The SEALs' Biggest Threat

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Klaidman

They can handle al Qaeda and the Taliban. What worries America's most celebrated fighting force is the lure of Hollywood's siren song.

Long after the sun had dipped behind the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, on a moonless night four Navy SEALs fast-roped down from a Chinook helicopter onto an isolated ridge. It was June 27, 2005, and the elite team of American warriors was on a kill or capture mission--code-named Operation Red Wings--in the heart of Taliban country. Their target was a tribal fighter named Ahmad Shah, whose attacks had taken a high toll on U.S. Marines in the area.

The SEAL team moved stealthily through the night across an unforgiving terrain of dense brush and rocks toward their predetermined observation point. But early the next morning they were discovered by a group of local goatherds. Lt. Michael Murphy, the SEALs' leader, faced a dilemma: let them go and compromise his team's position or kill them, a potential war crime. With buy-in from his men, Murphy released the Afghans.

Within an hour, the SEALs were ambushed by as many as 40 heavily armed Taliban. An intense firefight erupted. The badly outgunned SEALs were forced to retreat into a ravine for cover. Murphy and his men, suffering grievous wounds, were pinned down against the steep mountainside. Exposing himself to near-certain death, Murphy fought his way back into an open area so he could get enough signal to radio for backup. He immediately took a round in the back and fell to the ground, dropping his phone. He got back up and completed the call, successfully providing his team's location and requesting support.

When an MH-47 helicopter arrived to try to rescue the SEALs, the Taliban were lying in wait. Struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, the bird went down, killing all on board--eight Navy SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers. By then, Murphy and two of the three other SEALs from his team were dead. But Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell survived, living off berries, stream water, and his wits for seven days before being found by friendly Afghans and carried to safety. In 2007, Murph, as he was known, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for attempting to save the lives of his brother SEALs at the cost of his own life. He was the first naval officer to win the award since the Vietnam War.

On a balmy day last month, the Navy paid tribute to Murphy's heroism as only it could. With flags rippling in the breeze, stirring martial music, and the boom of cannons, the Navy commissioned the USS Michael Murphy, a sleek new warship, at a ceremony in New York Harbor. Politicians, friends, and naval officers delivered soaring encomiums to the fallen warrior. But it was Adm. William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command and himself a SEAL, who distilled in simple language

the characteristics that defined Murphy's heroism. "The greatest compliment one SEAL can bestow on another is to call him a teammate," McRaven said. "In the sea underwater at night when it is the darkest, it is your teammate who swims beside you, always ready to provide you air if you run out, untangle your line if you're caught under a ship, or fend off an unwanted visitor. In the air, it is your teammate who checks your parachute before you jump, who ensures you pull at the right altitude, and it is your teammate who lands beside you in enemy territory. On the land, it is your teammate who walks your flank, covering your six; it is your teammate who lays down a base of fire so you can maneuver against the enemy. And sometimes it is your teammate who lays down his life for yours. Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy embodied what it meant to be a teammate."

In McRaven's telling, Murphy personified a set of values key to the SEAL identity. He showed a willingness to submerge individual ego for the collective good of the unit, displaying humility, discretion, and selflessness. Together they are the qualities of the "quiet professional," a warrior archetype that, while aspirational, has long been a guiding beacon for America's Special Operators. …