I thought Bin Laden had been dead a long time.
By Phil Bronstein
Published in the March 2013 issue
Phil Bronstein is the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and currently serves as executive chairman of the Center for Investigative Reporting. This piece was reported in cooperation with CIR.
The man who shot and killed Osama bin Laden sat in a wicker chair in my backyard, wondering how he was going to feed his wife and kids or pay for their medical care.
It was a mild spring day, April 2012, and our small group, including a few of his friends and family, was shielded from the sun by the patchwork shadows of maple trees. But the Shooter was sweating as he talked about his uncertain future, his plans to leave the Navy and SEAL Team 6.
He stood up several times with an apologetic gripe about the heat, leaving a perspiration stain on the seat-back cushion. He paced. I didn't know him well enough then to tell whether a glass of his favorite single malt, Lagavulin, was making him less or more edgy.
We would end up intimately familiar with each other's lives. We'd have dinners, lots of Scotch. He's played with my kids and my dogs and been a hilarious, engaging gentleman around my wife.
In my yard, the Shooter told his story about joining the Navy at nineteen, after a girl broke his heart. To escape, he almost by accident found himself in a Navy recruiter's office. "He asked me what I was going to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be a sniper.
"He said, 'Hey, we have snipers.'
"I said, 'Seriously, dude. You do not have snipers in the Navy.' But he brought me into his office and it was a pretty sweet deal. I signed up on a whim."
"That's the reason Al Qaeda has been decimated," he joked, "because she broke my fucking heart."
I would come to know about the Shooter's hundreds of combat missions, his twelve long-term SEAL-team deployments, his thirty-plus kills of enemy combatants, often eyeball to eyeball. And we would talk for hours about the mission to get bin Laden and about how, over the celebrated corpse in front of them on a tarp in a hangar in Jalalabad, he had given the magazine from his rifle with all but three lethally spent bullets left in it to the female CIA analyst whose dogged intel work and intuition led the fighters into that night.
When I was first around him, as he talked I would always try to imagine the Shooter geared up and a foot away from bin Laden, whose life ended in the next moment with three shots to the center of his forehead. But my mind insisted on rendering the picture like a bad Photoshop job — Mao's head superimposed on the Yangtze, or tourists taking photos with cardboard presidents outside the White House.
Bin Laden was, after all, the man CIA director Leon Panetta called "the most infamous terrorist in our time," who devoured inordinate amounts of our collective cultural imagery for more than a decade. The number-one celebrity of evil. And the man in my backyard blew his lights out.
ST6 in particular is an enterprise requiring extraordinary teamwork, combined with more kinds of support in the field than any other unit in the history of the U.S. military.
Similarly, NASA marshaled thousands of people to put a man on the moon, and history records that Neil Armstrong first set his foot there, not the equally talented Buzz Aldrin.
Enough people connected to the SEALs and the bin Laden mission have confirmed for me that the Shooter was the "number two" behind the raid's point man going up the stairs to bin Laden's third-floor residence, and that he is the one who rolled through the bedroom door solo and confronted the surprisingly tall terrorist pushing his youngest wife, Amal, in front of him through the pitch-black room. The Shooter had to raise his gun higher than he expected.
The point man is the only one besides the Shooter who could verify the kill shots firsthand, and he did just that to another SEAL I spoke with. But even the point man was not in the room then, having tackled two women into the hallway, a crucial and heroic decision given that everyone living in the house was presumed to be wearing a suicide vest.
But a series of confidential conversations, detailed descriptions of mission debriefs, and other evidence make it clear: The Shooter's is the most definitive account of those crucial few seconds, and his account, corroborated by multiple sources, establishes him as the last man to see Osama bin Laden alive. Not in dispute is the fact that others have claimed that they shot bin Laden when he was already dead, and a number of team members apparently did just that.
What is much harder to understand is that a man with hundreds of successful war missions, one of the most decorated combat veterans of our age, who capped his career by terminating bin Laden, has no landing pad in civilian life.
Back in April, he and some of his SEAL Team 6 colleagues had formed the skeleton of a company to help them transition out of the service. In my yard, he showed everyone his business-card mock-ups. There was only a subtle inside joke reference to their team in the company name.
