Lone Survivor: Thoughts from a Gold Star Daughter

Do you know what the right thing is? No disrespect but you don’t have any idea what the right thing is. How do you weigh human life? It’s war. There is no right or wrong answer in combat. Those people who aren’t out there carrying the rifle have no business dictating what in the hell we are doing. If you want to make those command decisions then grab a rifle and come help us. Otherwise, enjoy the freedoms the American military provides for you.

– Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor, with

Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast


The fellow with the trash can full of discarded popcorn boxes and coke cups stepped in the darkness towards me as the credits to Lone Survivor rolled behind him on the big screen.  I always stay and read the credits. It’s the writer in me. I need to know who did the behind the scenes jobs. If it’s a good movie, worthy of praise, I silently thank the key grips and hairstylists and set designers and the assistant gophers for a job well-done, because like books, movies are a collaborative effort.

“Did you enjoy that?” the kid asked.

I paused before answering. Some movies, like some books, are not meant to be enjoyed. They are meant to make us think. Lone Survivor is such a movie/book. Problem is we no longer live in a culture that values thinking. People rarely ask: What did you think of that? They most always ask: How did you feel about that? One of the basic tenets I teach young journalists is that if they cannot ask a better question than, how did you feel when that _____ (tsunami, plane crash, gun battle, school shooting, tornado etc.) killed your loved ones? they don’t have the chops to be a journalist.

“I don’t enjoy anything about war,” I finally replied to the young man.

It made him think. He may have gone away thinking I was a cranky woman but for a very brief second he entertained the thought of Oh. Yeah. Right. We aren’t supposed to enjoy war.

As I exited the very busy movie theater, I passed a crowd lingering and discussing Lone Survivor. “The one thing I didn’t like about the movie was all that blood,” declared one woman.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep over her remark. Imagine. Blood. In a movie about a real-life gun battle in Afghanistan in which nineteen real life American soldiers died, and dozens more Afghans.

Peter Berg, the producer of Lone Survivor, apparently failed to consider that we Americans like our wars sterilized. The less blood the better.

I got in my car and drove to the river to pray. I wept all the way there.

Before going to the movie, alone – Tim didn’t want to see such a sad movie – I asked my husband a question that has been bothering me for some time now. What if we are wrong? I said. What if there are some things from which we cannot heal? Some things that so totally break us that no amount of praying, no amount of living rightly can heal us? Is there a brokenness that goes beyond the power of positive thinking and genuine gratitude? I have seen such brokenness in veterans and military families I have loved. I have felt such a brokenness. Feel it still some days.

Nobody ever wants to talk about football or hunting, Luttrell told journalist Tina Brown. They only want to talk to me about the worst week of my life. 

Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of the June 28, 2005 Operation Red Wings that went terribly awry, considers himself a coward. He says he put down his gun and covered his ears while his friend Mike Murphy was calling to him to help.

Why did he survive and his buddies die is a question that veterans have faced throughout history. Whatever the answer may be remains hidden in the heart of God. And, honestly, if God himself answered the question, would it make war any less horrific?

Hollywood took liberties with Luttrell’s memoir.  Some have been critical of the movie for that. Why dramatize war? But the movie is art, not a literal interpretation, and as such isn’t accountable to sticking to the facts. If you want to know the real facts, as best as can be documented, read Luttrell’s book, and click here.

Luttrell denies any lingering PTSD. One of the biggest issues with PTSD has been the responsibility of the person suffering from it to self-report. Asking Luttrell if he suffers from PTSD is a futile question. If he suffers from it, it is a matter of personal health, private and privileged information. What good does it do any of us to know that anyway? What are we going to do about it? If we are really so all-fired concerned about it, we should help those who suffer from it in our own neighborhoods.

Luttrell has been criticized for not getting all the facts straight in his own memoir. Memory can be an unreliable gift, but Luttrell lived to tell. He has borne witness in a mighty and powerful and troubling way. A prophet among a deaf generation. Bearing witness to tragedy is  not a gift. It is a burden. Unless you have lived with such a burden yourself, you cannot begin to understand the weight of it. Moving on is a difficult thing for lone survivors, especially in a culture that clings to wrong-headed mythology. Mythology that manages to glorify war while at the same time denouncing it.

