Lone Survivor

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“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”
― G.K. Chesterton

Marcus Luttrell’s childhood might read to some like the start of a Jeff Foxworthy joke, “you might be a Texan if…”

  • you grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone
    • your father trained you how to survive in the wild and fire a rifle before you were 10 years old
    • your brother wrestles alligators and water moccasins
    • you are six feet five inches tall and 240 lbs…

But what is most uncommon about Luttrell is his iron will. From 12 years of age, he decided he wanted to become a Navy SEAL. He and his twin brother put themselves under the mentorship of a former member of the special forces, who trained Marcus and a dozen other teenagers.

Eventually, Marcus began training in BUD/S (basic underwater demolition SEAL training).

Pushups by the hundreds, after a shower underneath ice water from a sandblaster many hours before the sun would rise, only to run into the pacific ocean, roll in sand and get barked at by an ever-circling group of trainers trying to find his breaking point. He and a small team spent hours hauling a 180 lb. inflatable raft through sinking sand, soaking wet in a cold that bites into your bones, pulling against frozen muscles and oaring that raft against wave after wave out to sea, where they’d capsize the boat, turn it upright, return & repeat. Then a sprint to the chow hall for lunch.

All this torture trained the men who were able to endure it to live the mantra “never give up the fight”. They had all taken from the training a deep-seated confidence in themselves and their brothers in arms, not to mention the mental discipline to push themselves farther and harder than they ever dreamed possible.

So when Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, Matthew Murphy, and Matt Axelson found themselves outnumbered 40 to one, cut off and surrounded, tumbling down the rocky face of a cliff, they did not panic, they fought on. They braced one another up. They each endured multiple gunshot wounds, broken bones and severe blood loss so that their brothers could survive. And when Axelson tells Luttrell, “If I die, tell my wife how much I love her. I want her to know that I died with my brothers, with a full heart,” suddenly I understand where these men get their strength.

Marcus’s book is easy to read, and it’s hard to read. The words are what one might expect from a well-educated man of character, disciplined by the special forces. They are direct. What is hard to accept, of course, is that these men are gone.

Similarly, the movie is excellent, but also hard to take in. Peter Berg and the cast do an amazing job of planting the audience in the battlefield with the SEAL team. Instead of the usual sprawling epic most war films go for. Lone Survivor keeps things small and efficient – powerful.

In the movie, Luttrell makes a few cameo appearances, has one line of dialogue. His character is on board the helicopter with 18 other soldiers sent on the failed rescue mission that cost all 19 men their lives when an R.P.G. took the helicopter down. I believe it was symbolic of what Luttrell had said in interviews before the movie’s national release, something voiced in the final minutes of the movie, “A part of me died on that mountain. A part of me is dead up there with my brothers.”

It is at this point where perhaps even a war hero might finally give up the fight. But Luttrell’s brothers continue to support him, even after their death. “But another part of me,” Luttrell says, “lives on to share the story.”

Luttrell crawled away from the mountain. His hip was broken. He suffered gun shot wounds and nearly bit his tongue in half. He crawled miles to a village where he was given shelter and eventually rescued. And after speaking with his family over the phone while being air-lifted to a hospital to confirm he had survived and after a long physical recovery, Marcus went back into the field of battle.

He is currently retired, his body unable to perform the tasks required of a SEAL at war. But he has begun a new season of life, and found a new way to fight, always acknowledging the courage and loyalty of his brothers.

All too easily, the Americans who thrive on the freedom these men pay for in blood give up on life. It’s too costly, too painful, too uncertain, involves too much risk, requires too much strength, gives too little in return. Even for those of us who have not served in the military, the story is very challenging. All good stories, the ones worth sharing, are about salvaging or preserving relationships. In this case, Luttrell’s mission is to tell the world how these men died, and how they lived. The story challenges all of us with their example, their calling.

What does it mean to have a full heart? What could possess a man to endure such things, to risk death?

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One thought on “Lone Survivor

  1. Saw the movie and couldn’t sleep that night. Disturbing, yet so powerful. I will try to live the rest of my life by the mantra, “Never give up the fight”! Maybe in some small way it would be my tribute to all of those who gave their lives so that we could live ours, on our terms.

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