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As movie opens, local father sheds light on son’s sacrifice

Army Sgt. Michael Russell at home in April 2005 with daughters Megan and Lauren before the mission.

Army Sgt. Michael Russell at home in April 2005 with daughters Megan and Lauren before the mission.

Lee Russell’s son died trying to rescue Navy SEALS depicted in the movie “Lone Survivor,” and there’s a story behind the film that he wants people to know.

His son, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael L. Russell, was in the first of two helicopters sent in June 2005 to rescue four SEALS in eastern Afghanistan. As part of Operation Red Wings, the four SEALS were attempting to capture a notorious Taliban leader.

The SEALS came across some local goat-herders, deep in enemy territory, and debated if they should kill them. They let them go, and their decision proved deadly. The locals informed the Taliban that Americans were in the area.

Russell’s helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the rescue attempt, and all 16 people on-board were killed. Three of the four SEALS on the ground also died after being surrounded by Taliban forces.

Marcus Luttrell was the SEAL who became the “Lone Survivor” after he was rescued by an Afghan man. Luttrell wrote a book about the operation, which was made into a movie that opens tomorrow across the region and nationwide.

Lee Russell, who owns the Olde Towne Butcher in Fredericksburg, is certain that the SEALS’ decision to spare civilians will become a controversial part of the movie.

But he also wants viewers to know his son, who grew up in Stafford County, would have done the same thing.

“It was a tough decision they made,” Lee Russell said. “The fact that they let those guys go is something Americans do, and it kind of separates us from them.”

He added: “Had Mike known, he would have been fine with the decision because that’s the way he was.”

Mike Russell had a similar experience, which he told his father about in 2003. He was home for Thanksgiving and didn’t normally talk much about his duties on the battlefield, but this time said, “Dad, I got a war story for you.”

Mike Russell, who eventually became a flight engineer, was aboard one of three helicopters with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

The group was known as the “Night Stalkers” and specialized in operations done under the cover of darkness.

Each transmission from the unit ended with “NSDQ,” which stood for Night Stalkers Don’t Quit.

Mike Russell became a part of the unit in 1996, five years after he joined the Army. He was 31 when he was killed, and his 13 years of service included nine tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.

“When he told me he was in the 160th, it gave me chills,” his dad said. “I knew if anything happened, they would go in there first.”

During the 2003 mission, the 160th was searching the hills of Afghanistan for a high-ranking Taliban leader. The Rangers on-board had been “fast-dropped” to the ground, and the choppers had found a flat place to land, according to Mike Russell. They “circled the wagons,” forming a triangle so they could see anyone coming at them. Because they were so deep in enemy territory, the soldiers were authorized to kill anyone they saw.

About five minutes after landing, Mike Russell heard over the intercom that someone was on the ground in the middle of the choppers. Weapons from each aircraft were trained on the man’s head, ready to shoot, when the pilots saw him reach down and put a rope around an animal’s neck.

The Americans dropped their lasers, and the Afghan man walked away.

Mike Russell told his dad that “I was never more proud to be an American than I was at that moment.”

That story came back to Lee Russell repeatedly, as word circulated about the book and movie. He wanted others to know his son wouldn’t blame any of the SEALS for the decision that cost his life.

Lee Russell and other relatives of those killed in the rescue attempt were asked by the movie-makers to provide photos of those involved.

Mike Russell isn’t listed as a character in the movie. But if he’s depicted in the film where he actually was on the chopper, he would have been seated behind the pilots, on the right-hand side, his dad said.

Mike Russell was known as the “cocky and confident” first sergeant, who made it clear that pilots ruled the front part of the helicopter, but everything behind them was his territory.

Lee Russell was invited to a screening of “Lone Survivor” last year in Fort Stewart, Ga., but didn’t go.

He’s not sure he can see it in a local theater, either.

“I don’t know if I can sit and watch it with people around,” Russell said. “It still hurts.”

Mike Russell’s widow, Annette, said she hasn’t been able to bring herself to read the book about the rescue attempt, but assumes she’ll eventually watch the movie. Mike’s daughters, Lauren and Megan, who were 5 and 1, when he died are 15 and 10, and the family lives in Texas.

“The movie doesn’t really focus on the soldiers on the helicopter from what I gather,” Annette Russell said in an email, “but I am glad that photos of them are shown at the end of the film. I would like their sacrifice to be remembered.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425