We love the Marcus Luttrells of the world – the Lone Survivors – because they make us believe in our own mucked-up mythology: That what saves us, what makes us the lone survivor is that we have somehow dug deeper, tried harder, had more strength of character, more faith in God, and that is why we are still standing.


Lewis Puller lived in that place of juxtapositions. America’s most notable Fortunate Son, Puller stepped on a booby-trap round in October 1968 in Vietnam. He lost both legs, most of his fingers and sustained other life-threatening injuries. Hospitalized, Puller wasted away to 55 pounds, yet, some say through sheer strength of will and character, Puller survived his wounds. His father, Lt. General Chesty Puller,  the most decorated Marine in Marine history, set the example his son followed.

Puller recovered, admirably, married, had children, moved on with his life. Puller gave inspiring speeches, he ran for political office. He wrote a book, Fortunate Son, which then won the Pulitzer Prize.  Puller was the American brand: A true survivor.

He took his life on May 11, 1994.

What you won’t learn about Luttrell from the movie is that he re-deployed, went on to fight in other battles, equally as intensive. Of the movie, Luttrell says, as bad as you may think it is, it in no way depicts the reality of how bad it really was to be in that three-and-half-hour gun battle, to lose his best friends, to be taken to a nearby village where local insurgents then found him and beat him, and wanted to kill him.

Remember when you are sitting in that movie house, you get to go home. Nineteen men made their final trip home in caskets. Their families wake up each day, all these years later, missing them, their laughter, their joy, their stories, their hugs, their annoying ticks. They are missed. Every single day.

One of the things I walked away thinking about was my daughter Shelby, my nieces Taylor and Jessica. Women of integrity and faith and beauty. Women with important jobs that they do well. Women who lead intentional, purposed lives, serving others, caring for the world. And, yet, they each long for the opportunity to share their lives with that special someone. Disciplined and good-hearted and God-fearing men. Where are such men? they ask each other at family gatherings. If you know of such a man, send him my way.

Perhaps, the reason these women have been unable to find their soul mates is because we sent those soul mates off to war and brought them home in caskets.  I can list you the names of dozens of women I know who were married to men who did not come back alive from the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. Women who have never remarried. Who may never remarry. Women whose lives are caught up in the time warp of war. And what of the widowed and orphaned in those countries? Entire villages have lost generations in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you watch Lone Survivor, you ought to consider that when soldiers die, the sacrifices go far beyond the battlefield.

You won’t learn it from the movie but Luttrell was given a therapy dog, a yellow lab puppy, to help him heal. He named the dog, DASY, an acronym from the names of the buddies he lost on June 28, 2005. He loved that dog and she loved him. But early one morning in 2009, Luttrell woke at his Texas ranch to the sound of gunfire.

A group of hoodlums came onto his property, beat his dog with a baseball bat and shot and killed DASY. Luttrell chased the four men – they were all 18 and older – through three counties at high speed while calling 911. He held them at gunpoint until police arrived. When asked why he didn’t hurt them, Luttrell said that’s not how things are done in this country. In this country, even the most hateful people get their day in court.

Lone Survivor is not a movie designed for enjoyment. It is a movie that ought to make you flinch. It should make you squirm. Its graphic violence is unsuitable for children under 12, or any who suffer from mental disorders. Do not take small children to this film.

But if you know nothing about the war, if you have never served, have never known anyone who served, if you have never been to the Vietnam Wall or stood at the hills at Arlington, then you should definitely see this movie, and read the book.

If you are a politician or someone who longs to be, this movie ought to be required viewing. It ought to be required viewing for every member of Congress, every staff worker in the current presidential administration. Every pastor, every journalist ought to see it. You won’t enjoy it. But it will definitely make you think.

And it will likely make you want to go the river to pray, too.


Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star Daughter & author of After the Flag has been Folded, HarperCollins.

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