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From the PublisherPraise for SERVICE
"An action-packed...reflective saga of contemporary military service."—Kirkus Reviews
Luttrell's eye-opening narrative also offers powerful new details about his time in Afghanistan and his miraculous rescue. After returning from that star-crossed mission with shattered bones and a broken heart, he thought of the men who had given their lives to save him-and how he would have readily done the same for them. He wondered why he and others, from America's founding to today, had been willing to sacrifice everything-including themselves-for the sake of family, nation, and freedom.
A thrilling war story, Service is also a profoundly moving tribute to the warrior brotherhood and to the belief that nobody goes it alone.
"An action-packed...reflective saga of contemporary military service."—Kirkus Reviews
It was about four in the morning when my cell phone started buzzing. I sat up, grabbed it off the nightstand, and looked at the display. The caller was one of my closest teammates, JT.
At that hour, I knew what the score was. Sliding my finger over the glass to answer the ring, I asked him, “What’s wrong with my brother?”
It had to be about Morgan, and it was.
“He’s stable, bro, but he’s really jacked up.”
My body went weak as I replied, “I’m on my way.” As I hung up, my stomach lurched. I ran to the bathroom and started throwing up.
JT was calling from the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. That night, twenty-three miles off Virginia Beach, my brother and his platoon were on a training op. The skies were clear and the seas were rolling easily when their Black Hawk helicopter approached a U.S. ship. The helo descended from her port side and entered a hover over the upper superstructure. As the pilot eased closer to the ship, USNS Arctic, the crew let out the ropes. As they dropped to the deck—basically a limp fireman’s pole running from the bird to the deck—Morgan and his squad sat at the ready, legs dangling down from the open right-side door.
With America’s effort to stop international piracy ramping up, search-and-seizure exercises like this one were a regular part of the training schedule. Six months earlier, after pirates took over the containership Maersk Alabama, one of our sniper teams set up on the fantail of a U.S. warship and killed the trio of criminals who were holding the American captain hostage.
But as my brother and his teammates were preparing to fast-rope down to the Arctic, their aircraft’s main rotor clipped a heavy guyline supporting one of the ship’s huge exhaust stacks. The blades gathered in the thick cable, reeling it in around the shaft. As the Black Hawk jerked downward, the guys perched in the door were thrown back into the crew compartment. They tumbled across the deck of the helo and piled into the left side of the fuselage. Then the helicopter crashed into the ship, steel on heavier steel, and rocked over onto its side.
Morgan was knocked dizzy by the impact, but cleared his head in time to see flames rushing at him as if they were shot from a giant flamethrower. Blinded by the smoke and with a fractured back, he struggled away from the inferno. Crawling out of the wreckage, he fell about fifteen feet down to the next deck of the ship. The impact was shattering, and it knocked him out cold.
As shipboard firefighters went to work, a hazmat crew was called out and all hands took care of the wounded. When they finished triage, they found that one man, the Black Hawk’s crew chief, had been killed, and eight more, including Morgan, badly injured. Quickly, another helo landed on the ship, took the casualties aboard, and flew them to the hospital in Portsmouth. From there, the news traveled fast.
When JT called me, I was in Florida doing physical rehabilitation following back surgery. After my last two combat deployments, my spine was a constant project for the docs, but nothing was going to keep me from flying to Portsmouth to see my brother. Morgan and I always drop whatever we’re doing to cover each other’s backs—and “always” means always. I called a generous friend who had a private plane and prevailed upon him to help me. As he routed the plane to the Pensacola airport to pick me up, I packed a three-day bag, jumped into my rental car, and sped to the general aviation hangar. Within a few short hours the Gulf of Mexico was disappearing behind us.
The flight north seemed to take forever, and the nearer we got to the Norfolk airport, near Portsmouth, the slower time seemed to move. I reached the hospital to learn that Morgan was in the MRI lab waiting on a scan. When the elevator doors opened, he lifted his head and cut his eyes in my direction, and I sprinted as fast as I could to him. He was strapped down to a gurney, suffering from a bad case of the hiccups. Each one of those little spasms in his diaphragm whipped through his busted-up core and racked him with pain. Our eyes locked, and the sight of him lying there injured brought a wash of acid into my throat. My stomach flipped again, but there was nothing down there left to throw up.
“Hey, mijo,” he said, using his nickname for me—meaning “baby boy” in Spanish. The sound of his voice brought me back to reality. I took Morgan by the hand, gave him a careful hug, and said, “I’m here, bro. We’ll get through this.”
The hospital tech, hunched over his computer, was busy with something and didn’t seem to notice what was going on. Apparently, the MRI couldn’t be performed while the patient was convulsing with hiccups, but nothing was being done about the situation. I lit into the tech forcefully about focusing on what should have mattered most: “Get your lazy ass away from that computer and get my brother some help before I jerk your arms off and beat you half to death with them!” That promptly got Morgan medicated, and when the contractions finally stopped, the techs slid him into the tube.
Seeing my brother laid up and helpless in traction tore my guts out. He’s one of the toughest men I’ve ever known. He isn’t just pain-tolerant or pain-resistant—he’s pain-defiant. When he snapped an ankle in college and didn’t have the money for treatment, he just hopped around on that busted hoof for weeks because he had to go to class and keep working. During his career he’s broken plenty of bones and had plenty of bloody scrapes, but those were nothing like this: the MRI showed that his back was fractured in six places, and that his pelvis was broken, too.
In the waiting room, I linked up with JT and another close teammate of ours, Boss. During the five days Morgan was in the hospital, the three of us set up a cot in his room and didn’t leave him for a minute. We kept a rotating watch, twenty-four hours a day. Morgan doesn’t take painkillers unless the pain prevents him from sleeping or otherwise gets in the way of his healing, so we did our best to keep him diverted. We made sure he had visitors when he wanted them. We brought in a DVD player and reading material and tried to keep things lively and upbeat. Most important, we let him rest.
When he had to relieve himself, we ran the nurses out and did the work ourselves. One of us took his head, the other his feet, and the third one took his midsection, and we rolled him over nice and easy and let him do his business. With all those meds and liquids flowing into him through that IV, it was usually a mess. (I remember it being like a scene from The Exorcist, but out of the other end.) You could always tell who the lowest-ranking guy in the room was, because he had cleanup. Whatever he needed, we helped the best we could. That’s what brothers do.
But you can’t keep Morgan down for long. When his appetite returned, we knew he was on his way. And when JT started hitting on the nurses, I knew we had turned another corner; it was clear that Morgan’s situation had settled down enough to let us start thinking about ourselves a little again. That was when we started laying the tough love on him.
“Your back’s broken—welcome to my world, bro. But what took you so long to get here?”
“You’re not feeling sorry for yourself, are you?”
