Former Navy SEAL says he misspoke on details of Afghan battle
By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 16, 2008
ARLINGTON, Va. — A former Navy SEAL who was the only member of his team to survive a fierce fight with the Taliban didn’t get everything quite right when he recounted the battle and his subsequent rescue at an event this spring in Washington.
Marcus Luttrell, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in Afghanistan, spoke April 24 at the Army and Navy Club in Washington as part of an event sponsored by the American Veterans Center.
Stars and Stripes recorded Luttrell’s comments and included them in a profile of Navy Lt. Michael Murphy, the SEAL team leader who was awarded the Medal of Honor for exposing himself to enemy fire to call for backup.
But after the story ran, Stripes learned some of what Luttrell said was wrong.
Luttrell, who wrote the book "Lone Survivor" about what happened in Afghanistan, told the audience at the Army and Navy Club that one of his teammates, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, survived for two weeks after battle, despite being shot in the head.
"When they found Danny and Mikey, their bodies were decomposing, rigor mortis had set in, the whole nine yards, you can only imagine," he said. "When they found Matt — people don’t know about this — he didn’t have that. There wasn’t any larva or anything like that. He survived for two weeks out there."
He went on to say that Axelson had been shot seven times by the time he left Axelson.
"That SOB lived for two more weeks out there with those injuries, and when they found him, he was in a clearing — someone had laid him there, you know," Luttrell said. "I remember I was still in the hospital when they found him — true testament to a warrior."
But the date of death on Axelson’s death certificate is June 28, 2005, the day of the battle, said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Tamsen Reese.
Asked about the matter, Luttrell said he misspoke, explaining that Axelson’s body was found in a different spot than when he left Axelson, leading him to think that Axelson survived a little longer than he expected.
In an e-mail, Luttrell said he misspoke, explaining there was no way he could tell "the exact time he (Axelson) died or how much longer he fought and lived." He said he was sorry he "confused everyone" as to the exact time Axelson perished, but he added that no one will ever know exactly when Axelson died.
Axelson’s father, Corky, said an autopsy was not able to determine exactly when his son died, but Axelson did not survive for two weeks.
"He’d been dead for some time when they found him," the elder Axelson said.
Corky Axelson said he understands if there are some inaccuracies in Luttrell’s book, but he believes Luttrell got the story right for the most part.
"I have no reason to believe differently," he said.
But the mother of the fourth SEAL, Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, said she had issues with the Stripes story based on Luttrell’s comments at the Army and Navy Club.
Luttrell recalled how Dietz was shot while trying to make a radio call.
"I was, ‘Did you get that radio call off for help,’ and he’s like, ‘I was on the phone bro, but they blew out of my hand — they blew my hand off,’ " Luttrell said.
Cindy Dietz said her son’s thumb was blown off, not his entire hand.
She also took issue with Luttrell’s recollection of an exchange between him and Dietz after Dietz had been shot.
"I was a medic, and he’s like, ‘I need some help, man, man they shot me!’ " Luttrell said in April. "And I was like, ‘Well, I can’t help you,’ because there’s no medicine on the battlefield for those who don’t know that. It’s rounds back downrange. That’s it."
Cindy Dietz said she did not think Luttrell would have told her son that he could not help him.
"Marcus held my son until my son breathed his last my breath," she said.
Luttrell did not respond directly to requests to comment on Cindy Dietz’ objections, so Stripes asked a spokesman with Navy Special Warfare Command to get in contact with him.
The spokesman, Cmdr. Greg Geisen, relayed the following text message from Luttrell on the matter: "At the panel discussion I was not as specific and clear as I could have been. I apologize if my comments have caused any confusion and I will try to be more specific in the future."