I don't want to call Marcus Luttrell a hero. After a day spent "playing" at being a Navy SEAL with machine guns, a rappelling wall and helicopter, I'm sitting across from the real deal in a fancy dining room overlooking the White House in Washington D.C. on Memorial Day weekend.
Luttrell is the 38-year-old former Navy SEAL whose story about the 2005 operation in Afghanistan, which cost the life of his three SEAL brethren and 16 other SEALs and Army Special Ops soldiers, is the basis for his 2007 book Lone Survivor and last January's Peter Berg-directed movie starring Mark Wahlberg.
He is the titular "lone survivor" of Operation Red Wings, as seen in the film out now on DVD/Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment. Luttrell was the only one to make it out alive - though with a broken back, shrapnel stuck in his body and multiple other injuries, including the emotional trauma of watching his team die.
"I lost a part of myself on the mountain that day," says Luttrell. But he adds that, after jumping off Afghani cliffs as his only exit strategy and getting shot and passing out multiple times that, "I just kept going."
"I was pissed off, but I didn't have a choice. I just kept going."
This is the "never quit" attitude of Luttrell from both the book and movie. But I still don't want to call Luttrell a hero.
I see a guy I could have gone to school with. I see a man who wants to honor his fallen teammates, but not someone who necessarily enjoys talking about his experience. Luttrell doesn't present himself as someone who enjoys the attention of the Hollywood machine, or from the press. But he does seem like a dedicated husband and father who went through more than a large majority of the population could fathom -- and endured -- and feels a responsibility to talk about it.
The former Navy SEAL is only two years older than me, and he reminds me of a lot of friends who served in the military. Those men and women have told me they were just doing their job. We all have jobs, but mine doesn't involve putting my life on the line for strangers. For Luttrell, as he writes in his book, going into battle is his "trade."
So when I talk to him and Berg, even though I know Luttrell is more than a symbol of survival, I'd rather try to think of him as someone I might have grown up alongside. After all, I imagine he'd get pretty damn sick of the whole "hero" thing, and I'd rather not irritate the warrior at the dinner table.
Luttrell admits as much. Although he says he is happy his story, and the story of his SEAL brothers will live a long time on screen, he adds he is excited for all the attention around him to die down.
Still, Lone Survivor is an important piece of post-9/11 war cinema. The action sequences are dangerous and brutal, but Berg presents the brutality without lionizing the real men of the story to the point of unbelievability. There are moviemaking elaborations added towards the end, but much of the film is true to Luttrell's book. Berg also directed Hancock, Friday Night Lights, Battleship and The Kingdom, and his style is often big. And Lone Survivor might as easily be described as over-the-top if the action sequences and injuries on display didn't hew so close to what Luttrell wrote about. As a result, the film has been embraced by the special forces community.
The Luttrell story isn't overtly political, even though the book at times veers in that direction. Yet, instead of red state or blue, Lone Survivor is at the crossroads of purple - as in for the Purple Heart and Navy Cross the petty officer first class received.
They were guys on the job who had to make tough calls about who lived or died - in this case, the call involved killing or sparing non-combatant goatherds who could jeopardize their SEAL op to identify a Taliban loyalist. When Luttrell, Michael P. Murphy, Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson let them go, and were subsequently ambushed on three sides by dozens (or up to 200) Taliban fighters, they fought a three-hour battle that cost all but Luttrell's life. An additional 16 men were killed when the enemy shot down a rapid response helicopter sent to rescue the team. A badly injured Luttrell then sought to escape the enemy and found protection for four days with villagers.
Of course I'm impressed by Luttrell's story. A real-life action figure of G.I. Joe proportions, complete with the code name "Southern Boy," Luttrell is a righteous dude - and, like Ferris Bueller, I'd bet the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids and dweebies would all adore him.
But hero? Once you call a guy that, the conversation feels like it has hit a wall. Much like if someone asks you if you are a god, you say "yes," otherwise you get shot up with some Gozer-level lightning.
For Berg, telling Luttrell's story has "really messed me up" as far as selecting his next project.
"Most filmmakers will say you do fall in love with every movie you do," adds Berg. "That being said, I've never had an experience like this."
Many of Berg's other films are escapist, "different types" but following Lone Survivor, he says, "now I don't know what to do."
Meanwhile, Berg says having Luttrell on set was important, but also stressful at times. The former SEAL cast a big shadow over actors Wahlberg and Ben Foster, who were motivated to work hard and act like a team, not celebrities, during their extensive boot camp training.
