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The infamously failed mission conducted on June 29, 2015, later turned into a best-selling book and movie theater blockbuster in 2013, has been primarily known as the joint military operation to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah. This mission was conducted during the height of the War in Afghanistan on a steep terrain mountain called Sawtalo Sar, in an attempt to disrupt local Anti-Coalition Militia and to help facilitate the upcoming local Afghani Parliament elections. The main intended target of this operation was Ahmad Shah and his group of sympathizers. From the beginning of the mission to the tragic conclusion and aftermath, the primary conceivers of this operation was the U.S. Marine Corps using the Special Operations support of the US Army SOAR Regiment and US Navy SEALS for the opening phase of the operation. The operation tragically claimed three Navy SEALs, and sixteen other Special Operations forces while coming in to aid their counterparts. In addition, the most famous and revered aspect of Operation Red Wings was LT Michael Murphy’s valorous Medal of Honor actions to call in support via satellite phone in open terrain while under heavy, withering enemy fire.
From the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to September 2005, the operational strategy at that time was a COIN (counter insurgency) operation nature. The primary goals of the operational coalition force at that time was to provide infrastructure support along with aiding in nation building with the Afghanis (“Operation Red Wings”). Due to some operational barriers that the 3rd BN, 3rd Marine Regiment faced, 3/3’s battalion staff quickly developed an operational model that allowed them to integrate special operations forces into their current and future operations. This new operational model proved to be a success and allowed the sharing of intelligence between 3/3’s battalion and special operations forces with the addition of being able to maintain successful operational control of the newly created integrated special operations force by the battalion. The consequent operations, using the newly created strategy, resulted in a forced surrender of a national high value target of an ACM commander, known as Najmudeen (“Operation Red Wings”. After Najmudeen’s capture, ACM activity in the Korengal Valley region decreased significantly but unfortunately left a gaping power vacuum in the region. Soon after this small and closely held victory, 3/3’s sister battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment arrived in Afghanistan to relieve their counterparts and to continue their operational success. 2nd Battalion, soon after arriving, began the planning operation for a new mission that would be subsequently called Operation Stars. Based on the intelligence that was gathered by the S2 section of the 2/3, a new “high value target” was acquired who went by the name of Ahmad Shah. Ahmad Shah, native to the Nangarhar Province, was deemed to be responsible for approximately 11 incidents against NATO coalition members that included small arm ambushes and IED attacks (“Real Life Story behind Operation Red Wings”). Soon after the intelligence gathering and the relief of the 3/3, 2nd battalion began the transition from Operation Stars to the new comprehensive operation called Operation Red Wings, which had many concepts of Operation Star implemented within. Operation Red Wings, at this time, was designed to disrupt all ACM activity with the emphasis on disrupting Ahmad Shah’s heinous activities.
As soon as 2/3 and their battalion staff arrived in Afghanistan, their planning stage immediately began along with maintaining the operational tempo that was established by their preceded counterpart, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. While this meticulous work was being established, 2/3’s intelligence officer and his platoon were able to gather a wealth of HUMINT information about Ahmad Shah, which included his birthplace, primary alias, allegiances, his team size, and aspirations of the impending region. In addition to this vital human intelligence, 2/3’s battalion intelligence section was able to obtain a number of photographs of Ahmad Shah. Further gathered intelligence was revealed to 2/3 that Shah based his insurgent operations out of clandestine structures that were high on the slopes of the Sawtalo Sar Mountain. From this vital information that was provided, 2/3’s intelligence staff determined Ahmad Shah and his counterpart’s whereabouts during the execution phase of Operation Red Wings, therefore requiring a helicopter insertion of forces to search and cordon the area for Ahmad Shah and his men due to the sought timeframe of conducting it at night. The main forces that would be initially conducting this clandestine operation under the cover of darkness at that time was determined by 2/3 was a Marine Corps Sniper/Scout team, followed on by the Special Operations forces to execute the capture or killing of Ahmad Shah(“Operation Red Wings”). Little would 2/3 would know, their entire operational plan would quickly be unraveled and compromised during the initial few hours of the first phase of the operation.
