In 2005, Marcus Luttrell is a Navy SEAL serving in the Middle East. He’s about to be deployed to Afghanistan for a special mission, along with half a dozen of his teammates. Luttrell is a proud supporter of the War on Terror, and a great admirer of President George W. Bush—a “true Texan,” just like him.
On his flight to Afghanistan, Luttrell thinks about his relationship with the American military. For as long as he can remember, he’s been a big, tough kid, and he’s long wanted to serve in the military. Growing up in Texas with his twin brother Morgan Luttrell, Luttrell was raised to be strong, confident, and brave. Local ex-marines would teach him how to fight and fire a gun.
As a young man, Luttrell signed up for the Navy SEALs, the most challenging branch of the military. As part of his training, Luttrell had to attend a rigorous training camp, during which he worked harder than he’d ever worked in his life. Under the tutelage of the tough but fair Inspector Reno Alberto, Luttrell bulks up and learns how to conduct himself on land and in the water. The most challenging part of Luttrell’s training is the legendary “Hell Week,” the period during which SEAL recruits are worked exceptionally hard, forbidden from sleeping for long periods of time, and given little to no food. While dozens of recruits give up on their dreams of becoming marines—via the symbolic act of ringing a tiny bell—Luttrell stays strong and survives Hell Week. For the rest of his time in SEAL training, Luttrell learns about parachuting and firing guns, and passes courses that train him to act as a medic for his fellow soldiers.
Luttrell officially graduates from SEAL training in early 2002. By this time, the American military is deploying to the Middle East in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, engineered by Osama bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda. Luttrell is hot for revenge, and looks forward to fighting the “ungodly,” wicked terrorists who planned the attacks. As he sees it, the American military needs to use aggressive tactics to defeat al Qaeda, as well as the terrorist organization known as the Taliban, which is believed to be cooperating with al Qaeda. Luttrell has no patience for figures in the “liberal media” who criticize the American war effort for being too harsh and unethical.
Luttrell deploys to Bahrain for a short time, where he sees first-hand the widespread opposition to America in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East. In 2005, he deploys to Afghanistan, where, Luttrell believes, terrorists planned the September 11 attacks. In Afghanistan, Luttrell works closely with his friends Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy, or “Mikey,” Petty Officer Danny Dietz, and Matthew Gene Axelson, or “Axe,” among other members of SEAL Team Ten. The team’s main duties include searching the Hindu Kush mountains for wandering Taliban soldiers, and tracking down important Taliban commanders.
Luttrell, Danny, Mikey, and Axe are deployed on a secret mission known as Operation Redwing. As a part of this mission, they’re sent into the Hindu Kush mountains in search of a dangerous Taliban leader named Ben Sharmak. Sharmak is responsible for killing many American soldiers, and he commands a vast army of Taliban troops. Because of Sharmak’s power, it’s imperative that Luttrell and his teammates have the element of surprise—in an ordinary fight, they’d be impossibly outnumbered.
Late at night, The SEALs land near the village where Sharmak is suspected to be living, and stake out the area. The next day, they cross paths with a group of Afghan goatherds, posing a major challenge to the mission. If the SEALs let the goatherds go, there’s a good chance that the goatherds will either tell Taliban soldiers about the SEALs, or they’ll be tortured and forced to reveal what they know. Nevertheless, Luttrell and Mikey are reluctant to murder innocent people, while Axe wants to kill them and Danny doesn’t voice an opinion. In the end, the SEALs vote to let the goatherds go free.
Within just a few hours, dozens of Taliban soldiers show up in the mountains, no doubt sent there by the goatherds. The SEALs are put in an impossible position. They fight back, killing many Taliban soldiers, but they’re so badly outnumbered that they have no choice but to retreat, jumping down the side of the mountain again and again. In the conflict, Luttrell’s three fellow SEALs are murdered. Luttrell tries to care for his men, since he’s the team medic, but he loses his medical supplies in a fall down the mountain. In his moment of crisis, Luttrell prays to God for mercy. Amazingly, Luttrell is able to hold onto his rifle during his fall, and then he’s able to hide from the Taliban troops.
Luttrell’s leg has been badly wounded in a grenade explosion, and he’s cracked his vertebrae. He’s losing a lot of blood. He sends out a distress signal, and then attempts to search for water. Meanwhile, responding to a distress signal put out by Mikey shortly before his death, the military sends a helicopter full of SEALs to assist in the rescue. However, the Taliban shoot down the helicopter, killing everyone onboard. Back in the United States, it’s widely reported that all four marines involved in Operation Redwing are dead, devastating Luttrell’s parents and his two brothers, Morgan and Scottie.
Luttrell crawls up the side of the mountain, at several points falling back down and further injuring himself. However, he manages to climb up the mountain and find a waterfall. While he’s drinking, he realizes that there are three Afghan men pointing guns at him. The three men mean him no harm, however. They are Pashtuns—an ethnic group that lives primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Luttrell explains that the Pashtuns have an ancient custom, lokhay, that requires them to take care of people in need, even if it means risking their own life. The leader of three men, a doctor named Sarawa, has Luttrell carried back to his village, Sabray, and treats his wounds. Luttrell is terrified, but realizes he has no choice but to go along with the Pashtuns’ offer of help.
In Sabray, Luttrell befriends a man named Mohammad Gulab, the son of the wise elder who runs the village. With Gulab and his father’s help, Luttrell is hidden and protected from the Taliban forces. Luttrell later learns that the Taliban are careful to respect the Pashtuns’ communities for fear of losing valuable allies. Gulab’s father carries a message to an American military base two miles away, explaining that Luttrell is alive.
After the Taliban attempt to raid the village and kill Luttrell, Gulab decides that it’s no longer safe for Luttrell to stay there. He leads Luttrell out of the village and into the mountains, where they come face-to-face with Ben Sharmak and his forces. Sharmak orders Gulab to give up Luttrell, or else Sharmak will murder Gulab’s entire family. However, Gulab continues to protect Luttrell.
While Gulab and Luttrell are wandering through the forest, they cross paths with a group of American Rangers who’ve been searching for Luttrell, responding to the emergency beacon he activated. The Rangers have been searching for Luttrell for days, and had begun to think he was dead. They carry Luttrell and Gulab away from the village and back to an American military base. There, Luttrell and Gulab part ways—it’s an emotional goodbye for Luttrell, who has no words to convey his gratitude to Gulab for saving his life.
On the military base, Luttrell receives medical treatment for his wounds. He’s eventually sent back to America, where he reunites with his family and friends. He also begins to come to terms with the realities of Operation Redwing: he’s the lone survivor of the mission. Luttrell travels across the country, visiting the relatives of his deceased teammates and offering his condolences. Luttrell is proud to have served the American military, and feels certain that, if given the option to go back in time, he’d volunteer for the SEALs once again, without a second’s hesitation.