The 'Lone Survivor' Tells The Story Of A Tragic Navy Mission

Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor of a mission in Afghanistan in 2005, where along with three other SEALS he was tasked with killing a top Taliban commander. His story became the basis of his book, Lone Survivor, which has now been turned into a movie. Luttrell talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his story.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay in Afghanistan, and look now at a 2005 Navy SEAL mission in a remote part of that country. The aim of the mission was to capture or kill a leading Taliban member, but the team was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. When a rescue helicopter was sent in, it was shot down. All 16 passengers on board were killed.

Three of the SEALs on the ground eventually succumbed to their wounds. Marcus Luttrell, who had been shot, had a broken back, was rescued by local Afghan villagers. He was the only American to survive. Luttrell wrote a book about his experience, called "Lone Survivor." His account has now been turned into film starring Mark Wahlberg, which opened in theaters around the country Friday. Marcus Luttrell spoke with us from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas, and described that deadly firefight.

MARCUS LUTTRELL: We did have an uneasy feeling, going in. The intel on the numbers kept changing. And then when we got overrun, it was such a large force that - the numbers have been speculated, anywhere from 60 to 80, to 80 to over 100. And it was all of that. I have recently talked to one of the villagers who saved my life. And he was in constant contact with the Taliban. And he says that there was over 100. I'm sticking with the latter, from 60 to 80.

MARTIN: The team commander was Lt. Michael Murphy. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which is the military's highest award, for his actions on that day. As a way of understanding what happened, can you describe what he did?

LUTTRELL: We had been pinned down. We had actually been pinned down multiple times, but we had managed to get out of each one of them. And then after Danny had been killed - Ax(ph) had been shot multiple times, one time in the face; I was hit; Mikey was hit. And we were - it was towards the tail end of the engagement, and we were - they had us dead to rights; they had us pinned in a hole pretty good. And Mikey, just with total disregard for his own life - I mean, he knew what he was doing, he knew it was the end - that he pulled out our satellite phone, crawled to an open area in the ravine, and stayed out there until he got in contact with our QRF. And he crawled out and was hit a couple of times during the phone call, but kept the lines of communication up until he was killed.

MARTIN: The film that's just come out is based on those events. It tells the story of your unit and that mission. I assume you've seen this. What did you think of it?

LUTTRELL: I thought they did a great job with what they had to work with. He cut it down to just the bare bones of what it was supposed to be. And I think it plays out real well in the film.

MARTIN: Was there anything in there that was embellished or just not true but made for a better movie; they needed to change something for the narrative?

LUTTRELL: I think - I noticed one of the liberties that Hollywood took in the movie that I just kind of - I remember sitting back in my chair and was like, why would you put that in there? - is when at the very end of the movie, they have the Taliban working me over pretty good...

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

LUTTRELL: ...well, that happened in real life, but I didn't kill anybody with a knife. And I remember sitting back and laughing. I go, why did you put that in there? What does that have to do with anything? I mean, the story itself, I think, is enough to where you wouldn't have to embellish anything.

MARTIN: You survived because an Afghan sheep herder found you, took you in, nursed back to health, told the Americans at a nearby base where to find you, which is an incredible part of this story. The film says he acted out of honor in the name of something called pashtunwali, which is the Afghan code of sorts, that says you protect your guests. What he did was really extraordinary, though. Was there more to it than that? What were his motivations?

LUTTRELL: No, that was it. Just basic barebones - that's what it was. It was just an honorable thing to do and he did it, and stuck to his beliefs. I mean, a lot of people would have folded under the pressure like that - especially when their village members started dying, his family members started dying; he's been shot, his car's been blown up, his house's been burnt down. And still, to this day, he'd tell you straight up; he goes, if I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same, exact thing. And I say the same thing. If I had to go through it all over again, we'd play it out just like it played out. But yeah, no, there was no alternative motives or anything like that. I mean, he didn't want anything out of me, or anything like that. He just did it because it was the way he lived his life.

MARTIN: What happened to that village? I wasn't just him; it was other people who lived there. They all protected you.

LUTTRELL: Sure. Still, I mean, they're persecuted to this very day. I mean, Gulah's(ph) got a bounty on his head that's...

MARTIN: That's the man who...

LUTTRELL: ...that won't come off. And I'm in constant contact with him and we, you know, we're family. And I'm a blood debt - I mean, a life debt. So I'm a member of that village, and he's a member of my family, and it will be that way until one of us dies. And...

MARTIN: So the Taliban knew you were there and they were holding the village - siege?

LUTTRELL: Oh, yes, ma'am. No, the Taliban was on top of me when Gulah found me. That part didn't make it into the film right away, but there was a constant threat. I couldn't peek my head out a window or anything like that, due to gunfire.

MARTIN: It's been nine years since this happened. You wrote a memoir about it. It's now been turned into a major motion picture. Are you ready to be done?

LUTTRELL: Absolutely. I can't wait. Yeah, no. People always - they're asking - I've had some people tell me that this changed my life. No, it hasn't. It hasn't done anything like that. This is just something that happened in my life. It doesn't define me as a man. But I do. I can't wait to get back to the ranch and go back to easy living.

MARTIN: What does that look like for you? What are you doing now?

LUTTRELL: Just that. I spend most of my time at the ranch with my family, and enjoy life - watch the sun come up, watch it go down, thank God for another day and just be happy.

MARTIN: Marcus Luttrell - his experience is the basis of the new film called "Lone Survivor." He joined us from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. Thanks so much for talking with us, Marcus.

LUTTRELL: Yes, ma'am. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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