Finding yourself portrayed in a major motion picture may seem like a life changing event, but for Dr. Joshua Appel, medical director of adult and trauma services at the University of Arizona Medical Center – University Campus, it pales in comparison to the actual events that launched him as a character in the movie, “The Lone Survivor.”
Based on The New York Times bestselling true story of heroism, courage and survival, “Lone Survivor” tells the incredible story of four Navy SEALs on a covert mission, Operation Redwings, to neutralize a Taliban commander. The SEALs are ambushed by the enemy in the mountains of Afghanistan and soon, rescue missions ensue.
The rescue team that recovered the lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, was led by Dr. Appel, a 2005 UA College of Medicine - Tucson graduate, who was aided by another UA College of Medicine - Tucson graduate, Chris Piercecchi, Class of 2012.
Dr. Appel served active duty from 1994-1999 as a pararescue specialist in emergency medical tactics, as well as combat and survival skills. He continued on with the United States Air Force Combat Search and Rescue Squadron as a reservist throughout medical school and remains a reservist today.
In June 2005, the four Navy SEALs of Operation Redwings found themselves compromised by a goat herder and his son. Facing a difficult decision, the team decided to release the father and son knowing it could jeopardize their mission. Shortly thereafter, they were surrounded by the Taliban and involved in a fierce firefight.
With his team badly outnumbered and injured, Lieutenant Michael Murphy knew he needed help but could not get a clear radio signal. Though knowing getting a clear radio signal would expose him to the enemy, a wounded Lt. Murphy climbed a hill and called in a rescue helicopter where shortly after, he was overtaken and killed.
The remaining team members continued to evade and return fire in hopes of holding out until the rescue forces arrived. They watched from the ground as the Navy SEALs rescue team helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade causing it to collide with the mountainside, instantly killing all onboard.
The remaining men of Operation Redwings were subsequently killed in action except for one, Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell. Severely injured, Luttrell continued to evade until found by an Afghani shepherd who offered him aide. The shepherd delivered a hand-written note from Luttrell to a Marine base, making his location known and delivering the fate of the others involved in Operation Redwings.
On June 28, 2005, fresh out of medical school, Dr. Appel and his team got the call that an Army Chinook helicopter had just been shot down during the rescue attempt of the four man SEAL team, killing the helicopter crew and the eight man SEAL rescue team onboard. Because of his medical background, Dr. Appel was chosen to lead the rescue effort out of concern for Luttrell’s health.
The evening of July 2, under the cover of darkness and with the escort of a C-130 gunship, Dr. Appel and his team flew through enemy fire to the small village where Luttrell was hiding.
After nearly crashing and landing on a dangerously small outcrop of the mountainside, Dr. Appel and his teammate, Chris Piercecchi, looked into the darkness and wind of the rotor wash, to see two men in Afghani clothing approaching the aircraft.
Knowing Taliban were in the area, he raised his weapon, and prepared to shoot should those approaching be the enemy, which fortunately, turned out to be Luttrell with an escort. Appel and Piercecchi were able to rescue Luttrell and his escort from the village and soon another rescue was planned for the remains of other members of Operation Redwings.
On the night of July 4, with the help of allied ground forces, Dr. Appel flew back into the valley and recovered two of the members of Operation Redwings, including Lt. Michael Murphy.
That Others May Live, is a the motto of the U.S. Air Force pararescue team and, says Dr. Appel, it perfectly captures the brotherhood, survivorship and teamwork that is portrayed in the movie and is performed daily, without fanfare, by U.S. military personnel.
To honor all fallen military members, Dr. Appel, who is clinical assistant professor with the UA Department of Emergency Medicine, has started the Memorial Day Murph charitable organization. Memorial Day Murph is a grassroots, all volunteer organization that raises funds for the Lone Survivor Foundation, the Lt. Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship and the That Others May Live Foundation, dedicated to supporting wounded service members and their families.