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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: American heroism in the Afghan mountains

If you haven’t seen the film “Lone Survivor,” you should. It’s a story about the best of us and it details the best in us. I read the book and the story has inhabited me since. Some stories touch you and never quite leave you.

On June 27, 2005, Lt. Michael Murphy and petty officers Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson and Marcus Luttrell, Navy SEALs, were dropped into the mountains of the Hindu Kush to surveil the Taliban leader Ahmad Shan. Soon after their arrival, the mission was compromised by three goat herders.

The situation spiraled out of control and once again I see truth to the axiom that combatants know only too well: “Whatever will go wrong, will!”

What to do with the goat herders? The SEALs dilemma has created debates in book clubs and barrooms throughout America. Tie them up! Kill them! Let them go and run the risk that they will further compromise the mission. Everyone knows how it ended. The SEALs released the goat herders and found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Only Luttrell survived the ensuing firefight. Sixteen more Americans died when a helicopter responding to the fight was shot down.


Miraculously, Muhammad Gulad, an Afghan shepherd, saved Luttrell’s life. Under an ancient and ironclad code of the Pashtun people called pashtunwali, Gulad protected Luttrell from his enemies with his life.

“Lone Survivor” provides a glimpse into the horrors and heroism of battle, communicating lessons about the reality of war and the heroics of our soldiers that should not be lost on Americans.

“War is hell,” exclaimed General Sherman during his March to the Sea in the Civil War. There is no glory for those called upon by their country to wage war. Only sweat, blood and sacrifice.

The courage and proficiency of our soldiers are second to none. From the initial skirmishes at Lexington and Concord to the bravery and heroism demonstrated in the mountains in Afghanistan, the fighting spirit of the American soldier is incomparable. Every American owes a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to secure our freedoms and way of life.


“Lone Survivor” did not get any Oscar nominations. The movie has its detractors who are offended by the sensibilities of a war film. How could anyone be offended by a movie about Navy SEALs fighting with honor, courage, love and forbearance to save each other? Yet certain critics cite the movie as propaganda, simplistic and racist. “Lone Survivor” has run up against part of the culture that can’t stand the most straightforward depictions of American heroism and the warrior ethos. I witnessed this during the Vietnam War. I detested it then, and still do.

The movie captures something important: the ethereal fearlessness and grit of our best fighters. These are extraordinary men, and the tale of their valor deserves to be told over and over again. “Lone Survivor” reminds us that freedom isn’t free. Thomas Jefferson said, “Freedom is purchased with the blood of heroes…”

America has an obligation to ensure that our troops have whatever it takes to accomplish their mission. The promises we’ve made to our military should never be compromised on the altar of politics. There are no benefits sufficient to reward our soldiers for their service. The greatest gift we can give them is tribute and give thanks as often and as publicly as we can.

In his last defiant act, Lt. Murphy, exposing himself to the enemy for help, sacrifices himself as he calls for help. He says, “Thank you,” then succumbs from his wounds.

If you haven’t seen “Lone Survivor,” you should. It will make the majority of Americans feel proud, humble and grateful to live in a country that is protected by true heroes.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at