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”?