Unlike former SEAL Team 6 member Matt Bissonnette (No Easy Day), they do not rush to write books or step forward publicly, because that violates the code of the "quiet professional." Someone suggested they might sell customized sunglasses and other accessories special operators often invent and use in the field. It strains credulity that for a commando team leader who never got a single one of his men hurt on a mission, sunglasses would be his best option. And it's a simple truth that those who have been most exposed to harrowing danger for the longest time during our recent unending wars now find themselves adrift in civilian life, trying desperately to adjust, often scrambling just to make ends meet.
At the time, the Shooter's uncle had reached out to an executive at Electronic Arts, hoping that the company might need help with video-game scenarios once the Shooter retired. But the uncle cannot mention his nephew's distinguishing feature as the one who put down bin Laden.
Secrecy is a thick blanket over our Special Forces that inelegantly covers them, technically forever. The twenty-three SEALs who flew into Pakistan that night were directed by their command the day they got back stateside about acting and speaking as though it had never happened.
"Right now we are pretty stacked with consultants," the video-game man responded. "Thirty active and recently retired guys" for one game: Medal of Honor Warfighter. In fact, seven active-duty Team 6 SEALs would later be punished for advising EA while still in the Navy and supposedly revealing classified information. (One retired SEAL, a participant in the bin Laden raid, was also involved.)
With the focus and precision he's learned, the Shooter waits and watches for the right way to exit, and adapt. Despite his foggy future, his past is deeply impressive. This is a man who is very pleased about his record of service to his country and has earned the respect of his peers.
"He's taken monumental risks," says the Shooter's dad, struggling to contain the frustration that roughs the edges of his deep pride in his son. "But he's unable to reap any reward."
It's not that there isn't one. The U.S. government put a $25 million bounty on bin Laden that no one is likely to collect. Certainly not the SEALs who went on the mission nor the support and intelligence experts who helped make it all possible. Technology is the key to success in this case more than people, Washington officials have said.
The Shooter doesn't care about that. "I'm not religious, but I always felt I was put on the earth to do something specific. After that mission, I knew what it was."
Others also knew, from the commander-in-chief on down. The bin Laden shooting was a staple of presidential-campaign brags. One big-budget movie, several books, and a whole drawerful of documentaries and TV films have fortified the brave images of the Shooter and his ST6 Red Squadron members.
There is commerce attached to the mission, and people are capitalizing. Just not the triggerman. While others collect, he is cautious and careful not to dishonor anyone. His manners come at his own expense.
"No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job," Barack Obama said last Veterans' Day, "or a roof over their head, or the care that they have earned when they come home."
But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:
Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.
Since Abbottabad, he has trained his children to hide in their bathtub at the first sign of a problem as the safest, most fortified place in their house. His wife is familiar enough with the shotgun on their armoire to use it. She knows to sit on the bed, the weapon's butt braced against the wall, and precisely what angle to shoot out through the bedroom door, if necessary. A knife is also on the dresser should she need a backup.
Then there is the "bolt" bag of clothes, food, and other provisions for the family meant to last them two weeks in hiding.
"Personally," his wife told me recently, "I feel more threatened by a potential retaliatory terror attack on our community than I did eight years ago," when her husband joined ST6.
When the White House identified SEAL Team 6 as those responsible, camera crews swarmed into their Virginia Beach neighborhood, taking shots of the SEALs' homes.
After bin Laden's face appeared on their TV in the days after the killing, the Shooter cautioned his older child not to mention the Al Qaeda leader's name ever again "to anybody. It's a bad name, a curse name." His kid started referring to him instead as "Poopyface." It's a story he told affectionately on that April afternoon visit to my home.
He loves his kids and tears up only when he talks about saying goodbye to them before each and every deployment. "It's so much easier when they're asleep," he says, "and I can just kiss them, wondering if this is the last time." He's thrilled to show video of his oldest in kick-boxing class. And he calls his wife "the perfect mother."
In fact, the couple is officially separated, a common occurrence in ST6. SEAL marriages can be perilous. Husbands and fathers have been mostly away from their families since 9/11. But the Shooter and his wife continue to share a house on very friendly, even loving terms, largely to save money.
