BATH, Maine — Engaged in a frenzied firefight and outnumbered by the Taliban, Navy Lt. Michael Murphy made a desperate decision as he and three fellow SEALs fought for their lives on a rocky mountainside in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in 2005.
In a last-ditch effort to save his team, Murphy pulled out his satellite phone, walked into a clearing to get reception and called for reinforcements as a fusillade of bullets ricocheted around him. One of the bullets hit him, but he finished the call and even signed off, “Thank you.”
Then he continued the battle.
Dan Murphy, the sailor’s father, said it didn’t surprise him that his slain son, nicknamed “The Protector,” put himself in harm’s way. Nor was he surprised that in the heat of combat his son was courteous.
“That was Michael. He was cool under fire. He had the ability to process information, even under the most difficult of circumstances. That’s what made him such a good SEAL officer,” Murphy said.
A warship bearing the name of the Medal of Honor recipient will be christened Saturday — on what would have been Murphy’s 35th birthday — at Bath Iron Works, where the destroyer is being built.
Murphy, who was 29 when he died, graduated from Pennsylvania State University and was accepted into multiple law schools, but decided he could do more for his country as one of the Navy’s elite SEALs — special forces trained to fight on sea, air and land — the same forces that killed Osama bin Laden this week in Pakistan.
Heightened security will be in effect as Murphy’s mother, Maureen, christens the ship by smashing a bottle of champagne against the bow of the 510-foot-long warship as Murphy’s father, brother and others watch.
Murphy of Patchogue, N.Y., earned his nickname after getting suspended in elementary school for fighting with bullies who tried to stuff a special-needs child into a locker and for intervening when some youths were picking on a homeless man, said Dan Murphy, a lawyer, former prosecutor and Army veteran who served in Vietnam.
Maureen Murphy said he thought he was too young to take a desk job as a lawyer. Instead, he went to officer candidate school, the first step on his journey to becoming a SEAL officer. He was in training during the Sept. 11 attacks, which shaped his views.
His view was that there are “bullies in the world and people who’re oppressed in the world. And he said, ‘Sometimes they have to be taken care of,’” she said.
On June 28, 2005, the day he was killed, Murphy was leading a SEAL team in northeastern Afghanistan looking for the commander of a group of insurgents known as the Mountain Tigers.
The Operation Red Wings reconnaissance team rappelled down from a helicopter at night and climbed through rain to a spot 10,000 feet high overlooking a village to keep a lookout. But the mission was compromised the next morning when three local goat herders happened upon their hiding spot.
High in the Hindu Kush mountains, Murphy and Petty Officers Marcus Luttrell of Huntsville, Texas; Matthew Axelson of Cupertino, Calif.; and Danny Dietz of Littleton, Colo.; held a tense discussion of the rules of engagement and the fate of the three goat herders, who were being held at gunpoint.
If they were Taliban sympathizers, then letting the herders go would allow them to alert the Taliban forces lurking in the area; killing them might ensure the team’s safety, but there were issues of possible military charges and a media backlash, according to Luttrell, the lone survivor.
Murphy, who favored letting the goat herders go, guided a discussion of military, political, safety and moral implications. A majority agreed with him.
An hour after the herders were released, more than 100 Taliban armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades opened fire, attacking from higher elevation, and maneuvering to outflank the SEALs, said Gary Williams, author of “Seal of Honor,” a biography of Murphy.
Dan Murphy said his son made the right call.
“It was exactly the right decision and what Michael had to do. I’m looking at it from Michael’s perspective, that these were clearly civilians. One of them was 14 years old, which was about the age of his brother. Michael knew the rules of engagement and the risks associated with it,” the father said.
As the only survivor, Luttrell has pangs of regret for voting to go along with Murphy, his best friend; he now believes the team could’ve survived if the goat herders were killed.
In his own book, “Lone Survivor,” Luttrell wrote that Murphy was shot in the stomach early in the firefight, but ignored the wound and continued to lead the team, which killed dozens of Taliban attackers. The injuries continued to mount as the SEALs were forced to scramble, slide and tumble down the mountain in the face of the onslaught.
Three of the team members had been shot at least once when Murphy decided drastic action was needed to save the team, Luttrell wrote. With the team’s radio out of commission, Murphy exposed himself to enemy gunfire by stepping into a clearing with a satellite phone to make a call to Bagram Airfield to relay the dire situation. He dropped the phone after being shot, then picked it up to complete the phone call with four words: “Roger that, thank you.”
By the end of the two-hour firefight, Murphy, Dietz and Axelson were dead. The tragedy was compounded when 16 rescuers — eight additional SEALs and eight members of the Army’s elite “Night Stalkers” — were killed when their MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
It was the largest single-day loss in naval special warfare history. All told, 33 SEALS have been killed in action since the Sept. 11 attacks, officials say.
Luttrell, who was blown off the mountain by a rocket-propelled grenade and knocked unconscious, evaded capture until he was taken in by villagers who protected him until he was liberated five days later by special forces. He has since left the Navy, married and launched a foundation; he’s unable to attend Saturday’s event because his wife is in the final days of pregnancy, a spokesman for Luttrell said.
Navy Cmdr. Chad Muse, commanding officer of SEAL Delivery Team 1 in Hawaii, noted one of Murphy’s favorite books was Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire,” an account of outnumbered Spartans and their epic battle against hundreds of thousands of invading Persians nearly 2,500 years ago at the Battle of Thermopylae.
Like the Spartans, who were ultimately slaughtered, Murphy had a spirit that didn’t give up. “It’s about sacrifice and the Spartan ideal — and valor and heroism in battle,” Muse said.