“If you man up, you know this’ll be over soon.”
“If you don’t get it done, your team’s going downrange without you.”
That last one burned him most.
When the docs came in, we asked them if they could relocate the big scar on his forehead down to about midcheek, because most chicks dig scars.
Once in a while we gave it a rest long enough to give him a sponge bath, but mostly we made sure he knew that his team would expect him back as soon as surgery and rehab were done. Just for posterity’s sake, we took some hilarious photos of him whacked out and lying in his own misery. We figured the day would come when we’d need to whip out those pictures just to keep him humble.
After a surgical procedure and several more days of hospital life, Morgan finally said, “Bro, I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” This wasn’t because he’d tired of our unofficial treatment program—he’d simply reached the point where he had to escape from captivity. That was when we drew up the evac plan.
It was quick and dirty, and with an operator like JT on point, we thought it just might work. Come nighttime, JT went down the hall and started hitting on one of the nurses. When we heard the laughter start, Boss took advantage of the diversion to throw on some borrowed lab coats, heave Morgan into his wheelchair, and roll him right out of his room. It was as simple as a walk to the elevators. Against medical advice, we wheeled him out the door and carried him to freedom. Operation Homebound was a success.
After the dust settled from all that, Morgan ended up with me in Pensacola, right back where I was when JT called me with the news. He joined me at a state-of-the-art facility, Athletes’ Performance, that has a special rehab program for getting guys like us back to speed. Believe me, after working out there for a while, I knew what it would take for Morgan to get healed up again. But I also knew he would do whatever it took. Quitting is impossible when a brotherhood like ours circles up around you and focuses on getting you right again. They’d done it for me after I came home from Operation Redwing in July of 2005. Now it was Morgan’s turn.
Serving in uniform during wartime, you find that the urgency of the situations you’re in makes your relationships with your brothers tight, permanent, and unlike any others in your life. Relationships with those outside your closest fraternity seem fleeting, temporary, and disposable. But all of us are brothers. That’s something I realize every time I run into a combat veteran in civilian life.
There aren’t many degrees of separation between any of the 2.4 million men and women who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan. We’ve smelled the shitty air in Iraq and felt our lungs burn in the Hindu Kush. We’ve squeezed ourselves into Humvees and Black Hawks and been shot at. We’ve been stuck in slowly moving convoys, more than a little worried about what the next bump in the road will trigger. I think of the soldiers and U.S. Marines we fought side by side with, the point men and breachers, the bomb techs, the JTACs, intel guys, pilots and other augmentees, the doctors and medics, support platoons, and all the others. More than anyone else, of course, I think of my teammates. Many of them are still in the teams today, still writing their stories, visiting hell upon America’s enemies. Just thinking of them takes me back to the good ole days. I know I wouldn’t be here without them.
The only way out of hell is to walk right through it. When you do, it always helps to have your brothers by your side.
In any team environment, and especially in a group of highly driven people dedicated to a difficult mission, you’ll always find smaller crews that stick together tightly and lean on each other, no matter how hard things may get. That’s the way it’s always been with the men who are the core of my world. Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, the home of our odd-numbered SEAL teams, is right on the beach, just steps away from the Pacific’s swells. At Coronado, where SEALs are born, we were drawn together by a force that was part personality and part sensibility. We snapped together like magnets.
JT is one of them. He’s an Iowa kid, tough as a cornstalk, and stands about six foot four, as fit and strong as God meant any man to be. He’s a champion triathlete, not to mention one of the finest enlisted warriors in the SEAL community. Reckless with his wit and shockingly effective in any kind of fight, he’s the kind of guy you’re glad to have on your side, whether on deployment to a combat zone or in a small-town bar when there’s some stupid trouble brewing. With his big personality, he’s our point man in most situations. Outgoing and upbeat, he’s always ready for whatever his impulsive hilarity may bring us. He’s been that way forever.
Boss is an integral part of the circle, too. Originally from Arizona, he was in my boat crew in BUD/S, the training course where frogs are born, and until he finally proposed to his bride-to-be, he was JT’s roommate as well. A loyal friend and teammate, he and JT developed a bond so strong that JT joked to Amy, then Boss’s fiancée, that their wedding wouldn’t go through until the two SEALs were officially divorced. Boss is a true free spirit. His spirit is so free that I can imagine it flying all the way back to ancient Greece and inhabiting the body of a Spartan hoplite surrounded at Thermopylae. A master parachutist and hell on wheels in a gunfight, he was born in the wrong century, I sometimes think.
Josh, six foot six and all power and smarts, is one of us, too. After finishing at the Naval Academy, the redneck from Louisiana went on to BUD/S. Graduating with Class 232, right between Morgan and me, he served in several platoons before taking a break to pick up a graduate degree from Columbia University. After that, he returned to the fold and ran with our best. There’s something kinetic about the dynamic between us, and there’s no one other than my twin brother, Morgan, who I’d rather have watching my back.
JJ, one of relatively few African Americans in the SEAL teams, hails from Oklahoma but calls Texas home now. He started his career with my original unit, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1), the ultimate deepwater frogmen. His call sign was Underwater Brother, and he’s one bad mofo. A solid operator and a hellacious gunfighter, he’s been at my side through nearly my entire career. I’ve come close to losing my life more than once. I’m still here only because of things JJ has done.
Then there’s Morgan, my twin brother—seven minutes my senior. He and I are simply inseparable. When I lay wounded on that mountain, with media reports suggesting I was dead, Morgan knew otherwise just from the feeling that filled his heart. He walked among the crowd of friends and strangers that had gathered at our family’s ranch outside Huntsville, Texas, assuring one and all in no uncertain terms that I was alive. He kept saying, “If they haven’t found his body yet, then he is not dead.” He just seemed to know. It was a twin thing. We often say we’ll be together “from the womb to the tomb”—FTWTTT for short.
The SEAL community is one big circle, but these men are the core of my world. When I came home from Operation Redwing, all I really needed to get right again was to spend time in their presence. We’ve bled together, sweated together, and shed tears together. We’ve shared the same quarters and run through the same cycles of training and deployment. No matter what direction I might have been facing, I knew one of these guys always had my back. The longer we knew each other, the more we were aware of the fact that hung heavily in the air every time we got together: this day together might be our last. So we lived our lives as such.
It was never good form to say it too often, but Morgan and I spent every day of our lives up to that point sure that we would never reach age forty. Something, somewhere, was bound to happen. We’d flame out in a blaze of glory, uncelebrated except within the brotherhood.
I had nearly done that, over in Afghanistan. I was lucky to have made it home alive. Still, in a heartbeat, I would have traded my homecoming for the chance to bring any one of the teammates we lost that day home to his family.