My "boot camp" training was, by comparison, easy and brief. Instead of going to war, I get to have "fun" while shooting an M240 machine gun (with suppressor) and M249 SAW light machine gun at a metal target that isn't shooting back. And as I do it, I'm well aware this afternoon playtime has been brought to me due to the sacrifices of Luttrell and the rest of those who have served.
The Extreme SEAL Experience of Norfolk, Va., is an intensive camp run by Don Shipley with the purpose of building confidence through physical and mental training -- and through a lot of butt kicking. Aside from shouting "Epic Fail!" when I incorrectly tie off my rappelling harness, Shipley is kind of a softy. Sure, I see the hardcore military dude that he is, but he's being cool with noobs like me. After getting a thumbs-up following a successful rappel, he sends me down wearing a Spartan helmet.
Later, at the gun range, the range masters who teach me how to load, aim and fire the heavy artillery -- along with the MP5 submachine gun and Soviet PPSh-41, "machine pistol" -- are patient and way chill. I grew up around guns and have fired quite a few, but none that seemed so big that they would earn me a cool G.I. Joe code name if I carried it around as an accessory. I hold my breath, take aim carefully and squeeze off a few rounds. But these kinds of weapons are for really for suppressive fire, so next time I just let the bad boy rip and tear into all manner of metal and dirt unfortunate enough to be in front of me.
This is live action Call of Duty, and it's a helluva lot of fun. Still, my day of mini SEAL training provides me with only an inkling of an iota about what the big boys go through. Playtime strikes me as quite different than wartime.
Since there is so much about Luttrell's story that I cannot relate to, I ask him about something which I can: movies.
"Growing up, my mom just watched horror movies," says Luttrell. "And then obviously in the SEAL team, that's all you've got over there for a break from reality."
Anchorman and Team America were in heavy rotation while he was over there, and they watched the Will Ferrell movie the night before going out on Operation Red Wings.
"We would come out of the back of the helicopter and here the guys at the bottom of the rope go, 'America!' [quoting Team America] and everybody else would go '[expletive] Yeah!'"
He adds that guys would play movie games overseas, and to get in the club, you had to be able to name all the Ghostbusters and The Three Amigos among others. He says he was pretty solid at it, though there were guys who could name "seven ways to Kevin Bacon starting with a ninja turtle."
The next day after our dinner, I speak to Luttrell again at the G.I. Film Festival in Alexandria, Va. The first of its kind in our country, the festival is "dedicated to sharing the military experience in and out of the arena of war." I think I prefer Bloomberg's description of it: "Sundance for the troops."
Berg is to present Luttrell with GIFF's G.I. Hero Award, and both of them take the red carpet. I don't get a chance to ask him, but I'd guess he is longing for his ranch back in Texas. It is no warzone, but a red stretch of photographers, inquiring press and fans is enough to make one want to crawl into a trench.
This is especially unfortunate for Luttrell. Though actors Adam Driver and Michelle Monaghan also walk through, he is a bigger deal here.
Instead of rushing through, he takes his time for photos with the Young Marines youth program. Without being in any particular hurry, he stops and talks with U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee and the focus of the documentary "Travis: A Soldier's Story." At one point, I see someone approach, with the intent of moving Luttrell along. They stop short because it's clear these two guys are going to finish their chat. It is a small moment but badass.
I can't hear what the two talk about, but it's obvious Luttrell can relate more to Mills than the press that so eagerly craves a quote from him. They have shared experiences.
Clearly, it makes sense for Luttrell to also be at the center of the Lone Survivor Foundation, a wounded warrior project to bring service members into an environment conducive to healing. Described on its website as "a place of solitude and beauty, where there was a close-knit and understanding support system," the foundation is meant to help soldiers and their families heal together. According to Luttrell, if the environment contributed to his healing, it can work for anybody.
The morning following the GIFF red carpet, I go for a run around the National Mall and stop at the World War II memorial. I watch as as many tourists crowd around visiting veterans as the monument itself, and I try to figure out the whole "hero" problem for this story.
Luttrell says he "isn't special in any way," but he certainly survived more than most would. And his "never out of the fight" motto is inspirational. If this man can emerge after watching his brothers die, and after having his body treated like a rag doll, surely the mindset is applicable to everyday stresses and challenges.
Then I remember asking him about something I would ask someone else my age, who I might have gone to school with: 1980s cartoons. Luttrell grew up a big fan of Transformers and when I address it with him, he tells me he sees himself as Ironhide. Instead of going for Optimus Prime, the heroic leader of the Autobots, Luttrell opts for a "tough brute."
And that provides me with an answer. I know Marcus Luttrell is a hero, but I think it's way cooler to call him a Transformer -- made of metal, and hard to stop even when he gets banged up. If anything, the events of Lone Survivor appear to have just transformed him into something stronger.