Marcus Luttrell: a 21st-century war hero

Former U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell discusses combat experiences and poetic license in movies

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

Shake the hand of Marcus Luttrell, and there’s no mistaking the grip of someone who spent many a year holding a weapon. A former U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell is your 21st-century war hero, with a book and movie deal relating his near-fatal experiences in Afghanistan. He was in Tokyo recently to promote “Lone Survivor,” the movie of his saga that stars Mark Wahlberg. Yet he’s also a plain-spoken Texan with little regard for the trappings of celebrity, a man with an intensity in his gaze that lingers from his wartime days.

With good reason: “Lone Survivor” depicts Operation Red Wings, in which a four-member SEAL team was dropped into enemy territory in June 2005 to track down a Taliban commander. A twist of fate led to the team being ambushed by a swarm of enemy fighters; Luttrell was the only one to make it back, thanks to Afghan villagers who protected him.

Luttrell wakes up every morning with the names of his three teammates, as he calls them, tattooed on his body — this is clearly something he will be living with for the rest of his life. So I ask him, wasn’t it hard to revisit these events so clearly in the film?

“You’ve got to understand that I get sick and tired of dealing with this story,” Luttrell says. “I don’t want to let it define me as a man, because I don’t let anything define me in that regard. But ultimately . . . that’s all (people) want to talk about. Now that the book’s out there — and the movie — that’s going to touch a lot of people, so it’s kind of ‘mission complete,’ if you will. It’s designed to do one thing: to bring immortality to my teammates.

“I remember the Monday after the movie came out — it actually felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest, like, ‘OK, this is over. I can push forward and do something else. I can spend some time on the ranch with my wife and kids.’ I don’t want to be famous or anything, I just like being a regular guy.”

Luttrell was often on set as a consultant for director Peter Berg while shooting “Lone Survivor,” making sure things looked real. However, he mostly stayed in the background, letting the “professionals” get on with it.

“If we saw something that was just ridiculously wrong,” Luttrell says, “we could yell ‘Cut!’ and say, ‘Hey, you need to fix this.’ Pete gave us that liberty. But if they made a mistake and we corrected it, they didn’t make it again.”

However, when Berg was shooting the climax scene in the village for “Lone Survivor,” the former SEAL was surprised to see the Hollywood-style “poetic license” the filmmakers were taking with his story.

“It really set me off,” he says. “I went high and right, like ‘You don’t have to add anything to the story, people aren’t going to believe it anyway. There are some things that happened out there that even I don’t believe!’ ”

Without ruining the ending for anyone, Luttrell is the first to admit that his broken back would not have allowed him to get into a knife fight with anyone.

“Lone Survivor” is a particularly intense experience, but I ask Luttrell whether he thinks any film can approximate the feeling of being in combat for real. He pauses.

“I guess the best way to explain it is, ‘OK, I thought I knew about combat before I went in, because I watched movies and read books.’ But let me tell you something: The first time I got shot at, it was completely different from what I had expected, especially when it gets real bad and people start dying.”

Luttrell describes a traumatic ordeal he was forced to deal with during his last deployment in Ramadi, Iraq. After recovering from that broken back and shrapnel wounds, Luttrell led some fresh troops in combat, and was deployed on a rooftop position for about a week. “This kid, he had to be about 18 or 19, got shot in the back and it came out behind his knee. And the way he was screaming, it was like nothing you’ve ever heard.”

He turned and addressed the young marines around him, many in combat for the first time. “Listen to him scream,” he told them. “Because once you hear that, your attention to detail spikes really high, you don’t make stupid mistakes. We had to hear him scream (as they carried him) all the way down five stories. No movie, nothing, will ever prepare you for what that’s like until you go through it. . . . I hope most people don’t ever have to experience that.”

Luttrell’s own fascination with the SEALs began at an early age; he started training at age 14 in order to pass the notoriously grueling training. However, he’s a father himself, now, and I wonder what he would say to his own son if he went down the same path.

“I would never push that on him,” the veteran says. “If it comes time that he starts poking around with the notion, then that’s something my wife and I will have to talk about. There’s nothing wrong with serving your country, it made me the man I am today. . . . But my daddy passed down to me a word of advice that I’m gonna pass on to my son, that my father’s shoes were there not for me to fill, but to walk in if I needed to. Whatever he wants to do, I’m gonna back him up.”