On June 27, 2005, near a mountain peak in the Hindu Kush, almost two miles above sea level, our four-man recon team had gone out on a mission to kill or capture a senior Taliban leader. The next day we were compromised when some goatherds came upon us with their flock. We discussed what to do with them—kill them or free them—and mercy won out. Soon after we let them go, they betrayed us to the enemy. In short order, we were fighting a group of heavily armed Taliban insurgents, primed for battle and pissed off by our appearance on top of their rock. Surrounded and outnumbered, we followed our training, moving together and fighting with discipline, retreating (and mostly falling) down a steep cliff face. Ripping off measured bursts from our rifles, we claimed dozens of enemy lives, but the incoming hail of fire was too much for us to handle.
Danny Dietz, our comms guy and a damn good SEAL, was shot many times and ended up dying in my arms. Our officer in charge, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, stepped out of his cover to make a radio call requesting rescue, knowing it would cost him his life. Matt Axelson, our lead sniper, fought like a lion even after being shot in the head. He and I parted company when an RPG flew in and blasted us in different directions. I tried to find Axe—I didn’t want to be alone—but he was gone forever.
These men fought with everything they had and then some. They never quit. They will never be forgotten. God bless them.
Early that afternoon, having scrambled into the cover of a rocky crevice, I regained consciousness to find myself nearly buried between the steep slopes. As I tended to my wounds and took refuge from the enemy, who was scouring the hills in search of us, a Chinook helicopter, unbeknownst to me, was inbound to our rescue. Carrying a sixteen-man team, the aircraft met its end when a young Taliban fighter shot an RPG through the open rear ramp as the bird was hovering to land, dropping it to the ground and killing all the men on board.
Laid up in the middle of nowhere, badly wounded, and slowly dying from blood loss, exposure, and dehydration, I called out to God. There came, at last, an unlikely group of saviors: a posse of Pashtun tribesmen—not loyal to the Taliban—who found me and showed me mercy. They took me into their care, fended off my pursuers, led me to their village, and protected me as one of their own.
As it turned out, God heard everything I had to say. He put my life in the hands of a doctor from that tribe, Sarawa, and the village elder’s son, Gulab, who guarded and sheltered me for four days until my brothers in arms came for me, as they always do for one of their own.
After all the headlines about the losses we suffered that day—unprecedented at the time—my homecoming was making news of its own. Just before I touched down in San Antonio, JJ took a call from a reporter for a national cable TV news network. Insisting that she be the first to interview me and demanding an exclusive, she told JJ, “The people want this.” JJ replied in his easy but firm frogman way, “Just tell the people to say thanks. That’s pretty much all the interview you need.” She was offering him money as he hung up the phone, and she promptly went on the air anyway, making up a few things for her story.
About thirty minutes later my plane rolled up to the terminal and I was limping down the stairs to the tarmac to rejoin my brothers. In their company, I started my second lease on life. But on the four-hour drive home from the airport, the emotions were still too raw and I wasn’t able to talk much. The simple presence of these men was what I needed; just seeing them reminded me how I was supposed to be. I felt an overpowering urge to get right, to return to being like them again. When my body was ready, I’d be ready to say good-bye to the docs, get back on the horse, rejoin another SEAL team, have a wild laugh with my brothers, and do what every team guy is bred to do: find his way to the closest war.
I’d hardly been home three weeks when Morgan got orders to rejoin SDVT-1 in Hawaii. That’s how we always rolled: whenever I’d catch up to him he was ready to head somewhere else—and vice versa. This happened wherever we found each other, from Afghanistan to Texas, Iraq to Hawaii, and everywhere in between.
I followed him a few weeks later, rejoining our team at Pearl Harbor in August. I loved the SDV teams. They’re the hardest-working bunch of webfoots in the Navy. But every time I was with them, it felt like there was an empty hole without the guys from Redwing there. SDVT-1 had taken a devastating blow on June 28, 2005. Make no mistake about it: my lost teammates are still part of me. They reside in my soul. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about them and miss them terribly. I just needed to focus on work—but that wasn’t always easy.
My twin brother is a great soul and twice the SEAL operator I ever was, no doubt about it. But we’re both stronger, more whole, in each other’s company. We’ve fought as a team all our lives—and we grew up fighting, from grade school through college. Bar fights. Martial-arts tournaments. Street fights. We were and always have been a damn good team. Fighting side by side, we’re one person. If I go in low, he goes in high.
We’ve leaned on each other in good times and in bad. Dad made sure of that. If we ever came home from a night out and one of us had gotten into a scrape and the other was untouched, that meant trouble for the unscathed one, because Dad knew that one of us hadn’t stepped up. The few times Morgan and I got into it between us, Dad would size up the results and whip the winner for beating up his brother, then raise a hand to the other for losing. Having been brought up this way, it was natural for us to put on the uniform and go off to war together. More than ever, when I came home, I wanted it to be like old times in East Texas; I wanted to stand back-to-back with my brother again and take on the world.
So I decided I wouldn’t spend another day in the teams without him by my side. With help from higher command, we both received orders to join Team 5—the next team in the hopper to go overseas. Because of the physical therapy required by my injuries, I was delayed getting into the training cycle, but I linked up with Morgan and my new teammates in Team 5 soon enough.
On a beautiful stretch of beach in Coronado known as the Silver Strand, the screams and cries of the BUD/S students fighting to earn their Tridents and the hard cadences of the instructors dealing out hell reminded me what it had cost to become a SEAL. The smell of the mighty Pacific—freezing in December and merely cold as hell every other month—boosted my spirit and filled me with motivation to get back what I had lost.
But climbing up on that horse again—that was going to be tough.
Several of my spinal disks had been fractured and were grinding around like rods in a ruptured crankcase. My shooting hand was busted up so bad that the finest handiwork of the Navy surgeons who had pieced it together with metal bars and transplanted tendons hadn’t restored its full range of motion—and it hasn’t come back to this day. A strange parasite is still twisting up my guts and won’t go away. Nonetheless, I was charging hard with the boys of Team 5.
My favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo, is all about revenge. So is one of my favorite movies, The Boondock Saints, the story of two Irish brothers who take on the Russian mob in Boston. (The film has a cult following in the teams.) It’s an article of faith in our community: when you get hit, you get up and hit back. SEALs never quit and we never forgive or forget. Ever.
We’re going to make them pay for Mikey.
Pay for Danny.
Pay for Axe.
And pay for the sixteen warriors on that helo who flew in to save us that day, all of them in the prime of life, ages twenty-one to forty. There were the SEALs—Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, Jacques J. Fontan, Daniel R. Healy, Jeffrey A. Lucas, Michael M. McGreevy Jr., Shane E. Patton, James E. Suh, and Jeffrey S. Taylor—and the aviators from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Night Stalkers: Shamus O. Goare, Corey J. Goodnature, Kip A. Jacoby, Marcus V. Muralles, James W. Ponder III, Stephen C. Reich, Michael L. Russell, and Chris J. Scherkenbach.
