Marcus Luttrell has no right to be alive. Shot 11 times and seriously wounded by blasts from rocket propelled grenades in a desperate battle against scores of Taliban fighters, he was the sole survivor of a four man Navy Seal team sent to kill or capture Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. The mission turned into disaster when Afghan goat herders stumbled on the special forces team. Faced with the dilemma of whether to kill the civilians and stop them from raising the alarm, the elite unit decided to take the risk of letting them go.
The fateful decision would see them fight a running battle against some 150 heavily armed Taliban, throwing themselves down the rocky mountainside in a bid to escape their attackers. Luttrell’s comrades - who he calls his “brothers” - did not make it out alive. And a Chinook helicopter bringing a Special Forces team to their aid was shot down with an RPG – killing all 16 men on board.
Unable to walk, with his back and pelvis broken, Luttrell managed to crawl away and hide before being found and given sanctuary by Mohammad Gulab, who came from a village opposed to the Taliban and managed to send word to the nearest US base that Luttrell had survived. The disastrous mission, which took place in June 2005, inspired the hit film Lone Survivor, with Mark Wahlberg playing the part of Luttrell.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Luttrell is remarkably calm about his ordeal. I suggest that it is a miracle he is still with us. In a laconic Texan drawl, he replies: “I think that’s the answer right there, just the hand of God kind of deal, obviously everything falls back on training, a lot of luck and a lot of praying.”
My attempts to press for details of just how bad it was are met with complete silence by the veteran, who received the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart for his part in what was dubbed Operation Red Wings. I switch the subject to that of the rules of engagement, asking if they can get in the way of a fair fight, and he opens up. “It’s kind of playing a game, I’m not saying that war is a game, I’m just using this as an analogy that say you’re trying to play a game and you’re following a set of rules when the other team is not.”
Commanders should have more trust in the men on the ground, says the former Navy Seal: “You’ve got to have a little faith in your investment, look at all the money and time you drop into us... we know the difference between when you have to engage and eliminate a threat as opposed to murder.”
So should the rules of engagement that govern how and when soldiers fight be relaxed? “If you’re going to implement some kind of rules of engagement it needs to be implemented by somebody who’s in theatre, who’s there. The enemy are not stupid, they know the deal, they know all the rules of engagement.” He recalls: “Sometimes you’d catch a guy and he’d beat himself half to death in the back of the Humvee while we are transporting him and driving him off and then our own guys are saying ‘why is this guy beat up?’ and you’re like ‘he did it to himself.’ And then you get shut down, you get investigated and persecuted for something that they did to themselves. I mean they take it as far as they will eliminate their own people just to stage a crime scene so to speak.”
So what about the allegations of detainee abuse and war crimes? “Well I mean it happens, there’s no doubt about that. I mean Abu Ghraib was ridiculous. Look at that, there’s no training and they are idiots first of all just to be doing that.” He admits that some soldiers “get frustrated” and suggests: “I would imagine it does stem from the rules of engagement... they see their buddies dying or something bad happening to them and who are you going to take it out on? So is it right? No it’s not. I mean do you see where it comes from? Sure, I mean the bottom line is everybody’s human which means you are going to make mistakes, you have emotions, it’s funny you strap these rules and everything on people but every scenario is different.”
Luttrell attacks the way there are “knee jerk reactions if something bad happens you’ve got to blame somebody.” Referring to his own experiences, he adds: “So because of everything bad that happened to us up on the mountain that day they’re going to try and blame somebody and make them lose their job? Is it not bad enough that we lost 19 guys, you want to fire someone because, let me tell you something, war is war all right. Bad things happen, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I ask if he fears that his friends and others died for nothing. “I purposely don’t think about it like that because that would upset me. I heard the other day that Ramadi in Iraq fell again and I fought there in 2006/07 in Fallujah and everything. That bad guys have taken it back over, yeah it’s frustrating.”
Another frustration is the view some have of people like him. “We’re not supermen, we like to think that we are. We don’t have a cape, we don’t wear a mask, we bleed just like everybody else.”
Speaking on the eve of the DVD release of the film depicting what he went through, he adds: “We’re good at what we do and we get the particular missions to do that kind of thing but we train hard and work hard to be successful at what we do.”
That side of his life is now gone, with the 39-year-old medically discharged from the Navy in 2007, something he admits was not easy: “It was tough, I didn’t want to. Yeah I had a problem with that but I understand it.”
And ever since that fateful mission back in 2005, there’s not a day that goes by when he does not think about the men he fought alongside. “I do everything I can to make sure their memory never dies - they were my family, my brothers.”
Lone Survivor is released to Blu-ray and DVD on 9th June 2014, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK)