Laden with weapons and gear, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell grasped the rope dangling from the rear of the Chinook transport helicopter and descended into the moonless night. Twenty feet down, his boots touched ground in the remote mountains of northeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. As the roar of the helicopter faded to silence, Luttrell and three other Navy SEALs—Lieutenant Michael Murphy and Petty Officers Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson—found themselves alone in the pitch darkness of a desolate warzone.

The elite four-man team was searching for Ahmad Shah, a militia leader aligned with the Taliban, as part of a mission dubbed Operation Red Wings. Soaked by a cold rain, the quartet hiked for hours through the darkness as they struggled to keep their footings on the steep mountain ridges. After the sun dawned on June 28, 2005, nearly four years into the war in Afghanistan, the mud-caked SEALs burrowed themselves behind rocks, logs and tree stumps on an outcrop overlooking Shah’s suspected location. The 29-year-old Luttrell, a sniper and team medic, concealed himself under a felled tree when he suddenly heard soft footsteps. Looking up, he saw a turbaned man carrying an axe.

The SEALs had been discovered. Not by enemy forces, however, but a local goat herder. Within moments, nearly 100 goats with bells around their necks came jingling over the mountainside with another herder and a teenage boy.

The surprise presented the SEALs with several options—none of them good. Killing unarmed noncombatants would violate acceptable rules of engagement and also likely result in a court-martial. If the SEALs tied up the three and left them behind, they still faced the problem of what to do with the bleating herd without raising suspicions. Dietz, who was in charge of communications, tried to radio headquarters for instructions but could not connect.

Left to make their own decision, the unit released the unarmed men, knowing it was very possible that the herders would inform the Taliban forces. It was a decision Luttrell “knew could sign our death warrant.”

Matthew G. Axelson, Daniel R. Healy, James Suh, Marcus Luttrell, Eric S. Patton and Michael P. Murphy pose in Afghanistan on June 18, 2005. Ten days later, all but Luttrell would be killed by enemy forces while supporting Operating Red Wings, which also claimed the lives of Danny Dietz and 13 other Navy Seals. (Credit: U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
Matthew G. Axelson, Daniel R. Healy, James Suh, Marcus Luttrell, Eric S. Patton and Michael P. Murphy pose in Afghanistan on June 18, 2005. Ten days later, all but Luttrell would be killed by enemy forces while supporting Operating Red Wings, which also claimed the lives of Danny Dietz and 13 other Navy Seals. (Credit: U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

With their mission compromised, the SEALs tried to move to a defensive position, but barely an hour later, dozens of Shah’s forces emerged over a ridgeline. An avalanche of AK-47 fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars cascaded down the mountain. The terrain proved just as vicious as the enemy. As the Taliban fighters advanced, the SEALs scrambled, fell and jumped hundreds of feet down the mountain. One fall shattered three of Luttrell’s vertebrae.

Dietz was shot multiple times during the firefight, and although his right thumb had been blown off in the battle, he continued to shoot at the enemy to protect his unit. As Luttrell hooked his arms underneath the shoulders of his badly wounded comrade to drag him down the slope, a bullet hit Dietz in the back of his head. He died in Luttrell’s arms.

The badly wounded Murphy knew their best chance at survival was to call in reinforcements. Without a workable radio connection, the team leader cast his personal safety aside and moved to a completely exposed position, the only location where he could get a signal on his satellite phone. As Murphy phoned for backup, a bullet ripped through his back. The lieutenant managed to complete his call and even keep up the fight, but he could not survive. Luttrell holed up with Axelson, who had sustained a terrible head wound, when a rocket-propelled grenade blasted the two apart. Luttrell never saw Axelson again.

Luttrell miraculously survived the blast and managed to elude capture by the time reinforcements arrived. Alerted by Murphy’s call, two Chinook helicopters carrying Special Operations Forces rushed to the area of the firefight, but as one of the aircraft hovered to discharge its troops, a rocket-propelled grenade shot it out of the sky. The eight SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers aboard all died.

By the time the sun set on the disastrous day, 19 Americans were dead. Luttrell was presumed to have been a 20th victim, but in spite of bullet wounds, a broken back and rocks and shrapnel protruding from his legs, the SEAL survived. Unaware of the tragedy that befell the rescue operation, Luttrell crawled seven miles through the mountains. In spite of his wounds, he killed chasing Taliban with his rifle and grenades as he continued to evade capture.

As the sun blazed down, the thirsty Luttrell licked the sweat off his arms until he found a waterfall. As he sipped its cool waters, he suddenly found himself surrounded once again by a band of local men. These men, however, proved to be more friend than foe. One of the men, Mohammad Gulab, assured Luttrell they were not Taliban, and he and three others carried the wounded warrior back to their village of Sabray. Bound by a tribal code of honor known as Pashtunwali, Gulab gave Luttrell food, water and shelter. Although the Taliban encircled the village and threatened his family and neighbors if he didn’t turn over the American, Gulab refused. For four days, Luttrell was shuttled among houses and even into a cave to prevent his capture.

Finally, Gulab’s father traveled to a Marine outpost with a note from Luttrell. The military launched a large combat search-and-rescue operation with warplanes and ground forces that attacked the Taliban fighters and brought home their missing man. As Gulab helped the limping SEAL to a waiting helicopter, an Air Force pararescueman held out his outstretched arm to Luttrell and said, “Welcome home, brother.”

For his actions, Luttrell received the Navy Cross in a 2006 White House ceremony, and Axelson and Dietz received the same honor posthumously. Murphy posthumously received his country’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. Luttrell may have been the firefight’s lone survivor, but he hardly emerged unscathed. He struggled with survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical after-effects in the ensuing years. “I died on that mountain, too,” he said of his torment in a 2007 interview with NBC. “I left a part of myself up there.”