"We're actually looking into changing my name," the wife says. "Changing the kids' names, taking my husband's name off the house, paying off our cars. Essentially deleting him from our lives, but for safety reasons. We still love each other."
When the family asked about any kind of government protection should the Shooter's name come out, they were advised that they could go into a witness-protection-like program.
Just as soon as the Department of Defense creates one.
"They [SEAL command] told me they could get me a job driving a beer truck in Milwaukee" under an assumed identity. Like Mafia snitches, they would not be able to contact their families or friends. "We'd lose everything."
"These guys have millions of dollars' worth of knowledge and training in their heads," says one of the group at my house, a former SEAL and mentor to the Shooter and others looking to make the transition out of what's officially called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. "All sorts of executive function skills. That shouldn't go to waste."
The mentor himself took a familiar route — through Blackwater, then to the CIA, in both organizations as a paramilitary operator in Afghanistan.
Private security still seems like the smoothest job path, though many of these guys, including the Shooter, do not want to carry a gun ever again for professional use. The deaths of two contractors in Benghazi, both former SEALs the mentor knew, remind him that the battlefield risks do not go away.
By the time the Shooter visited me that first time in April, I had come to know more of the human face of what's called Tier One Special Operations, in addition to the extraordinary skill and icy resolve. It is a privileged, consuming, and concerning look inside one of the most insular clubs on earth.
And I understood that he would face a world very different from the supportive one President Obama described at Arlington National Cemetery a few months before.
As I watched the Shooter navigate obstacles very different from the ones he faced so expertly in four war zones around the globe, I wondered: Is this how America treats its heroes? The ones President Obama called "the best of the best"? The ones Vice-President Biden called "the finest warriors in the history of the world"?
No you are not on your own Clarence. I left after 13 years due to family problems and yet I'm 100% service connected (Non-Combat Injury) Until you have walked in those shoes don't judge him... We have no clue what he went through and now he has problems in life that stem from his service to America so YES he should be taken care of.
Ronald: As I understand it he made the decision to leave the Service, they didn't force him to go. Under those circumstances he is responsible for his decision and the position he is in. We all make decisions throughout our lives, some work out, some do not, but we can't look to others to support us when we err. It's called personal responsibility and that is an item we are sorely lacking in this Nation today. I honor the man for his service, but as I understand it, he made the decision, which placed him in the position he's in. It is unrealistic to expect others, with life problems of their own, to bear the burden of his error, if it was an error. If he's out because of a service related disability that's a whole different matter and anyone, myself included, would support him all the way.
I just heard Meagan Kelly say they were going to speak to the man that took Bin Ladin down..Next on Fox Cable News.11::26 am, MST.
Just heard it, it was the same story we read..No Seal.. But the Navy reported they
take care of their enlisted when they leave. (I don't think so)
Congress should be made to give their salaries to these Seals. Hell give them what you gave away
Please understand I think the world of our Navy Seals and all of our military branches.
After the Vietnam War many, many men who had been in combat and or served honorably
in SE Asia were riffed. Some had 18 and 19 years in. So many of us had to call our congress
people and plead to let them get their 20 in. Every now and then that worked.
The same went down with former enlisted men who became pilots. No more promotions because
they did not have the four year degree ticket. Good men with tons of experience as most all who
This country does use then and then does lose them. So this has been going on for a darn long
time and of course it is no way to treat anyone who has put in so many years of duty for their country.
Especially when we know we are maxed out on giving money to foreign enemies and the pols always
make sure they are well taken care of. Pluse all the so called entitilement programs.
Any of those who took out Bin Laden or anyone else that was a major bad guy should always be
allowed to stay in the military and get their 20 or retirement and live in base housing for their safety. Then again that makes sense and our DoD and so many presidents and our people in congress make no sense.
So many of them today have never served in our military or the reserve.
this is really sad - and so un-American.
I do think Marjean Morton - had the best reply - find themselves a pastor, a church and a Savior......a true believing church will help these people.
