This is the third installment in Lessons from the SEALs; be sure to read Part One and Part Two as well. Operation Red Wings began on June 27, 2005, when a team of four Navy SEALs was inserted via helicopter onto a mountain in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan for the purpose of observing and perhaps taking out Ahmad Shah, a local insurgent leader. While they attempted to conceal themselves on the side of the mountain overlooking the village where the target was located, their location became compromised. Three Afghani goat herders and around 100 goats unknowingly walked right up on them. The goat herders were unarmed, and the SEALs quickly surrounded them.
The goat herders presented a major problem for the SEALs. While they claimed they were not Taliban, the goat herders didn’t seem friendly, and the SEALs had little doubt that they would immediately notify the Taliban of the team’s presence. Still, the rules of engagement prohibited the SEALs from killing unarmed people who had not demonstrated hostile intent, which caused the team members to openly worry about facing murder charges and having every media outlet in the world broadcast the claim that they had murdered innocent Afghani civilians. What’s more, even if they killed the goat herders, they still had 100 goats with bells around their necks roaming the mountain, which would certainly draw the attention of the Taliban in the area in short order. Also, there was little doubt that someone would come looking for the goat herders if they didn’t return that evening, perhaps bringing Taliban with them. Either way, the SEALs’ position and mission was now compromised. By group vote, they chose to release the goat herders.
Within an hour, just as they had suspected, Shah’s fighters were moving up the mountain towards the team. Armed with RPG’s, AK-47’s, and heavy mortar rounds, Shah’s men surrounded the SEALs from superior tactical positions. Being outnumbered and outgunned, the SEAL team fought on and, often, down the mountain, which sometimes amounted to jumping and falling nearly straight down the face of the mountain. Every member of the team was shot up, beaten down, and facing death. In the end, only one of the SEALs on that mission returned home alive.
His name is Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL from Texas. You probably know him as the Lone Survivor, based on his book and a movie of the same name, where he was played by Mark Wahlberg. Thanks to his teammates, his toughness and skill, and some thousand-year-old Afghani tribal customs, Luttrell survived to tell the story of Operation Red Wings to the world. It was a story of incredible bravery and brotherhood that demonstrated the masculine virtues (strength, courage, productivity, and honor) at their highest level.
If you want to read about experiencing hell on earth, check out Lone Survivor. Luttrell tells about their decision to release the goat herders, knowing that doing so could very well lead to their own deaths, a decision that he now regrets. He tells about the bravery of his teammates, who after being shot multiple times, falling down the mountain face, and being hit with RPG blasts, each kept firing until their last breaths. He tells of one teammate (Michael Murphy) who, having already been shot in the stomach, walked out into the open amid intense gunfire in order to phone in their location in order to save his teammates. He was shot again during the call, causing him to drop the phone. He simply picked it back up, completed the call, limped back to cover, and continued fighting. He tells of being pinned down by unrelenting enemy gunfire and hearing his best friend and dying teammate call out to him – “Help me, Marcus! Help me . . . “ – knowing there was nothing he could do to help. He tells of being the last survivor and being hunted by the Taliban at night on the side of that mountain, having a severe wound to his leg that prevented him from walking. And he tells of the bravery of members of an Afghani village who found him and protected him at great risk to themselves and their families.
Stories like these, and there are plenty of them, explain why BUD/S and Hell Week exist (If you haven’t read my first two posts on BUD/S, click here and here). These warriors have to be trained to deal with the toughest of conditions, to keep fighting and to endure when their bodies cry out to stop, and to never let their team down. At almost any moment during Operation Red Wings, Marcus Luttrell and his teammates (Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz, and Michael Murphy) would have given anything to have been cold, wet, exhausted, achy, chafed, and sleepless, yet safe, on the beaches of Coronado, California. What Luttrell dealt with in the mountains of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan make Hell Week look like vacation.
But, Luttrell nearly didn’t make through Hell Week. In the early parts of Lone Survivor, he talked about how his BUD/S class was rocked around the middle of Hell Week when the best swimmer in their class quit during a water-treading drill in the icy waters of the Pacific. The group had been awake, doing endless pushups, sit-ups, runs, and drills with their boats for around 40 hours. They had been cold, wet, and caked with sand the entire time. Well over half the class had quit, so he had seen people quit before, even some of his friends. But when the best swimmer got out of the water, rang the bell three times, and walked away while the drill instructor barely even acknowledged him, it was different. It rocked everyone’s confidence. “He’s better than me”, they thought. “If he can’t make it, neither can I. I need to quit now, too.”
But he didn’t quit. He kept on, taking one step after the other, until he reached the end. Just like he would do years later on a mountain in Afghanistan. Except this time, he couldn’t walk. So he crawled. Later estimates show that he crawled around seven miles up and down that mountain. While being hunted. Most of us have never experienced being hunted. Churchill famously pointed out that “there is nothing in life so exhilarating as being shot at without result.” Marcus Luttrell would likely add that there is nothing in life as scary as being alone and injured while being hunted by a group of men who would like nothing more than to cut your head off in front of a worldwide audience.
Luttrell thought he had reached his limit in Hell Week as he watched someone he admired get out of the water, ring the bell, and quit. Instead, he kept going and found out was capable of much more, as he exhibited during Operation Red Wings. There are some lessons there for us.
First, we are capable of much more than we think. Most of the limits we place on ourselves are based on comfort. When we say “I can’t do that”, what we mean is “I can’t do that comfortably, or without great strain, or without risk of embarrassment.” That’s why we often add “if my life depended on it” to show just how certain we are that, under no circumstances, could we do what we’re being asked to do. But, even then, we are often engaging in hyperbole, as the extent of what we can do if we’re willing to deal with discomfort and/or potential embarrassment is amazing. Marcus Luttrell, Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz, and Michael Murphy are one example out of thousands.
Second, we need to recognize that we often draw our cues about our own abilities and potential from others. We tend to place ourselves in a pecking order based on talent. We view some people as superior to us and others as inferior to us based on their talent level. Marcus Luttrell viewed that other BUD/S candidate as a better SEAL candidate because he was a better swimmer. So when that guy quit, Luttrell was almost convinced to quit himself. There will always be people who are more talented than us in certain areas (reading, writing, running, jumping, lifting, solving equations, marketing, arguing, playing sports, sales, etc.). However, it’s often not the most talented people who are the highest achievers; it’s the toughest, the most resilient, the grittiest, and most courageous. But, toughness, resilience, grit, and courage are hard to measure and are not easily seen in day-to-day life. As a result, some of the most capable people in the world walk around without confidence because they see others who are more talented.
While Marcus Luttrell saw that other candidate’s swimming talent, he couldn’t see his own toughness. But because he had it, he completed BUD/S and realized his dream of becoming a SEAL, while the more talented candidate did not. Now, no one knows the other guy’s name, while Luttrell has inspired a nation.
So, perhaps it’s time for us to reevaluate ourselves. Where might we have bought into the lie that we can’t do something because we’re not as talented as others who have tried and failed? Where might we have decided we couldn’t do something because it would make us uncomfortable or would be embarrassing?
I’m not suggesting that you don’t do whatever possible to increase your skill level; far from it. Those four SEALs killed approximately 50 enemy fighters because they were skilled and had trained for the moment, not just because they were tough (see this post about how hard Michael Murphy trained). So, work hard to improve your skills. Push yourself through discomfort. And don’t just assume that you can’t accomplish the desires of your heart because someone that you perceive has more talent than you failed. Toughness, resilience, grit, and courage count. A lot. Marcus Luttrell is living proof. This is the man’s life.
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