Late into the night of June 27, 2005 with the help of the US Army SOAR Chinooks, the Navy SEALs began this operation under the cover of darkness. While there were two MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft, one performed a number of decoy drops to confuse any possible enemy on the ground to troop location, while the other aircraft quickly performed the fast-rope insertion of the four man Navy SEAL reconnaissance team into a saddle that was one and a half miles from the named objective point (“Operation Red Wings”). The Navy SEAL reconnaissance team members consisted of Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Petty Officer Second Class Danny P. Dietz, Petty Officer Second Class Matthew G. Axelson, and Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell. While moving under the cover of darkness to a predetermined overwatch location to scout Ahmad Shah, the reconnaissance team was stumbled upon by a local goat herder and his two sons during the light of day.
At initial compromise of the mission, the Navy SEAL team captured the local goat herder and his sons while debating amongst themselves the course of action to take that would align with the current Rules of Engagement given to them. After intense debate, Lieutenant Michael Murphy gave the order to release the goat herder and his sons, not knowing this group would presumably report this vital information to Ahmad Shah and the Taliban in the nearby village. Soon after, a fierce three-sided attack began on the Navy SEAL team by a much larger force of an estimated fifty anti-coalition militia insurgent fighters (US Navy). Not only did the enemy have an outstanding terrain advantage, the enemy clearly outgunned and outnumbered the Navy SEAL team tremendously. As a result of this fierce firefight and ambush, the insurgent militia continuously and relentlessly kept pushing the SEAL team further into the mountainside ravine. Desperately trying to reach safety and wounded, multiple attempts to relay distress calls back to their headquarters proved to be unsuccessful due to the restricting mountainous terrain. With that said, and despite the high intensity of the firefight and suffering wounds, Lieutenant Michael Murphy risked his own life to save his teammates’ lives by making contact with their headquarters in a perilous situation. Lieutenant Michael Murphy at this time during the intense firefight, disregarding his own safety and life, knowingly moved away from the protective mountain rocks into an open area to receive a better transmission signal on his satellite phone to call for QRF for his men. Due to these actions, Lieutenant Murphy was able to contact the QRF at Bagram Air Base to provide location and enemy size, while under withering enemy fire and being severely wounded during the transmission call (US Navy).
As the now-ready QRF force was on their way via MH-47 Chinook to aid their distressed brothers in arms in an extraction mission, which consisted of a force of eight additional SEALs and Army Night Stalkers, the looming risk of entering a “hot” combat zone with no attack support was heavily weighed on by the rescue team. Knowing the risk associated with entering into an active enemy area in plain day light along with virtually no cover support, the rescue team opted to enter and fight their way in, due to the unsettling knowledge of their brothers in arms being wounded and in dire need of assistance. Unfortunately and tragically, the MH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying all 16 Special Operations forces aboard acting as QRF, was shot down by an insurgent’s RPG rocket and killed all 16 upon impact (“Operation Red Wings”). After witnessing their QRF helicopter shot down by the enemy, the Navy SEAL reconnaissance team consisting of Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Daniel Dietz, and Matthew Axelson, continued the intense ongoing firefight with the Taliban ranging from the rocky terrain to the various cliffs. At the near end of the bloody firefight, approximately 35 Taliban were killed by the Navy SEAL team but at a deadly cost to the Navy SEAL team. Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer Matthew Axelson, and Petty Officer Daniel Dietz were killed by the various severe wounds that were sustained during the overwhelming two hour battle. Hospital Corpsman Marcus Luttrell, as the lone survivor during the battle, was blasted over a ridge by an RPG blast and miraculously managed to survive the various shrapnel, broken bones, and bullet wound sustained. Marcus Luttrell ultimately, severely injured, had the mental strength and resilience to slowly walk for seven miles and evade enemy for nearly an entire day.
