The featured speaker at the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce's 125th annual banquet, held Monday night at the Hilton Garden Inn, was Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who endured a terrifying and tragic ordeal while fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2005.
Luttrell's 2007 book, "Lone Survivor," was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and inspired a Hollywood blockbuster of the same name starring Mark Wahlberg.
It tells the heart-thumping story of a group of four SEALs on a mission to kill or capture a high-ranking Taliban leader in the remote, mountainous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After his fellow soldiers were killed, Luttrell escaped and was eventually taken in by a group of local villagers until he could be reunited with his fellow soldiers.
Luttrell put the crowd at ease Monday night with colorful jokes and rambling stories, all told with a thick Texas drawl.
"I'm not a motivational speaker by trade," he said. "If you want a motivational speaker, call Tony Robbins. People call me in to bring perspective on what a bad day is. I'm a country boy and usually what comes out of my mouth is what I mean to say because I'm a grown man. I'm not politically correct. I don't have any PowerPoint presentations or anything, but nobody pays attention to that crap anyway.
"The nice lady that put this thing together asked if I get nervous speaking in front of people. Why would I get nervous? Do you know anything about me? If you see me get nervous, you better run."
Luttrell said that Hollywood has done a good job of portraying the life of a Navy SEAL as "sexy" and "glamorous."
"In the movies, there's always some beautiful woman waiting for you at the end after you get shot," he said. "Well, I got shot and there was never any beautiful woman waiting for me."
Luttrell told stories of his childhood, and they all included his twin brother, who he called the "alpha male" in the family, even though he was only born seven minutes earlier.
"My brother still opens all the Christmas presents before me," he said.
He said he spent his "whole, entire life" getting ready to be a Navy SEAL.
"It's not mandatory in my family to fight, but if you don't do it, you're a loser," he said.
He described the excruciating training all SEALS must undergo to prove themselves before they are sent into combat.
"My longest dive was 10 hours and 46 minutes," he said. "I actually fell asleep and woke up underwater twice.
"Do not do that."
The bonds of friendship are strongest when they are forged under dire circumstances, he said.
"People's definition of friends are loose," he said. "Some guys say they are friends because they watch football together. I always ask, 'Have you ever been involved in something really bad together?’ ”
The most intense moment of the speech came when Luttrell described Operation Redwing, the mission that led to the tragic incident.
"The thing with us, if we are out doing something, if it goes bad it goes real bad," he said. "There's no in-between for us. The movie was two hours long, and in real life, the gun battle took three hours. I got knocked out six times during that one gun fight. That gives you some perspective."
The realities of war led to extreme suspicion of a group of sheepherders.
"If you turn your back on a 12-year-old boy out there, he'll cut your head off," Luttrell said.
He described how they detained some herders for questioning, but let them go. An hour later, a militia came searching for the SEALs.
Luttrell calmly described shooting men in the face and watching his friends die. When one of his fellow soldiers got shot and knocked into him, Luttrell described how he hit his face on a rock, bit his own tongue in half, and swallowed it.
"In the movie, they showed (a fellow soldier) getting shot in the back of the head," he said. "I guess that's because the actors have pretty faces. But in real life, he got shot in the face and it ripped most of his face off. I couldn't stand to hear him die so I put my weapon down and covered my ears."
He described the moment where he was sure he was going to die, when he was hiding in the dirt, half-naked, as the Taliban soldiers searched for him.
"There's a difference between having fear and being afraid," he said. "Fear makes you sharp. It gives you that acid taste in your mouth and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Being afraid will shut you down. It will make you pathetic and weak. I was afraid. They were walking over the top of me. I don't know if I was ashamed of being afraid or what. I just laid there like a chump."
Luttrell said when he was rescued by the Afghan villagers, who made a solemn pact to protect him even if it meant their own death, he learned more about himself in those few days than he ever had growing up.
"As men, all we have is our word," he said. "I think one of the most valuable things I ever learned was don't make the mistake of judging somebody right off the bat, or judging them on religion or anything. That's one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned."
David Bell, who introduced Luttrell, said that Montana has one of the highest per-capita percentages of veterans and soldiers killed in action in the nation.
"The enemy is at the gates," Bell said. "And there's only one thing standing between us and a lot of very bad things, and that is the men and women in uniform who serve our country abroad.
"This is a profound moment to hear from a speaker who has participated in something amazing."
Gary Hughes won the George Award, the Missoula Chamber's highest honor. It is given to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the community and is summarized by the phrase "they didn't let George do it all."
Hughes has spent the last 34 years managing arenas, stadiums, events, tickets, food service and people for University of Montana athletics.
He is also a volunteer for the sports commissions of both the Chamber and Destination Missoula, and he has been serving the Sentinel Kiwanis of Missoula since 2000. He is on the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame selection committee, and he managed the Olympic medals plaza at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
He has served as the event manager for dozens of Montana High School Association state basketball tournament and track and field championships.
On Aug. 28, he celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Judith, with whom he raised six children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
"This is so special and beyond words, so thank you so much," Hughes said.
The 2015 Circle of Excellence Award, which is given to a business that meets high standards of community involvement and social responsibility, went to PayneWest Insurance.
The company employs 109 people locally and has donated over $150,000 and 4,000 hours of volunteer service to the community.
At PayneWest, business decisions are governed by the "three C's": Clients, colleagues and communities. Over 95 percent of their employees donate their time to volunteer programs.
The company has reinvested in the community through facility improvements with an addition of almost 5,500 square feet to their current headquarters, which cast approximately $500,000 in fixed assets and an additional $100,000 in non-capitalized items.
Company CEO Kyle Lingscheit accepted the award.
"To us, community is everything," he said. "We love to give back to the community."
The annual banquet also signifies the passing of the gavel from the past chairman of the board of directors, Nick Kaufman of the WGM Group, to the present one, Mary Windecker, who is the vice-president of development at Community Medical Center and an active volunteer in many organizations.
"The chamber of commerce helps businesses succeed, that's what we do,"Kaufman said. "You have to be a healthy business before you can give back to your community. It takes a team. You are part of a team. The Chamber of Commerce is that organization that supports healthy business and other things that are so vital to our quality of life."
Windecker joked that, at first, she was adamantly opposed to taking the position with the Chamber.
"I am really pleased that I did because it has been a wonderful experience," she said. "I'm thrilled to be here."