I'm probably going to get myself in trouble here but so be it. As someone else said, why doesn't he stick it out for another four years until he can retire. As a retired military person I've been there and done that. I can't come up with a great deal of sympathy for him. His decision to get out after 16 years is his. There have got to be other jobs in the Navy that he could do with no more deployments. Who better to train future seals than people like this. There have got to be any number of police agencies throughout the country who would hire this guy at the drop of a hat. With his background there are any number of federal agencies who would hire him. We all knew that when we signed up retirement was, at a minimum, 20 years away. I wasn't a SEAL but there were times when I left the house in the morning my wife didn't know when she would see me again. I could show up two or three days later grab a shower and gone again. I knew damn well that somewhere the KGB or the GRU, if not both, had a file on me. I knew that areas where I went other folks like me had disappeared never to be seen again. It goes with the territory of being in the military and your job in the military. If he has problems with all the cameras in his neighborhood he can move. This guy is no different than the grunts in Afghanistan or any other place we have troops that obummer isn't telling us about. Several weeks ago there was a helmet cam video that went viral. It was of a grunt in Afghanistan in a fire fight and near the end he gets wounded. Not too long ago I was a picture of the guy back in the states in dress uniform. He's a 37 year old PFC in the Army. At 37 he should be an E7 or E8 either looking to retire or going to the Sergeant Major's academy. He wasn't complaining. Finally, this guy knew the rules when he enlisted and when he VOLUNTEERED for the SEALs. This guy is no different than any of the millions of the rest of us. We all paid a price.
Right on Marvin, Right on!
Marvin, are you sure it was the same guy?? Did he go in at a later age, maybe? While I was on active duty in the 80's, the latest age a person could enter the military was 27. If that's what he did, still, 10 yrs and only a PFC?? That's just bizarre!
You're not going to get in trouble with me, I agree with you about this guy.
As a result of the war on terror (what a misnomer) they have raised the maximum age to at least 34. But even entering at age 34 three years later the guy should be at least an SP4 or a buck sergeant. The story did say that his "command", whoever that is, was not happy that he posted the video. He may well have gotten busted for uploading the video. If that's the case I will never understand why. During the entire video his hands and part of his arms are the only thing visible. It appears that he may have been a point man. I would assume that if there were other GIs nearby he would have looked to the left or right, especially after he was hit and he didn't.
This is the burden of the SpecOps (Spesh-Ops) operators. Like their Submariner counterparts, the Special Warfare Group is a Silent Service. During the time you are in, you dodge the limelight and never include your advancements, schools and transfers to a Hometown News Release. At some point, when your 'office' is a concealed location in a swamp or frozen dug-out hole in the snow, far behind enemy lines and the possibility that you get detained by the enemy, you want your dossier by the enemy intelligence officer to be as thin as possible, or better yet, thick with a cover story (that hardly ever happens). And, while you may be out, now as a civilian, your comrades are still in and running your mouth on how things get done can get them 'compromised' and then killed.
Overseas, men of the French Foreign Legion often have the same problem, but for a slightly different reason. Though you might have been an expert sniper, knife-fighter, what-have-you, how do your skills translate in the civilian marketplace? Who needs tailgunners after the war? Many will gravitate to police units, some will become government contractors ('retreads'), some might try a niche profession (selling hand-to-hand combat videos, or, for riggers, making rugged outdoors gear).
But for the most part, you get the blank look from the guy wearing a tie on the other side of the desk, one who looked like he'd never done a push-up or missed a meal. He might look up from looking at your resume and say, 'so what this says is that you wasted the last few years of your life.' (In retrospect, I should have broken that puke's teeth).
What needs to happen is a renewal of a support system, by prior military, now in business. There used to be a public service commercial, 'Don't Forget, Hire the Vet.' But I haven't seen that for years. Nor, with this hard-Left MSM, am I surprised. Their open contempt for the military is palpable. We had troops in combat for years. History was being made every day, and yet this entire generation of fighters was invisible. No TV series documenting the everyday acts of valor, above and beyond, or an upbeat cop series, perhaps called 'Baghdad Blue' showing the joint efforts of the Free Iraqis and Americans to secure the peace after the surge. Nada, zero, zilch. Just hints that returning vets were potential terrorists, whacked and suicidal.
We all owe a debt to these vets, and that perhaps starts with understanding their experience.
Thank you for our freedom, you who have given all. A inValley Forge we will not know all there names: but God Bless you all. We must do our part, now.