No forgetting, no forgiveness.
Working in the austere, all-business environment of the NSW (Naval Special Warfare) compound at Coronado, Team 5 had a heavy workload in preparing for deployment. When the training cycle was done, we’d be bound for Iraq, the trash can of the Middle East, teetering on the brink not only of civil war but of total existential breakdown. We understood that our mission there would be far larger than the agenda of retribution that I was harboring. But maybe, I thought, by going back to war I could keep the privilege, at least in my own mind, of wearing the Trident on my chest. We have a saying in the teams: “Earn your Trident every day.” It’s harder to stay a SEAL than it is to become a SEAL.
Morgan always set me straight whenever I had doubts. Knowing my heart and soul, he asked, “Does a firefighter quit after going into a burning house? Does a cowboy stop riding if he gets thrown off a horse? No, he doesn’t. And you’ve got to get back on that horse and ride back into the fire.” I think he knew that this was exactly what I needed to hear.
Every team has its own reputation. Team 1, a West Coast outfit, has been called Stalag 1 for its tradition of severe discipline. Team 2, from the East Coast, is known as BUD/S Team 2 for the tough physical training its commanders always insist on. Those two teams have glorious battle histories going back more than fifty years, to the founding days of the teams during Vietnam. Guys in the East Coast teams like to kid West Coast teams that Southern California is easy duty—beach detachments, complete with volleyball nets. But I’ve found that each team develops its own unique way based on the character of the guys who run things. At Team 5, the incoming skipper, Commander Leonard, put a powerful positive stamp on the way we’d do business.
Morgan and I were immediately impressed with him. A veteran of the teams since 1979, he had come up through the enlisted ranks before taking his commission. The Navy term for an officer who follows that route is “mustang.” He had an approachable, blue-collar style. But he understood, too, that it was important for an officer to remain at a distance from the everyday life of his platoons. He was the kind of officer who looked around, saw what needed to happen, and made hard calls that no one could bitch about because of the way he commanded our respect. Hell, Skipper, as we called him, was leading SEAL teams in action all around the world when many of us were still in grade school.
Commander Leonard didn’t seem to mind that Morgan and I were together in his squadron—a no-no in the risk-averse, post–Saving Private Ryan Navy. I think he realized we had a lot to contribute while together, and that the risk of something happening to one of us would be double if we were apart.
The Skipper’s right-hand man was every bit as important and influential—his command master chief. Lean, scrubbed, fit, cool, and smart, Master Chief had a big job as Skipper’s senior enlisted adviser. A nineteen-year veteran of the teams at the time, and as skilled as SEAL operators come, he was a hard man who was also known for having a formidable intellect. It was his intelligence, clarity of mind, and smooth but direct way with people, both senior and subordinate, that put him in a class by himself, at least in my eyes. His presence was a constant reminder that brawn without brains is powerless.
Based on his recent experience with another team, Master Chief gave Skipper a breakdown on the situation in western Iraq’s insurgent hotbeds. It was a full-on crisis in cities like Ramadi and Habbaniyah. He told him what was working and what wasn’t in the struggle to rid the area of Al Qaeda’s murder squads. The Skipper and Master Chief steered our training mind-set based on what he’d seen in the Sandbox.
It felt good to get back into the mix with a bunch of running and gunning frogmen. Men like Skipper and Master Chief did me the greatest favor possible: they put me in a platoon as a regular frontline operator and demanded that I be treated as anyone else would be. Sometimes that wasn’t easy, and I hated it. Visiting dignitaries often wanted to meet the “lone survivor” of Operation Redwing and have me tell them the story personally. The calls came so frequently to my cell phone that the Skipper and Master Chief finally had to step in and ask people to direct all inquiries through them. They were always deferential and respectful. They heard the requests (usually made by an aide of some kind) and made a polite request in return: “Sir, if your boss can call me directly and tell me that Marcus needs to be pulled out of training for combat in Iraq, that it’s okay to interrupt preparations that will help him save lives and affect his platoon’s combat effectiveness, if your superior will call me and say that this is more important than the lives of our sailors, then I’ll bring Marcus to see him right now. But he does have to call me and tell me that first.” That next phone call never came.
The guys never said anything out loud, but I’m sure that all the outside attention affected the platoon as a whole. Once our leadership put the brakes on that, though, things went back to normal: team first, personal issues later. That’s what good leaders do for their men—they keep them free of distractions, their front sights zeroed on their most important work.
By the time you become a master chief in the teams, you’ve gone places far past the back of beyond, and you’ve gained a whole encyclopedia of secret knowledge from firsthand experience. For instance, having served in the SDV teams, where a frogman spends more than half his waking hours under water, Morgan and I believed that the darkest place in the world was underneath an aircraft carrier at night. That was until we met Master Chief. He told us a story about a training dive he had done in the muddy waters of the Persian Gulf. He and his teammate found their compasses going haywire because they had swum about twenty meters into a large underwater sewage pipe. Just goes to show you that in the SEAL teams you’re always going to run into guys who’ve swum through far nastier shit than you have.
In the teams, you’re an old man at thirty-five. I was thirty, but with my multiple injuries I was worried that I couldn’t keep up with the younger guys anymore. I remember Master Chief fixing me with a knowing look and saying that if, during predeployment workup, things ever reached the point where either he or I didn’t think I could deploy, he would quietly arrange for me to go somewhere else. He promised to make that call early and move on.
During workup, we spent several weeks at a military and police marksmanship school. The facility had professionally designed assault courses and more than thirty target ranges, and our instructors tested us in almost every combat scenario imaginable. We shot targets in a variety of settings and practiced house runs, the techniques of assault, and clearing small buildings. Over and over we rehearsed our urban fieldcraft. Thanks to this constant practice, we had a way of getting it done.
Workups often last longer than actual deployments do. The platoons need that time to sharpen their skill sets and allow that all-important chemistry to develop. A dedicated group of instructors known as the training detachment, or TraDet, is in charge. They keep a constant watch on what other special ops units are seeing downrange and draw the lessons into our training. There’s plenty of fieldwork and intensive classroom study, too. It’s the kind of thing you don’t see on many campuses: Blowing Things Up, Stalking Targets in the Night, Bashing Down Doors, and Dragging Bad Guys Away in the Dark. And we do a good bit of traveling around the country for various kinds of specialized training. It’s state of the art, informed by the experiences of the battle-wise SEAL operators who were most recently in harm’s way.
