient new members of the squadron as to their tactical and strategic purpose in being in the military. Also, my “stand to the wall regardless of the political condition of the nation” theme is my own creation.
Anyone actually read what really happened? Not the book or movie but the actual truth?
So… you’re saying Marcus’s book is false?
Just trying to clarify.
Yes completely a made up propaganda piece by the Navy. They have proof via radio intercepts that they were ambushed by 4-8 people not hundreds.
Have you relayed this information to Luttrell?
If this is the event I think it was, it remains very controversial within DOD. Navy and Air Force remain a great odds over it.
Yep….that is correct. Official records contradict almost every aspect of his story.
I literally just watched that movie again last night. And all the bios on Luttrell and his teammates. Great story because it’s about great Americans. I’ve also just read Rorke Denver’s book “Worth Dying For” last week and like it so much I bought “Damn Few” and am halfway through. Good stuff! Recommend both! To those who gave all – Fair winds and following seas. God bless them and their families.
Too bad most of it isn’t true. The movie is even worse than that piece of fiction its based on.
Movie was terrible.
Amazing! What rock were you hiding behind since obviously you were there.
You do know the Earth is flat too. Not a sphere. (Yes, sarcasm)
Unfortunately, this is fake news. A made up story told by a broken man trying to cope with the fact that his mission failed and he survived due to the enemy being more honorable than himself.
How’d you get those words out with a cock in your mouth?
Marcus is a friend of mine. I was one of his instructors, and we’ve remained friends. I don’t see enough of him, but we have hunted together, shot together, and had a beer or two.
All of my opinions are set in my opinion of him as my friend.
So I don’t think you would take my opinion of his account seriously. I wouldn’t.
But have also gotten to speak to Gulab the, the man who saved his life, and who now lives in Fort Worth, at length. He is a deeply honorable man, and he is certainly one of the great heroes of that story. He has paid for that honorable action with the death of several members of his family.
I have heard him validate every word of Marcus’ story from the moment Marcus was found. One of the unfortunate things about the movie was that it made Gulab seem like a simple farmer. He is in fact an old-school Warrior, very highly respected in his community.
He could not validate the number of people that initially attacked Marcus, because he was not in that attack. But he could validate that a very large number of fighters appeared in his village immediately afterward looking for Marcus. It would take a large number of fighters to be able to have any effect on Gulab in his village.
Gulab did contradict one part of Marcus’s story. Marcus puts the blame on them being found because they let a sheperd boy go. Gulab says that everyone in the surrounding valleys knew the second they landed. Having been to the area myself, I find this far more likely, and it also explains the disastrous results of their rescue mission.
JWT. I recently looked online for an event I was involved in more than 40 years ago. Almost nothing in the ‘historic’ account of this event was as I remember it. I was there. And reading what the internet has to say about it makes me think there were two different events.
People who claim knowledge from reading the web or a couple of ‘official’ accounts are deluding themselves.
It’s the “fake news” “fog of war”. Aholes who weren’t there write a story about the pictures and soundless video they didn’t take.
My unit made the cover of the Middle-East Edition of Stars and Stripes, so we were “news”, but never saw any other news agency in Iraq, nor did anyone I ever met over there, ever encounter any of them [and we went all over Al Anbar Province] (NO MSM: MSNBC, CBS, FOX, ABC) but we got plenty of “coverage” out of them.
Hey, JWT, weren’t you somewhat familiar with C. Kyle too?
That’s something that keeps bugging me. Weird how one dude got the jump on both of them.
Yes, I knew Chris and worked with him a bit. The official story is weird, but completely true.
I do not doubt the account of Gulab. Perhaps Luttrel is telling the truth. I wasn’t there after all. All I know is that official accounts contradict Luttrels book, and that in his own book he does not make himself or the rest of his team sound very good, and certainly not like the spec ops guys I know, they have never hinted that they would do something like voting on wether to slit a shepherds throat or not. They have always made it clear that spec ops guys are honorable professionals, modern day knights, not potential war criminals.
If anything, I would rather believe the official accounts over Luttrels simply because I want to think our special forces are better than how he depicted them in his book.
Operation Red Wings is a FUBAR mission which the book slightly insinuates, but never really confronts.
Need Spectre gunships to do daylight capability.
Need better comms capability.
Need ability to over-match in every scenario.
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was. . .
“Need Spectre gunships to do daylight capability”
Too big and slow for daylight ops. DShK and RPG magnets.
Keep the bad guys looking up.
The mission was kicked off to an area in a comm shadow, with no guardian angel, no air on station (and no means to communicate with air except for a limited time), many intel gaps, and in violation of standing SOPs.
If they would have lived, some officers would probably have received some bad paperwork (NPLOCs?). Now that they died, it illustrates why there’s a method to the planning and execution of missions.
This is not to take anything away from their heroism, but shows that rushing to conduct an operation without doing your homework can be deadly.
These personnel were true heroes who paid the price for bad plans.
Thanks for the article, Kat.
A small correction, but an important one: it was not the Taliban that attacked the team, but members of the Haqqani network.
You could just lump them all into General Taliban, but that would lead people familiar with the region to be pretty confused. This is important because it explains their behavior with Marcus’ rescuer, Gulab, and their continued assaults on his village and family members later.
It is also important because the mission was to locate a specific member of the Haqqani network, not the Taliban.
Remembering all of these brave men and their sacrifices……God bless and keep all of you, in Heaven and on earth!
Ironicatbest would say:* Redwings, hahaha, a guy with a moustache, eating , ” kitty cat” riding the cotton pony. You can keep your Redwings, yuk.”
Sorry these men died. But they died in vain for a cause that had nothing to do with defending the United States or our freedoms.
Read “Fool’s Errand” by Scott Horton and see how we were lied into Afghanistan.
Says someone that didn’t have to make the decisions to send troops. It’s always easy to reflect from the sofa.
These men have my utmost respect. Brave , courageous, and our protectors. God Bless and keep them . they are all true heroes !!
The real story is who the hell sent 4 guys into a hornets nest trapped on a mountain no escape with a huge enemy presence in the area and no back up close by and no air support!
Who ever was in charge should face the death penalty.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13 A big thank you and prayer for the Gold Star families of our heroes.
Technical question. What is that rectangular block that Lt. Murphy has taped the the starboard side of his buttstock?
Rest easy brothers, we honor your sacrifice, bravery and family. Blessings to you all and your families.
Thank you Marcus Luttrell and Jeff Axelson for sharing !! My heart breaks for Matthew Axelson, Daniel Dietz, Michael Murphy and and all the men that were lost. I pray for you all and your families. You are all HEROES to me!!❤💙🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🙏🙏🙏