“Can you handle steel?” Marcus Luttrell wanted to know.
The 36-year-old Navy SEAL turned best-selling author held a black 9mm pistol and moved it from hand to hand while explaining the finer points of making it shoot. He pulled out the clip and turned it a bit, flashing brass bullets that peeked from the top. He slammed the clip back into the gun and handed it over. “Hang on to that,” he said. “You never know what we might run into out here.”
“Here” was Luttrell’s in-laws’ ranch, near Marquez, where he was guiding a Tuesday morning hog hunt. The plan was to load up in a couple of Kawasaki Mules and drive around looking for something to shoot. Five men had shown up the day before and been out all night with Luttrell, shooting hogs in the dark. They had won a “Hog Hunting With Marcus Luttrell” auction organized last fall by Luttrell’s Lone Survivor Foundation, which helps wounded veterans recover from physical and emotional trauma. One winner was a Mineral Wells beer distributor who has decked out many of his delivery trucks with Luttrell’s picture. Two of the others were combat veterans who had received the trip as gifts from the actual bidders. As a couple of the men climbed up to the bench seats on top of the utility vehicles, Luttrell decided I needed a bigger gun.
“This is an H & K, ready to kill,” he said, holding a Heckler & Koch model 33 assault rifle. Three feet long, black, and heavy, it looked like a Red Ryder in Luttrell’s massive hands. He pulled back on the bolt and let it slide down the stock, moving a live round of ammunition into the chamber. “Well, now it’s ready.” He flipped the safety with his thumb, moving the lever from a white 0 to a red 1. “Red is dead,” he said. Then he gave me the rifle.
Our Mule started to pull away, and Luttrell jumped in. He didn’t have a weapon himself, except a tactical knife sheathed to his belt, but he was dressed for the hunt: long-sleeved camo shirt, khaki hunting pants, and boots.The Mule bounced along a gravel path, past a couple of stock tanks and small houses and finally across a field toward the heart of the hunting grounds. Herds of white-tailed deer hopped across the open grasslands and creek bottoms, but each time we’d slow at the crest of a hill, sure that a pack of wild hogs would be waiting in the valley below, we found nothing.
The six-thousand-acre property is larger than the horse ranch east of Huntsville where Luttrell grew up. He travels here from his house about two hours away as often as he can to clear his head and get away from the rush of speaking engagements and guest appearances that have come his way since his first memoir, Lone Survivor, co-written with British author Patrick Robinson, came out in 2007. But free time has been particularly sparse during the past couple of months, as Luttrell and his new co-author, Austin writer James Hornfischer, have been doing last-minute rewrites on his second book, Service: A Navy SEAL at War (Little, Brown, $27.99).
Lone Survivor tells the harrowing story of Luttrell’s life as a Navy SEAL in Iraq and Afghanistan, centered primarily on one ill-fated mission. He was part of a four-man SEAL team that dropped into the mountains above Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, in 2005, and was ambushed by the enemy. The other three men were killed, and Luttrell was nearly blown apart. The first rescue helicopter was shot down. Eight more SEALS and eight other soldiers died. After five days on the mountain, Luttrell was pulled out, making him the lone survivor of what was then the deadliest day in SEALs history. Lone Survivor sold more than a million copies. Mark Wahlberg may play Luttrell in the movie adaptation.
Service is about the aftermath of all that—Luttrell’s mourning for his lost buddies, his struggle to get back to the battlefield, and what happened once he did. “A lot of people don’t know that I went back. Just because I got into a bad scrape, got my butt kicked, didn’t mean I was going to quit being a frogman,” Luttrell said. “But I was pretty busted up. I had a few surgeries to patch me back together, so I could get back on the line. They took tendons out of my forearm for my hand, and I couldn’t move my thumb. I went to physical therapy twice a day, and all the doctor would do is work on that thumb. Finally I told him, ‘Look, just get my thumb to where it can turn the safety on my weapon on and off.’ ”
Luttrell eventually deployed to Iraq, in the fall of 2006, with a SEAL platoon on the front edge of the surge to Ramadi, then one of the most dangerous places on the planet for American soldiers. “We were training the Iraqis,” Luttrell said. “We’d be sitting around the campfire, and one of them would be talking about how they killed Americans last week. But this week, we’d have to work with them. Week after, we’d be back fighting them again.” A little before Christmas, Luttrell ran his last combat mission. His back, already rebuilt once, finally gave out.
“Leaving the SEALs was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Like hitting a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour.”
These days, his solace comes from his wife, Melanie, and their two kids—a third is due soon—and from his twin brother, Morgan, who remains active in the SEALs. After Luttrell retired, visits with Morgan and his buddies provided the small jolts of fraternity that he missed. Morgan is about to return to combat, and Luttrell says he feels “jealousy more than anything. That he gets to go back.”
After about an hour of slogging around the ranch, through the muddy bottoms and a few washed-out crossings, we pulled up to a stock tank not far from the ranch house. We hadn’t seen any hogs, much less killed any. Luttrell had outfitted one of the auction winners with a LaRue tactical assault rifle, and as consolation for not killing anything that morning, Luttrell told him he could unload into the bank at the other side of the water.
“You sure?” the man yelled. “I don’t want to waste any ammo.”
“We have plenty of ammo,” Luttrell told him. “Go on, dump your mag.”
Luttrell waited for the blasts with his fingers in his ears.
“Nah, that’s okay,” the man finally said. “I don’t want to shoot a pond.”
Luttrell dropped his head and shook it in disappointment, and the driver started back for the house. When we got there, Luttrell laid out the plan for the rest of the day. “What we do now is chill out for a while, rest up and get some food. Then we’ll gun up again and go back out and see if we can slaughter some hogs.”
Inside, the ranch manager was frying catfish they had caught the night before, and while everyone ate, Luttrell went into the bedroom and retrieved a box full of cleaning supplies. He had spotted a line of rust along the barrel of a .45 pistol on the kitchen table. He opened up the gun, polished it as best he could, and put it back together. Then he disappeared for an afternoon nap. His sleep has been shaky and irregular since his combat days—three or four hours in the morning if he can get it, a schedule carried over to civilian life.
While Luttrell napped, one of his Special Forces buddies dozed on the couch as the George Clooney vehicle The American played on the television. A member of the hunting group, who’d lost the lower half of his right leg to an IED in Iraq, tried to go to sleep but couldn’t. He walked down to a nearby lake to fish for bass.
Not long before dusk, Luttrell rose. He thought the hogs might be moving around. He gave the order, and the men who were left—three had already called it a day—started packing up their rifles, putting on their camo, loading up in the Mule. We drove through the ranch with Luttrell riding point, trying to pick out black silhouettes of wild hogs in the fading light. When we spotted one, we moved on foot to position for a shot. Luttrell stayed behind and watched through binoculars, to see if we’d make the kill.