The first phase of workup focuses on individual skills. I arrived in time for one of my favorite training blocks: the couple of weeks we spent at an automobile racetrack in the Southwest learning tactical driving drills. This was easily the most fun I’ve had in the teams. Fun wasn’t on the agenda for our instructors, though: they were dead serious about testing and sharpening our high-speed vehicular pursuit and evasion skills, which are so useful in an urban setting. They brought out a fleet of beat-up cars—Pontiac Grand Ams and maybe a few SUVs—and put us in situations that demanded a lot of finesse at the wheel. We wore helmets, face masks, and protection for sensitive parts, but the instructors took the air bags out of our vehicles, because they just got in the way.
In these drills, we developed the reflexes we’d need to drive effectively under fire in a combat zone. We drove those old clunkers as though we were the Dukes of Hazzard. At one point I was barreling around the track, minding my own business in the driver’s seat, doing about eighty, when an instructor suddenly put a piece of cardboard in front of my face. A couple of my teammates heckled me a little, slapping me on the head, while I was speeding along blind. An unknown distance farther ahead, some orange traffic cones stood in my path. When the instructor pulled away the cardboard, I had a split second to see the cones, gauge their distance, and avoid them. It was a test of sight recognition, nerves, and reflexes. If I stopped more than ten feet away from the cones, I failed. If I hit them, I failed.
If we passed a test during the day, the instructors upped the ante, sending us out onto the track at night with no lights, speeding around with night-vision goggles strapped to our faces. Amplifying ambient light from the stars or the moon, NVGs cast the night in a glowing green. No doubt they’re a great tool. The only drawback is that they leave you with almost no depth perception at all. Objects in the windshield are much closer than they appear. It was almost enough to make me miss the air bags. When the instructors sensed that the novelty was wearing off, they broke out the rifles and we all started shooting at each other as we veered around the track. We’d take an M4 carbine and replace its barrel with one designed to shoot “sim rounds,” plastic bullets that contain a load of paint to mark hits. This wasn’t paintball—police use weapons like these to suppress riots. But although all this was crazy, it was also fun as hell. It was thrilling to get back into the game.
Our instructors had tactical skills to match those of anybody on the planet. It was no fun to be in their sights, getting hit with paint rounds as we barreled around the track. The rounds left contusions, even through heavy clothing, and they could do worse if you were unlucky or not careful. It was a full-contact sport, as close to real-time life and death as we could get without actually killing each other.
After we finished with the full-size sedans, we graduated to armored Suburbans and Tahoes. The heavier SUVs were much tougher to take through the high-speed turns in motorcade and getaway drills, but the exercise got us ready for a type of work that SEALs often do in a combat zone: escorting dignitaries to extremely dangerous places and running tactical convoys. Our instructors chased us, shooting and ramming into our vehicles, trying to knock us off the shoulder or flip us over. Without warning, they’d pull out in front of us in their clunkers, forcing sudden evasive action. Our job was to get our valuable cargo out of harm’s way. You have to think fast. Do you have enough space to swerve around the roadblock? Should you plow straight through or drive right over it? Sometimes they trapped us so well that there was nothing left to do but dismount and shoot it out, the instructors closing in, guns blazing. This was no mindless romp. It was a thinking man’s game, a test to see if we had what it takes to get our principal out of harm’s way regardless of our own safety. And it really opened our eyes to what works.
In these drills, we pushed our aggression levels to the limit. We didn’t miss a chance to drive up onto another driver’s hood, or to rip out the sun visors and throw them at each other. At the end of the day, our tires were flat, our fenders were caved in, and we were stained with paint from head to toe. When we ran out of working cars, a new fleet was at our disposal in the morning. The welts stayed with you for a while. So did the lessons.
One afternoon at the track, Morgan had a rough go of it. I was busy doing a shooting drill when it happened. I heard him before I saw him: the screech of tires, then the sound of metal grinding on dirt, then a series of heavy, crunching thumps. My brother rolled that brand-new Tahoe three times before it finally came to rest. Fortunately, like race-car drivers, he and the other guys with him were securely restrained, and were wearing helmets and other protection. When he opened the door and rolled out, he walked away to laughter, loud hooyahs, and applause. The disclaimers in those auto advertisements on TV always say: PROFESSIONAL DRIVER ON CLOSED COURSE. I don’t know who Mercedes hires to drive the cars in their commercials, but I’d take a job like that in a second.
By the time that training block was done, we were flying around the course, catching all the straight-line angles and working the accelerator and brakes with no wasted motion in our feet or heels. Most people have no need to avoid armed pursuit, put a bad guy’s vehicle into a ditch, make a J-turn, or bust through a roadblock. But team guys live in a different world. What we learned there was applicable everywhere, from an urban war zone to downtown Houston. Whether SEALs are driving convoys, moving out in a Humvee jocked up for a raid, or escorting dignitaries in a BMW 7 series while dressed in a suit, driving skills are paramount. If you can finish a training block like this in one piece, you’ve gotten some valuable combat training under your belt and lived an overgrown adolescent’s dream all in the same program. Sometimes it was hard to turn the training off. Leaving the track, we would have to restrain ourselves from racing home in our badass minivans. The cops knew our psychology and were usually waiting for us along the highway. But sometimes the juice is worth the squeeze.
Hollywood does a great job of making what we do look sexy. Jumping out of airplanes and locking out of submarines is pretty cool, but let me be the first to tell you: 90 percent of the time, all we’re doing is working from sunup to sundown, wearing our asses out practicing, practicing, practicing. Because it’s true: the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. Still, few training trips were as fun as driving school. It was like the best bumper-car track in the world (with no lawyers or insurance agents hanging around to keep the vehicles limited to walking speed).
A SEAL team has three troops, or task units, each of which has two platoons. I got lucky when they assigned me to Troop 1, whose two platoons, Alfa and Bravo, were under our troop commander, Lieutenant Commander Ryan Thomas. He was a terrific combat leader, and his troop chief, Senior Chief Petty Officer Warren Steffen, was in my view one of the hardest, most experienced, and capable operators in the community, the consummate quiet professional. Because of his build and the slight gray streaks above his temples, I always thought he looked like Mr. Fantastic from the Marvel Comics superhero team the Fantastic Four. Standing a lean and strong six foot three, about 220 pounds, Steffen had served two years in the fleet before entering BUD/S in 1993. He’d served in the finest units in the special operations community, but, like the good ones, never talked about it. SEALs are hard to impress, but we all respected him. His presence was low-key, high-impact. He was always looking out for his teammates. The more quietly he spoke, the closer we listened.
When Steffen mentioned to me that he considered Lieutenant Commander Thomas one of the most tactically sound officers he had ever worked with, I knew we were good to go. I was assigned to Alfa Platoon. Morgan was sent to Bravo Platoon, under Lieutenant Clint. We were both fired up to have been assigned to an outfit that was stacked from the top down with solid operators. We had a great mix of new blood with fresh perspectives and old hands with valuable experience. As we found our stride during workup, we developed an easy chemistry that made the natural competitiveness among us very productive.
