The first time Josh Appel heard of Operation Red Wings -- the Navy SEALs mission depicted in the motion picture "Lone Survivor" -- the Concord native was about to end his 2005 deployment in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was stationed as a pararescueman with the Air Force Combat Search and Rescue Squadron.
When he and his teammates learned of a failed attempt to rescue four SEALs who'd come under fire while tracking a Taliban leader, his orders suddenly changed.
"I was literally packing my bags to return home when we got the call that an Army Chinook helicopter had been shot down and they needed us in Bagram," he said. "When our team got there, we learned that 16 members of the quick-reaction force had perished."
Pararescuers are skilled in everything from parachuting to scuba diving to survival and tactical skills, and Appel had been part of many missions since enlisting in 1994. But there was no mistaking the hazards of his next assignment when 16 caskets, draped in American flags, were loaded onto a cargo plane.
"Just watching those 16 caskets drive by let us know the seriousness of the situation," he said. "Now, it's our turn to go and try this. I think it was in the back of everybody's mind that this could go horribly wrong."
As the movie conveys in graphic detail, three of the four SEALs -- Mike Murphy, Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz -- were killed in a ferocious firefight, but Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell, badly wounded, escaped to find refuge in a small village.
Appel and pararescue teammate Chris Piercecchi went in after him on July 2, 2005, escorted by C-130 gunships and under cover of night. Appel said the plan was simple: "Go in quickly and get out."
"Our helicopters are faster and lighter than the Army helicopter that went in the first time. Because of the altitude, we wanted to be even lighter, so we stripped off everything that was not essential — the guns mounted on the side of the ship and the Kevlar flooring that protects us from small-arms fire. We were definitely vulnerable."
Luttrell's successful rescue was not the end of the story. Two days later, after he identified the whereabouts of his fallen mates, the pararescuers went back to recover their bodies. That mission, not shown in the movie, was even more worrisome than the first, Appel said.
"We'd already been there once. The Taliban knew we were coming back. The helicopter just hovered while we loaded the bodies in litters. We were sitting ducks."
Appel, long removed from his days at Concord High School (Class of 1985) and Diablo Valley College, is now an emergency room physician at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson. He still serves in the Air Force Reserves, and he honors his fallen colleagues every Memorial Day with "Murph," a fitness fundraiser that benefits the Michael Murphy Scholarship Fund, the Lone Survivor Foundation and the That Others May Live Foundation.
The movie now in theaters has stirred a lot of memories.
"I've been asked what people should take away from this film," he said. "It's the sacrifices people make for their teammates and the tightknit bond that runs through the special operations community. It's the sheer will of the human spirit and what it can endure. It's the ability to adapt and survive in the harshest conditions for a noble cause."
For those who were there, "Lone Survivor" is much more than a motion picture.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.