During his seven mile trek seeking a safe haven and for coalition assistance, local Pashtun villagers discovered Marcus Luttrell in the woods, gained trust with him, and rendered him aid for nearly three days while narrowly avoiding the hell bent Taliban on a few occasions. Gratefully, a note written for assistance by Marcus Luttrell was hand carried by a villager to a U.S. Marine Corps outpost three miles away, which began the initiation of the daunting Special Operations rescue mission for Marcus Luttrell and his fallen Navy SEAL teammates (“The Afghan who helped Marcus Luttrell”). Shortly after the request for help from Marcus Luttrell was received, Operation Red Wings became a new extraction and rescue operation for the Navy SEAL team called Operation Red Wings II. But before initial rescue forces were able to be launched, command and communication was unexpectedly delayed for a number of hours with the on-ground Navy SEAL reconnaissance team. As soon as command and control was able to be established with higher, another quick reaction force acting as a search and rescue element, was dispatched to retrieve the downed helicopter’s passengers after an initial massive ground search along with the three other Navy SEAL reconnaissance team members’ remains. Shortly after retrieving their fallen comrades, Marcus Luttrell was finally rescued by fellow Special Operations troops via helicopter in the local Afghani village where he was hidden and safeguarded by his newfound saviors for four days. As much as it seemed a successful rescue operation to retrieve a fellow Special Operations troop, the operation came at a heavy cost to the Americans in a vital sensitive equipment point of view. Shortly after killing the three Navy SEAL reconnaissance team members, Ahmad Shah and his Taliban fighters were able to ransack and recover a litany of weapons, ammunition, and numerous other highly sensitive items such as rifle scopes, and a laptop containing maps and pictures of Afghanistan, from the fallen SEALs. Fortunately for American and coalition troops later that year, a follow on operation deemed Operation Whalers was able to successfully neutralize Ahmad Shah’s group in Kunar Province and also seriously wound Ahmad Shah, leading to his eventual death in 2008 after a shootout with Pakistani police.
Despite suffering many wounds and managing to survive despite the odds, Marcus Luttrell was awarded the Navy Cross for his valiant actions during that day at a White House ceremony in 2006 (“Operation Red Wings”). Petty Officers Axelson and Dietz were also awarded posthumously the Navy Cross for their valiant actions on that fateful day. The last Navy SEAL team member, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, was later posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor, The Medal of Honor, for his actions of valor on that day to sacrifice himself in a successful attempt to signal in a QRF for his seemingly doomed teammates. Lieutenant Michael Murphy also was the first Navy SEAL to receive the award since the Vietnam War (US Navy). To honor Lieutenant Michael Murphy even further in the United States by the US and the US military, many buildings, monuments, and a Navy destroyer was named in honor of him. A few of the monuments and buildings dedicated to Lieutenant Michael Murphy include the Michael P. Murphy Memorial at his alma mater, Penn State, to honor all veterans who served, the Michael P. Murphy Memorial Park at his hometown of Suffolk County, NY, and the Navy Destroyer named the USS Michael Murphy. In these many cases of remembrance and honor across the nation of Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, his legacy will always live on and his story of valor will continue on for years to come.
Relating to mission command, the Navy SEAL team displayed all aspects of the principles of mission command thoroughly. From the start of the mission in the planning stages to the very end when all hope seemed lost, strong mission command remained an unwavering aspect of the operation gone awry. The mission command aspect of “building teams through mutual trust” was displayed prominently throughout the entire battle by the clear understanding of the commander’s intent with the mission to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, despite the inherently dangerous nature of the mission. In addition, the tight-knit bond the team members shared beforehand gave them the peace of mind of ensuring they would all attempt to bring each other alive at day’s end. The second mission command principle of “create shared understanding” can be seen throughout the battle by the SEAL team members’ collective display of understanding of the mission and the actions needed to complete it even through the face of danger. Even though the mission went awry, the SEAL team members also displayed this aspect of mission command by courageously throwing themselves into danger to continue their survival in attempts to escape to a safe haven. The third mission command principle of “provide a clear commander’s intent” was displayed by the initial planning of Operation Red Wings by the Special Operations staff, along with the display of mission execution by the Navy SEAL team to capture Ahmad Shah and disrupt his regional Anti-Coalition Militia activity.