Boss was one of the training instructors during workup. Our friendship didn’t move him to cut us any slack, however. Let’s just say that when you spend a few months getting tormented by a guy with Boss’s abilities, you come out the other side with your senses heightened.
In the second phase of workup, we put our individual skills into a team context. This phase is all about the tactical basics. Making a fighting team out of skilled operators, bringing everyone up to the same level with the ability to understand what each man’s responsibilities are and how we need to fight, survive, and win. We were in the middle of a mobility training exercise when Senior Chief Steffen told me I had been promoted to LPO, or leading petty officer, in Alfa Platoon.
The leading petty officer works directly under the platoon chief and basically makes sure his will is carried out. I sensed they were sending a message that they wanted me to raise my game as a leader and invest myself in the team. As a petty officer first class, I had served as a leader of a small fire team before. Now that I was an LPO for an entire platoon, things were getting serious.
The SEALs who run a platoon—the officer in charge (OIC), the assistant officer in charge (AOIC), the platoon chief, and the LPO—are objects of constant scrutiny. If anyone shows himself to be arrogant, or if it becomes evident that he cares more about himself than about his men, his reputation is history and soon he’ll be finished. As a leader, you either earn your place and keep your team aware of the connection between your capabilities and your privileges or things slide until you find yourself in a sorry place where you can neither lead nor trust your men. I wondered sometimes if I was up to it. Friends are friends but business is business. Good operators make the distinction and don’t let it interfere with work.
As an LPO, I now stood in range of my teammates’ judgment of their leader. I sensed the change in my status the first time I walked into the platoon hut and noticed how the boys quickly hushed up. Lips tight, eyes on the walls, they no longer allowed me to be privy to what made their world go round. My promotion took me out of their community and turned me into management. I didn’t mind the job itself, but I hated the fact that I was separated from the boys.
The men in Alfa were some of the best I have ever known. I never had to get onto them or tell them what to do. When I got orders of instructions from our chief, I passed them along, and by the end of the day they made me look good. That in turn made the chief look good, which made the officers look good, too.
The synergy of Alfa Platoon was amazing. No matter how bad things got, we all stuck together. Everybody was a packhorse. Even our new guys were squared away, keeping their ears open and their mouths shut. They kept their problems to themselves and their minds on their jobs.
Instructors often drew on past operations during training. If you can learn from past mistakes, your future will be a little less painful. This is part of a frogman’s ethos. A willingness to learn from the past is part of who we are—and part of the reason we can pull off some of the impossible missions that every now and again make it into the spotlight. Whenever an instructor went over something, I’d review my performance in Afghanistan and ask myself, “Did I do it that way?” I wanted to reassure myself that I hadn’t let my boys down. I wanted to be sure that if I ever got in that position again, everything would end differently.
I learned at one point that some higher-ups wanted to leave me behind in a “beach detachment” when the team finally went overseas. But Master Chief enforced Skipper’s wish to keep me on the line. Their confidence in me was energizing. As we prepared to begin the final stage of training, I wanted nothing more than to reward them for their faith.
When word came down that we were headed for Anbar Province, the boys were fired up. We had been following the work of the teams that had preceded us over there. Upstairs at the team house, after-action reports had been coming in daily. Ramadi was hot. It was a shooter’s field day for the team that had been there since April 2006. Team 3 was stacking up the shit bags as though they were cordwood.
Since late 2005, Anbar had been the bloodiest part of Iraq. Its capital, Ramadi, was a hornet’s nest of terrorist activity. Located about sixty-eight miles west of Baghdad, the city of about five hundred thousand people, almost all of them Sunnis, had been a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein. He cut deals with the tribal sheikhs to secure his control.
After U.S. forces seized Fallujah in November 2004, killing most of the insurgents who had chosen to make that city their Alamo, the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq, including its supposed chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, fled to Ramadi. Even after al-Zarqawi’s death—a blind date with a JDAM—Al Qaeda had the run of the place and insurgents attacked coalition patrols and outposts almost at will.
Ramadi sits on an ancient smugglers’ road, a dusty highway that leads from Baghdad west to Iraq’s border with Syria. In 2003, it was a terrorist pipeline. When coalition forces invaded Iraq that year, Syria and Iran, fearing they were next on America’s hit list after Saddam paid the piper, allowed throngs of foreign terrorists to enter Iraq through their sovereign territory. They came in the name of Arab brotherhood to fight the American infidels. Unfortunately for the Iraqi people, the terrorists didn’t mind slitting Muslim throats to influence their various agendas.
The fighting in Ramadi was intense as far back as 2004. Street by street, block by block, our Army and Marines fought until their trigger fingers bled. After Al Qaeda declared Ramadi the capital of the worldwide Islamist caliphate in 2005, our forces twisted down the vise, relentlessly increasing the pressure on the enemy. But in spite of those heroic efforts, the enemy kept coming. The explosions, heavy gunfire, and terrible human casualties never seemed to let up. The murderers claimed the city as their own, an ongoing insult and a mounting threat to the stability of the region. Anbar Province was hell on earth.
Which meant we would be right at home there.
Alongside their Marine Corps and Army brothers, SEAL Team 3 took a greedy harvest from the ranks of the Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents in Ramadi through the summer of 2006. Led by an aggressive, battle-hardened troop commander, Lieutenant Commander Willis, they were doing great work both in and above the streets. Working from rooftop overwatch positions, their snipers were scoring heavily. One of their best, Chris Kyle, was racking up a confirmed-kill record that surpassed that of every sniper the United States had ever sent to war. By the time he was done, it would reach an official count of 160, and I know it was far higher.
I know Chris well, because we started our careers in the teams together. He’s down-to-earth and laid-back, a country boy with a huge love of family, God, and country. He has saved a hell of a lot of American lives in combat, too, hanging himself way out there under fire, taking the fight to a savage enemy. Chris Kyle is a hell of a warfighter. Team 3’s performance motivated us, and gave us a benchmark to shoot for, though our leadership kept reminding us that numbers meant nothing in the long run; what counted was the strategic impact of our work once our time in Iraq was over.
The last phase of workup brought together all our supporting elements as a fully manned squadron, readying our entire unit to deploy into Iraq. Our medical teams, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians, intelligence crews—everyone—learned to function together as we would in Iraq. For months, our officers and senior enlisted had been getting briefed on unconventional modes of warfare such as counterinsurgency (COIN) and foreign internal defense (FID), in which U.S. forces help train another country’s military or police to fight an insurgency. This was the strategy our head shed was driving for our deployment, working to tie in our efforts with all the forces working our area of operations and across the region. This mode of war, dusted off and reengineered after years of disuse since Vietnam, was all about understanding the culture, developing a viable government and security force, taking care of the local people, and giving them the confidence to fight for themselves. It isn’t as sexy as kicking in doors and laying on a sniper rifle, and it wasn’t what most SEALs bargained for when they joined the teams. We weren’t wearing Tridents to go out into a cold, hateful world to train others to fight and build churches and schools. But it’s how real progress would be made, we were told. You can kill bad guys all day long, but they will always find someone else to step up, even their kids. When you really break it down, the locals are the key to everything. It’s their job to take their country back.
