Before he became immortalized as the “Lone Survivor” — a Navy SEAL who escaped a 2005 Taliban ambush on a mountain slope in Afghanistan — Marcus Luttrell was a broken man in search of a haven.
He found it one day in spring 2007 when, struggling to repair his body and mind and with the horrors of war still raw, he showed up unannounced at the Texas Governor’s Mansion and asked to see Rick Perry.
Over the ensuing months, a virtual father-son relationship blossomed, the two men said. The governor and his wife, Anita, helped bring Luttrell back to health.
Perry used the power of his office to find Luttrell a spine surgeon to fix his back. The Perrys gave him a spare bedroom — “I was the creepy guy in the attic,” Luttrell recalled. The governor took him bass fishing. The first lady counseled him about his love life. And as Luttrell became famous — first with a bestselling memoir, Lone Survivor, and later in the movie adaptation — they were his rock.
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“When I came into the Perry family, it was one of those deals where it was the only family I had,” said Luttrell, who was born in Houston. “I didn’t have that father figure growing up like that, somebody who genuinely cared about me. … Gov. Perry taught me how to be a good man.”
Perry and Luttrell shared their story in an extensive interview with The Washington Post and in an appearance Monday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. They are drawing attention to their unusual relationship as the former governor prepares to launch his second presidential campaign.
Perry considers his own military career as an Air Force pilot a trump card in a Republican presidential race in which he is being crowded out of the top tier by a slew of formidable contenders. Perry is one of only two prospective candidates with a military background. The other is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“I went from being the second lieutenant going through pilot training to getting my wings to ending up as a [tactical cargo plane] airlifter to being an aircraft commander — and all those experiences paint my worldview,” Perry said in the interview.
So, too, he said, did his 14 years commanding the Texas National Guard as governor. “All of that gives me a unique perspective about what these young people go through and the impacts on themselves and just as importantly their families,” he said.
Highlighting his service flying C-130 cargo planes has long been a staple of Perry’s campaigns, said David Carney, a former strategist for his gubernatorial races. “It shows you’re not just a politician, but you have real-life experiences,” he said. “Texas has a huge military presence, and it really helped him relate to folks.”
Since a humiliating withdrawal from the 2012 race, Perry has been preparing for redemption in 2016 — holding tutorials with conservative scholars and logging thousands of miles in caucus and primary states. But his work has not paid off in early polls.
In an April Washington Post-ABC News survey, Perry ranked ninth — with support from just 2 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters nationally.
Perry’s advisers think that focusing on his military background can help him break through. Foreign policy is emerging as a dominant issue as Republicans attack what they consider President Barack Obama’s foibles and, by extension, the record of his first-term secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
A muscular interventionist, Perry has sharply criticized Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and accused his administration of sparking worldwide chaos and weakening America’s armed forces. Perry is likely to campaign with Luttrell and hopes the war hero’s testimonials can add a personal dimension to his national security agenda.
Luttrell, 39, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2005 with SEAL Team 10. As dramatized in the 2013 movie Lone Survivor, Luttrell was part of Operation Red Wings, a four-man mission to find and kill Ahmad Shah, a top Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan.
A group of goatherds stumbled upon Luttrell and his team on a mountain slope. After the SEALs released the group, local Taliban forces ambushed the Americans. Luttrell was the only survivor. Badly wounded, he evaded capture and an Afghan tribe sheltered him before he was rescued by U.S. forces.
Incidental tour guide
In 2006, while undergoing physical therapy at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego, Luttrell met the Perrys by happenstance. They were vacationing at the Hotel del Coronado and Luttrell was assigned to give them what he called a “dog and pony” tour of the naval facilities.
Perry kept in touch, sending Luttrell emails, including throughout his 2006 deployment to Iraq, and extended an open invitation to visit him in Austin.
Luttrell took him up on it, showing up at the security post outside the Governor’s Mansion. “It was a safe haven,” Perry said.
That year, when the Perrys moved to a temporary residence as the mansion was renovated, they turned a third-floor space into a bedroom for Luttrell. Anita Perry (Luttrell calls her “Lady Perry”) gave him an air mattress and a television, which he liked to leave on while he slept.
Rick Perry said: “I’m not sure I can put into words how my wife and I were attracted to him or he was attracted to us. I kind of put that in the ‘grace of God’ category.”
‘A governor to intervene’
Back then, Luttrell was addicted to painkillers and had many ailments, both physical and mental. As Perry tells it, Luttrell was lost in a bureaucratic maze at the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department.
“He needed stuff done,” he said, “and all he was getting was a sackful of pills.”
So Perry called Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who made Luttrell eligible for Tricare.
“There are 1,000-plus just like him,” Perry said. “They just didn’t have a governor to intervene.”
Luttrell, who had a poor relationship with his father, said he effectively adopted the Perrys as parents. He met Melanie, who would become his wife, in 2010, and when he introduced her to the Perrys, he recalled telling her, “That’s my family.”
The Luttrells now have two children. Their godfather is Rick Perry.