Matt Axelson was one of Brandon’s personal students in the SEAL sniper course that Brandon and his BUD/S teammate Eric Davis were managing in 2004. “Axe” was one of his finest students. Not long after graduation, he took part in the fateful mission immortalized in the book and film Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell, another of Brandon’s personals. While Marcus survived the mission, Matt and his other teammates did not. Chapter 3 of Among Heroes is Matt’s story.
Getting to know Matt affected me in two ways: First, it made me realize that over the course of my years in the teams, seeing the sacrifices so many guys and their families were making, and experiencing first-hand what was going on in the rest of the world, I’d come to have a deep love for my country, along with a dedication to serving that I hadn’t known was in me.
He also made me want to up my game.
I was already fiercely dedicated to excellence, always had been. By natural inclination I have a very low tolerance for bullshit, laziness, or mediocrity. (One reason among many that Dave Scott and I clicked.) But just being around Matt and watching the way he held himself to the highest standard possible was pushing me to hold myself to an even higher standard. As much as our students looked up to us and took us as role models, every now and then it worked the other way, too. As Matt worked his way through the course, I found myself looking up to him. To me, he represented the epitome of what it was we were working to develop in all our students. …
In November 2012, I brought my nine-year-old daughter Madison with me to New York for a week. In between meetings with publishers and media people, we would slip in all kinds of sightseeing, and it would be a fantastic chance for building some father-daughter memories. The first thing we did, though, even before leaving the West Coast, was to drive up to San Francisco to participate in a Veterans Day event hosted by Donna Axelson, Matt’s mother, in Cupertino.
After Matt and his teammates died the city of Cupertino commissioned a lifelike bronze statue, by the renowned Florida sculptor W. Stanley Proctor, to be erected at Memorial Park, which up to that point, oddly enough, had no memorial. Designed to commemorate all veterans, the statue itself is of Matt and his close friend James Suh, who was one of the sixteen men who died in the helo crash trying to rescue Matt and his friends. (You can see it online at CupertinoVeteransMemorial.org.) Around the base of the pedestal are placed twenty twelve-by-twelve-inch pavers, one for each of the nineteen men who died in Operation Red Wings, with their birth dates and dates of death, plus one for Marcus, which reads simply, “Survivor.”
Donna holds an annual event there, where she talks about what the memorial means to her and to all of us. Each year she invites guest speakers to join her. That year, she had invited me.
I talked about Matt and his buddies Danny Dietz and Mike Murphy, and the nature and meaning of their sacrifice. I retold a story by Marine Lieutenant General John Kelly, called “Six Seconds to Live,” about two young Marines who gave their lives standing down a suicide bomber in Iraq, and how much that story reminded me of Matt and his teammates. (If you haven’t heard the “Six Seconds” story, it’s worth searching it out on the Internet.) Most of all, I spoke about what amazing men these three were, and how I was a better man for having known them.
Madison sat in the front row, right next to Donna, throughout my talk. Afterward people came up to her, thanking her and telling her how much my talk had meant to them. After the whole thing was over and we were alone together, she looked at me and said, “Dad, I’m really proud of you.” I’ve seen a lot of good and a lot of bad in my years on earth. Among the mix there have been some outstanding moments. That one ranks right up there at the top.
Months later Madison was still talking about that experience. I hadn’t realized it would have such an impact on her. But of course it did. If anyone tells you that children can’t handle the realities of life, that they can’t grasp the truth of life and death, you can tell them, “Sorry, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” My daughter’s life was changed forever by hearing about Matt and his teammates. Although she never met him, she’ll never forget him.
My hope is that the same will be true for her entire generation. Matt exemplified the simple truth that actions speak louder than words. Much like that Stanley Proctor bronze, Matt’s life stands as a mute but eloquent monument to the best and noblest impulses within us all.
Photo: Matt, age three and a half (R) with his older brother Jeff.