Soon enough, word came down that Team 5’s two Iraq-bound troops would set up shop in two of the biggest hellholes in Anbar Province: Habbaniyah and Ramadi. Troop 1 drew Ramadi. Skipper and the head-shed boys would locate in Fallujah, close to their higher headquarters, the I Marine Expeditionary Force (or I MEF). Commanded by General Richard Zilmer, I MEF oversaw all thirty thousand U.S. personnel serving in Anbar Province. Locally, in Ramadi, our operations would be conducted under a U.S. Army brigade that reported to General Zilmer’s headquarters.
The rough company of Team 5 was my family and fraternity, and Skipper, Master Chief, Lieutenant Commander Thomas, and Senior Chief Steffen were our patriarchs. Overseas, we would fight in the name of God and country. We would do it in support of the Army and Marine Corps infantry, tankers and engineers who were each doing their part to clear out an Al Qaeda hornet’s nest in the middle of Mesopotamia. And never far from my mind was something else: I would do it in the names of Mikey, Danny, Axe, and everyone on the rescue op who lost their lives on June 28, 2005.
Sometimes, as our training wound down, thoughts of that mountain would back up on me. Exhausted from the bone-crushing pain, I’d suddenly feel the slash of shrapnel and the burn in my lungs, the labors of a body under assault in thin air. Sometimes the memory of that pain gave way to numbness. I’d find myself feeling as though Operation Redwing hadn’t actually happened, that it was a story I had read somewhere.
I was still learning to keep those memories in a box. When things slowed down, the rage and feelings of futility would sometimes well up in the face of the reality that there was nothing I could have done. Sometimes I’d take a walk through the utility area behind the team house, chewing things over. For instance, I’d learned that when rescuers found Mikey and Axe, they saw that each of them had been wearing some kind of bandage. I was proud that in their last minutes they still did all they could to stay in the fight. But what could anyone say about me? I was the doc and it was my job to see to their wounds. They had each needed help, and I just couldn’t make it work. I knew there was nothing I could do while bullets were flying, just send bullets back the other way. But my thoughts would circle this track as I wandered among the big steel MILVAN containers that held our gear ready for quick loading and shipment overseas. Sitting down among them, I’d let some of the emotional overpressure of the past year flow out of me.
When I realized how little I was sleeping, I told Morgan I didn’t know what was wrong with me. “Nothing is. Suck it up,” he said. And I tried. Morgan was the one person in the world who could always reach me. In his many deployments in the teams, he’s done almost everything there is to do, several times nearly losing his life. But even Morgan hadn’t been through something like Redwing.
One day it came to a head. Morgan went to Lieutenant Commander Thomas and told him that he and I had talked and agreed that something needed to be done. He and Senior Chief Steffen pulled me in to see Skipper and Master Chief. We talked about the workup, about Iraq, about what Team 3 was doing, and reviewed our plan for taking their place. Soon enough someone broached my own state of readiness. Long story short, it was agreed that I needed a break. Physically and emotionally, I was basically spent. They took me off-line and sent me home for a while. They told me I could reengage when I got back, and the timetable would be up to me.
As Team 5 finished running through its paces, I returned to Texas. Back in the Lone Star State, at our family’s horse ranch outside Huntsville, near Sam Houston National Forest, I found a quiet world, a place where people didn’t run around the country from training block to training block, practicing house runs, crawling through brush with instructors in pursuit, driving cars like madmen on racetracks at night. I don’t sleep much now and I didn’t then. But there, in the wind-rustled silence, away from Coronado’s constant press, I found time for prayer and rest. I looked to the Lord and my family for strength.
As I took sanctuary in the East Texas piney woods, the story of what I went through in Afghanistan was beginning to get out. I never thought that news of such a sensitive and classified operation would leak out. But the families of my lost teammates were understandably pushing for it to be told. The Navy seemed unmoved until the media started doing its thing. When stories, many of them inaccurate, began to surface, my command decided the NSW community needed to get out in front of it. They decided I should write a book about the mission. I’m glad they allowed it, because I felt a powerful calling within me to honor the memory of some great warriors I once knew.
Over several weeks during my downtime, I went to Massachusetts and sat down with a writer and pulled together my part of the story. When I was done, I sent the manuscript to the Navy so they could make sure no classified information was published. The process was cathartic—painful, but necessary. And also strange: as SEALs, we’d been taught to hold our stories close, to say nothing to outsiders, especially the press. But we also knew how to get something done when the chain of command spoke. So I put my heart into it, mostly because, more than anything else, I wanted to let people know what, and who, America had lost.
Back in Coronado, the head shed did a good job of keeping my absence inconspicuous. Workup was often a circus anyway, with everybody moving around all the time, missing various training blocks when opportunities for more important work came along. When my medical appointments had pulled me away from the team, or when I was in Massachusetts, people were too busy to notice.
Back in Texas, I found time to see old friends. I walked in pastures and woodlands, and horsed around with my most loyal friend in the world, a yellow Labrador retriever who had been given to me as a puppy after I came home. She was a service dog, selected for her calmness and gentleness, traits that settled and grounded me. I named her DASY, an acronym for my lost team—Danny, Axe, Southern boy (me), and Yankee (Mikey).
As we sometimes say in the teams, if you have a bad day in the pool, get back in the pool. After calming my nerves, all I wanted was to be around team guys. I returned to the Silver Strand centered and refreshed. Alfa and Bravo Platoons were in the final stages of workup.
The last evolution the higher headquarters had in store for us before we went overseas took place at a base outside San Diego. It was a certification exercise that would officially validate our squadron’s readiness to deploy. We basically put ourselves into deployment mode, and then jumped into a no-joke combat simulation that lasted for a while. This exercise hit us with everything we’d find downrange except for real bullets and roadside bombs. In this dry run for taking on Iraq, we worked through our concept of operations, the whole counterinsurgency scenario. It was two tough weeks, but a great training exercise, with all the bells and whistles. More than anything else, it was good to have everyone together, working on the same objective. Our new guys showed some initiative right off the bat. They bought one of those plastic backyard kiddie swimming pools, set it up on the training range, and invited some women from a supporting Army unit over for a makeshift pool party right there in the California desert. (I’m still getting over the fact that, as someone with a leadership position, I wasn’t entitled to an invite.) Thinking outside the box—Bravo Zulu, guys.