The most prominent mission command principle of “exercise disciplined initiative” from Operation Red Wings was clearly demonstrated when the decision of either killing, tying up, or releasing the wayward goat herder was made by Lieutenant Michael Murphy. The decision to adhere to the current “Rules of Engagement” provisions by Lieutenant Michael Murphy, despite some pushback from fellow team members, was ethically made to prevent U.S. military repercussions, international media backlash, and enemy propaganda opportunities. Even with the option of releasing the goat herder would result in imminent danger, the discipline displayed in making the ethically correct decision was a tough, but fatal choice in the end. From the planning stages to the execution and exfiltration stage of Operation Red Wings, the mission command principle of “use mission orders” was inherently clear throughout. The mission carried out by the Navy SEAL team was followed strictly per their Standard Operating Procedures, from the first fast rope drop to the repeatedly failed exfiltration requests by Petty Officer Danny Dietz. Another example of “use mission orders” includes the attempted radio contact with their command staff for their missed communication windows designated in their mission order brief, due to the treacherous terrain. The final mission command principle of “accept prudent risk” was displayed multiple times throughout Operation Red Wings, ranging from the Navy SEAL command team accepting the mission to locate and capture Ahmad Shah, to the futile attempts to escape the withering firefight to a safe haven. The initial mission acceptance by the Navy SEAL reconnaissance team, despite the potentially deadly dangers of the enemy and terrain, showcases the acceptance of prudent risk to achieve the goal of capturing a disruptive Taliban leader. In addition, the decision to release the goat herder in the mountains displays the acceptance of extreme prudent risk in allowing the Afghani local to potentially expose their location to enemy fighters. Lastly, Lieutenant Michael Murphy’s valorous actions of exposing himself to lethal enemy fire in a final successive attempt to maintain contact with their command staff, clearly exhibits the mission command principle of “accepting prudent risk” in a dire situation.
Despite the harrowing events and story of Marcus Luttrell and his fallen Navy SEAL teammates, there has been many controversial topics that has arisen over the events told. Many of the controversial topics range from the vote on whether to kill the discovering goat herders or not by the team members, the actual number of ambushing enemy Taliban during the fierce battle, and the actual amount of time Marcus Luttrell was hidden by the Afghani villagers in the village. The first controversial topic of the vote to kill the Afghani goat herders was initially a hot button topic from the original book of Lone Survivor. In the book, the decision came down to a “vote” between the team members and sparked debate among readers for months after its release. In actual retold events by Marcus Luttrell on that decision, it was Lieutenant Michael Murphy who made the ultimate decision to release the goat herders and there was no “vote” being debated whatsoever. With that decision made, it was noted by Lieutenant Michael Murphy’s teammates that killing any civilians during their mission was a complete anti-thesis to his own internal beliefs due to the fear of US liberal media outlets casting them as war criminals. The second controversial topic that has arisen over Operation Red Wings was the actual amount of Taliban fighters that attacked the Navy SEAL team. In the accounts of the book Lone Survivor written by Marcus Luttrell, there were between 80-200 enemy fighters attacking the Navy SEAL team. But on the other hand in his After Action Report shortly after the battle, Marcus Luttrell reported there were between 20-35 enemy fighters ambushing his team. Many critics contest this number due to the fact they were unable to access the After Action Report online. Moreover, in yet another different account of the battle, the Medal of Honor citation for Lieutenant Michael Murphy states that there were between 30-40 Taliban fighters that ambushed his reconnaissance team. In summary of this highly controversial issue, it has been widely noted by many people that the book may have largely exaggerated the number of Taliban fighters that besieged the Navy SEAL team in comparison to the actual number of fighters. Lastly, the final topic of controversy brought up by many critics was the actual time Marcus Luttrell was hidden by the Afghani villagers serving as his saviors. Between the book and actual events, the debate of how long Marcus Luttrell was successfully shuffled and hidden in the village before being rescued by US troops. The book had originally stated Marcus Luttrell was hidden for up to a week before rescue troops arrived and narrowly escaped Taliban capture in many instances. In actual truth and events told, Marcus Luttrell was hidden for only four days and shuffled from house to house and even in a cave, to avoid Taliban capture. Even as the Taliban pursued and threatened his saviors with death to them and their family, the villagers upheld the Pashtun honor code called Pashtunwali, keeping their guest safe and out of Taliban hands. It also took the rescue Special Operations troops four days to find Marcus Luttrell’s position after scouring the mountains and area. In final summary of this controversial topic, this issue was largely seen as a slight exaggeration in the book in comparison to the actual events, for reader’s involvement and depth in attempts to maintain interest. All in all, Marcus Luttrell and his unedited official accounts of the battle from start to finish can be seen as the most accurate and relying story to be told without much discrepancy in between for the years to come.
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