Lone Survivor: Thoughts from a Gold Star Daughter

Lone Survivor: Thoughts from a Gold Star Daughter January 13, 2014
Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor, and the Afghan man who helped save him.

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,  interview with Tina Brown, editor-in-chief, 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? then 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 told Anderson Cooper that he put down his gun and covered his ears while his friend Mike Murphy was calling to him for help.

Why did he survive while his buddies died 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: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet, 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 intense. About 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 reaches 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, 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 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.


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

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  • VKC

    I haven’t seen the movie, but now I want to. (and you might want to change the “know” in this phrase: “Problem is we know longer live in a culture”)

    • Karen Zacharias

      Thank you.

  • janekirkpatrick

    Exquisitely written

    • Karen Zacharias

      Honored that you think so, Jane.

  • I love your words about asking “what did you think?” -I so agree, in our entertainment world, where we mask everything, we need to learn to think and discuss and have real life conversations. Sounds like this movie does that. I need to go see it- thanks for sharing (and see you in March if not before!)

    • Karen Zacharias

      Thank you Cornelia. I appreciate you stopping by and reading this reflection. I loved “following along” on your trip to Africa. If you go see the movie, and you should, go when you can take your own time to reflect. Take tissues. I wept through half the movie.

  • AFRoger

    When all was a’gathering for our most recent wars, I wrote an essay titled “35 things to do In Response to War.” Among other troubling concerns I had were our unpreparedness to assess or accept the cost, our ignorance of the history and geogrpahy of where we would fight, lack of moral ownership for the consequences of whatever the wars might bring, and the completely unshared burden or not only our own families but the human beings living where the most blood would be shed. Could we really be so naive as to believe a war would be self-funding, that it would be over iin less than 90 days (“Mission Accomplished!”) and that there would be no blowback?
    In the words of Wendell Berry, our relentless search for the “big answer” seems to be what creates the big problems in the first place. The exercise of right-handed power, as Robert Farrar Capon calls it, can be counted on to do one thing with 100% reliability: plant the seeds for more conflict and more demands for right-handed power. We forget that Holy Week was not a well-armed and bloody coup in which Jesus and the insurgents came out on top. How many times has the cross adorend flags, and military medals of all stripes–all to the denial that Jesus’ involvement with the cross is the very definition of submission. Yet we assign a bigger victory to this defeat than won by wall the world’s victory parades multiplied. Winning by losing… A clever way or, honestly, the only way?
    As you say, I don’t care how we feel about that idea. But I sure wish we could think about that idea.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Roger: I think we are looking for simple answers to complex problems. There is evil in the world. There are bad guys out to get us. Sometimes we are them. The beauty in Luttrell’s story is in the friendship that comes about when an Afghan man risks his own welfare and that of his village and his people in an effort to help Luttrell, a man he couldn’t even converse with.There are intelligent, thinking people who have risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan because they have weighed the facts and the facts suggest to them that left unchecked, liberty for our country is at risk. I might not agree with them, but I’m not the one out there carrying the rifle either. There is a mythology that the men and women who served in Vietnam did so mindlessly, draftees to the slaughter. The truth is that most volunteered to go. Just like in WWII, just like today. There is no one reason why people volunteer. They do it for a variety of reasons. I had one WWII vet tell me he signed up simply because a friend called and asked him too. I had a VN vet tell me he signed up because some girl broke his heart. Undoubtedly some in Iraq and Afghanistan signed up for some of the same reasons. I am reading Luttrell’s book. Our politics differ but it is obvious that Luttrell volunteered for the military because that is where he thought he could make the biggest change. For some being a professional soldier is activism and advocacy. Perhaps for many. The truth is I don’t really know what God or Jesus thinks of war. But I do know what they think of people who sacrifice their lives for the greater good, in an effort to serve others. I wish our politicians did a better job of not exploiting the heart of soldiers. But I can also point to many advocacy organizations and wish they did a better job of not exploiting their volunteers too. It is all so complex, this warring business we find ourselves in. Perhaps that is why we are taught to pray, Hurry back, Jesus.

      • AFRoger

        1. “There is evil in the world. There are bad guys out to get us.”
        Agreed. Nowhere do I state the contrary, nor would I.
        2. “Sometimes we are them.”
        Might be more accurate to say that some of them have been our very own creation. We would be wise to revisit how that came about.
        3. “There is a mythology that the men and women who served in Vietnam did so mindlessly, draftees to the slaughter.”
        Your previous post re Johnson’s Moron Corps comes close to saying this, but I have NEVER, EVER thought that, said it, written it. And I hope I have never implied it.
        4. “I wish our politicians did a better job of not exploiting the heart of soldiers.”
        Again, agreed. But then, whose job is it to hold politicians accountable? Politicians get away with what they do for two reasons: A) We citizens allow them to. OR… B) We citizens must in fact agree with what they do. Otherwise, why?
        We might also wish that a few religious leaders also did a better job of not exploiting the heart of soldiers. But dang it all, we the people ain’t powerless against politicians or religious leaders unless we act that way.

        • Karen Zacharias

          RE: the case of Johnson’s Moron Corps… it was certainly true. They had no choice. And had they had a choice, many did not have the cognitive skills to understand the choice they were making.

      • The pretext for land wars in Asia is “freedom.” I suppose it’s true if we mean, more fully, “freedom to burn fossil fuels.” More specifically, the West does not want Iran (or China) to have any pipelines for the Caspian Sea region; the route preferred runs through Afghanistan, via the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAP) and Afghanistan Oil Pipeline.

  • Laurel

    Friends of ours from high school went to Vietnam at 18 years of age and never really came back; at least never came back whole in mind and/or in body. To live with so much pain; I can’t imagine how you and they do it. And the part that made me finally break down? His dog being killed. Do you know if he ever got another one? Thank you so much for giving that pain a voice. It’s important.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Laurel: He did get another dog. Not that it takes away the pain of losing DASY but yes, he has a therapy dog.

      • Laurel

        Thank you. I know it doesn’t take away the pain, but it’s good to know he has at least that comfort.

  • michbrinson

    I saw this movie on Friday and was just blown away. I can’t stop thinking about it. I have family members who’ve served in the military. I’ve lost loved ones serving our country. This movie rocked my world. It makes me appreciate more than ever the sacrifices those before us and those to follow us have and will make to serve and protect this country I love and they love. No greater act than to lay one’s life down for their brother. It is the ultimate sacrifice. It’s a gift that cannot be repaid. But I do hope and pray things like this do make us stop and think… because you’re right, our society has stopped valuing “thinking.” What a shame. I also loved the video at the end. My dad, who served in both the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard passed away 5 years ago… he loved that song and it was played at his funeral. I love you daddy. I miss you. Thank you for your service to our country and thank you for loving the way you did. To all those mothers and fathers who serve, have served or will serve, I say “May God bless you” and “THANK YOU!”

    • Karen Zacharias

      I am sorry about the loss of your father. There’s never a good time to lose a good parent. I appreciate your thoughts about the movie. I wonder how many people actually see it just as a movie and not an actual depiction of war?

      • michbrinson

        Thank you for your kind thoughts. You’re right, it’s never easy to lose someone you love. I saw the movie with a friend, who served and saw active combat. He was also injured in battle. After the movie ended, I looked at him and said, “this is the most intense movie I have ever seen… and I have no doubt it’s nothing compared to the reality of it.” I cried… during and after. It’s one of those things that I won’t ever forget. I used to refer to the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan and the time I held my breath… I held my breath a lot longer and more during Lone Survivor. Again, I greatly appreciate your insights and for sharing them in this forum.