“Have you talked to Matt lately?” asked the concerned brother-in-law.
“Yesterday, in the morning he called and said he was going out for a couple of days,” explained Cindy.
What Matt didn’t tell her was he, Luttrell, and two other SEALs were heading to a mountain village, on a mission to capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader.
A trio of Afghan goat herders told the Taliban about the SEAL team, and a murderous gun battle erupted. The four SEALs were attacked by an estimated 200 Taliban fighters.
Over the next couple of days, Cindy heard nothing from her husband. She and all of Matt’s friends and family sent him frantic e-mails, begging him to respond.
A few nights later Cindy went to the home of her sister and brother-in-law to share a drink and try to shed some of the crushing anxiety that had gripped her.
“My Dad comes over and he can hardly speak.”
“You have got to come home,” he said.
“Why?” begged Cindy.
“There’s some men at the door and they won’t speak to us and they need to talk to you.”
The men were from the Navy. She knew they were there to tell her Matt was dead.
She was wrong.
When she got to her parents’ home, one of the men, a senior SEAL, immediately said, “It’s not what you think.”
He explained Matt was missing. He also explained that the downed helicopter had been out searching for Matt and the rest of his team.
“That started the whole 10 days of sitting around my parents’ house waiting,” said Cindy.
Cindy explained the SEAL community is tight-knit and the wives are as close as their husbands. A memorial was scheduled in Hawaii for the SEALs who had been killed when the copter crashed. Cindy’s SEAL guardian urged her to attend.
“Finally, that morning I decided I’d go and support all the other families,” recalled Cindy. The SEAL rushed back to his motel to get his gear so they could go.
Cindy was waiting with her bags packed when he returned. The look on his face told her something had changed.
In the hour he was gone, he had received word. Matt’s body had been found on that unnamed mountain. Only Luttrell had survived.
Cindy began a new ordeal, waiting for her husband’s body to come home.
“When his body came to Yuba City, to the mortuary there, I wanted them to call me. So my Dad took me down there. It was like 9 o’clock at night. I think I was looking for something. I was hoping to feel something. I went into the garage where his coffin was and I just looked at it.
“OK, they are telling me his body is in there, but there is another coffin right next to it with somebody else’s body in it. I didn’t really get what I thought I was looking for.”
Matt’s body had been on the mountain for 10 days before it was recovered, and everybody advised Cindy not to see it.
She never did see it, and that remains a source of regret.
“I wished I could have seen his hand, pretty much his hand. Maybe the back of his head, his hair, because everybody knew his hair. I don’t know if it would have helped. After we had his body cremated, I, and his father actually, wished that we had seen some part of it.”
“Months after, you still have these thoughts, maybe he really isn’t dead. Maybe they are hiding him. Your mind just kind of goes, what if this, and what if he really is still alive, and they got it mixed up.”
Months later Cindy received a final message from Matt.
Luttrell made a personal pilgrimage to the homes of every member of the team who had been killed, but he had a special reason to see Cindy. He was there to fulfill Matt’s dying wish. In his book, Lone Survivor, Luttrell recorded his last conversation with “Axe.”
Matt had suffered a massive head wound in the fighting. Luttrell was amazed his teammate could still function.
“Marcus, they got us good, man.” He spoke with difficulty, as if trying to concentrate. And then he said, “You stay alive, and tell Cindy I love her.”
Those were Matt’s last words, according to Luttrell.
She said even without the message, she would have known Matt’s last thoughts were of her, but, “To have that solidified, that he really did say it, I’m sure that the other wives wished that they had that same message.”
Since then Cindy’s life has changed. She no longer wears her wedding rings and has “come to terms” with the idea she is single.
She has decided to change professions, leaving her work as a personal trainer, and sell her Chico home and move, perhaps to San Francisco.
She explained all of her and Matt’s married friends are now raising their second children, and the house where she and Matt were supposed to be with their babies is full of too many unfulfilled dreams.
It is those unfulfilled expectations that still haunt Cindy.
“In the dark of the night, when I’m alone, I’m upset that he’s just gone away. He’s not here with me, and I just don’t understand why he had to go.
“I just don’t understand why he was taken from me. It’s a very selfish feeling just because I want him here and the life that we were supposed to have, what we had dreamed about. That’s all we dreamed for, when he was supposed to be out, so we could go back to the normal life that everybody else had.”
Even with this great loss, Cindy said she isn’t sorry Matt became a SEAL. Long before they met, Matt had set his sights on being a SEAL.
She said she understood that when she fell in love with him. It was part of him, essential to his happiness, to his view of himself.
“We did talk about it, and I said this is going to be an awesome experience for you.”
She said she can’t imagine trying to deny Matt the opportunity.
“I’m not upset at all that he became a SEAL.”
Note: A slideshow of additional photos can be found at http://www2.chicoer.com/olextras/slideshows/20070927_Axelson/soundslider.swf
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© Chico Enterprise-Record. Article reprinted with permission.