As the LPO in Alfa Platoon (E-6 pay grade), I did more than I ever did as a regular shooter, running and gunning with the rest of the E-5s (second-class petty officers) in the train. I briefed my teammates, filtered plans and reports back and forth between the leadership and members of the platoon, and helped draw up tomorrow’s plan. On one of our last training ops, one of those doors turned out to hold a surprise I’ll never forget.
We were ordered to hit a series of houses, clearing them of bad guys, rounding up detainees, and identifying people to interrogate. One of the buildings we entered was a wooden barn. When we stacked up on the door, breached it, and crashed inside, we discovered a scene of carnage, the smell of blood as thick as a mist.
Someone shouted, “Mass casualties! Medic! Medic!” Though I had been elevated to LPO, I am still a medic. As we entered the barn, my brain did a skip-step, then kicked into gear. Elliott Miller, a Bravo Platoon medic, was spot-on as he went around with me, triaging the wounded. “That guy’s gone, forget him! What do we have over there?” It was fast-paced and urgent. Elliott and I were all over it. I heard our platoon OIC call in the quick reaction force and request an extract.
The blood was real, so it was easy to miss the fact that its source wasn’t a room full of wounded men: the barn was full of pigs. In consultation with a veterinarian, they had anesthetized the animals, then inflicted wounds for us to treat. It was the most realistic mass-casualty simulation we had ever seen. We practiced a variety of procedures to deal with trauma, arterial bleeding, abdominal wounds, bone fractures, and penetrating or blunt-force internal injuries.
And before you judge it, know that exercises like this, though controversial, have saved thousands of American lives by giving our medics realistic live-tissue training. They are an absolute must for any combat unit heading off to war.
I had just come out of a surgery myself when we went through this evolution. My right hand was still in a cast. After it was over, I noticed that I’d have to get it changed as soon as we got back to the Strand. The plaster was soaked through with blood and mud. Back at the team house, I went to Medical to see about getting some new plaster. The facility was a busy place when a team was doing a workup. Someone’s always getting jacked up. Looking around for the officer on watch, I leaned into an exam room and saw some Navy physicians huddled around a guy. He was a blond-haired kid, muscular and stocky. They were tending to one of his knees. If his manner and the look in his eyes were any indication, he’d just returned from a combat deployment. Poor dude was really white-knuckling as the docs worked on his left knee, which had been ripped up pretty good.
Our eyes met.
“Where you been, bro?” I asked him.
I considered this as the docs probed his wound. When one of them moved out of the way, I wedged myself farther into the room.
“How y’all rollin’ over there?”
He didn’t answer.
“I’m with Five,” I offered. “We’re hearing wild stuff coming off the wire.”
He winced as the docs worked on him. He didn’t speak, and he really didn’t have to. The expression on his face was worth a thousand words. I remember that pain. Hell, just looking at him made my knees hurt.
We already had the big picture of how U.S. forces were taking on that city. A big base, Camp Ramadi, was set up on the west side of town. Our main compound over there, known as Shark Base, was like a little appendage to Camp Ramadi, nestled between the base and the Euphrates River, which traces the northern edge of the city. A smaller base, Camp Corregidor, sat on the eastern outskirts. That place wasn’t much more than an outhouse surrounded by walls. I felt bad for the crew that had to live there.
Though I knew this guy had other concerns at the moment, my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to hear it straight from the mouth of an operator who had just come back from this circle of hell.
“We’re fixing to go wheels-up,” I said. “Got any advice before we head downrange?”
With the docs continuing to treat his wound, he seemed to welcome the distraction I provided. He did have some advice for me, but it was just a single word. His pale face turned my way and he looked at me with weary eyes.
As I go through my days, I’ve tried to make it a habit to lift my troubles to God. Some guys put their faith in their rifles. Me, I put it all in the grace of the Lord. I know who’s in charge and understand whom I serve. When all hell breaks loose and people start falling, God becomes priority number one. Still, the more I learned about the fight for Ramadi in 2006, the more clearly I saw that it might be helpful to take my prayer life to another level.
Soon enough, another Team 3 veteran turned up at the Strand, full of stories and good advice. It was my friend Chris Kyle. Thanks to his insane confirmed-kill total, the insurgents in Iraq knew him as al-Shaitan Ramadi, the devil of Ramadi. When he found out there was a bounty on his head, the sniper was flattered.
Chris has a fighter’s heart, and a little luck, too. Some team guys chase wars their whole careers and never experience the heavy stuff. He’s thrown out more lead than a pencil factory. When Chris ended his deployment a little early—guess he ran out of rounds—we took advantage of it to have lunch and he talked to me about the daily bump and grind in Ramadi.
We talked about how he kept his fighting edge, both mentally and physically, in the middle of a full-on urban war zone, where plenty of people want us dead and are willing to take themselves along for the ride. He told me dozens of little things to look for when walking down the street, what neighborhoods and villages to be wary of, how to work with the jundis (the Iraqi troops and police whom we’d be charged to train). He and his teammates had perfected the craft of building urban sniper hides—shooting positions in the upper floors or roofs of city buildings. Only someone with a death wish made trouble for our patrols on their watch. Yet there was always someone willing to grab a weapon and go toe-to-toe with us.
One time Chris spotted two guys on a moped speeding along the road down below him. He saw them drive past a big hole in the road, drop a big backpack into it, and keep puttering along. The next thing to drop was both of those IED emplacers, straight to the ground, taken down by a single shot that skewered them both through the neck.
Excerpted from Service by Luttrell, Marcus Copyright © 2012 by Luttrell, Marcus. Excerpted by permission.
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Map of Ramadi, Iraq x
A Note to the Reader xii
Prologue: Brotherhood 3
Part I How We Fight
1 One More Round 15
2 SEAL Team 5, Alfa Platoon 42
3 Never Quit 57
4 Into the Hornet's Nest 77
5 Shakeout Patrol 91
6 Firecracker 118
7 Old Men of Anbar 136
8 Under Fire and Blown to Hell 146
9 Frogman Down 176
10 "We're Not Going to Make It Out of Here Alive" 204
11 My Enemy, My Friend 224
12 Going South 234
13 Sniper One 261
14 Flight to Al Asad 269
15 Blood and Victory 287
Part II How We Live
16 Hitting the Wall 301
17 Angels on My Shoulder 314
18 "You Might Want to Pray Now" 335
19 That Others May Live 356
20 Stir-Crazy 377
21 Family Ties 389
Part III How We Die
22 Heroes of the Day 403
23 The Warrior Queens 423
24 Links in the Chain 446
Epilogue: The Flaming Ferris Wheel Spins 473
Naval Special Operations Personnel Killed in Action, 1943-Present 479