Esquire magazine has a fascinating, lengthy interview with the unnamed member of Seal Team 6 credited with killing Osama bin Laden. “The Shooter,” as he’s called in the piece, recently left the service after 16 years, four short of the 20 years needed for a pension and health care.
Like many who leave the military, he doesn’t know what to do next in his life.
He does know he doesn’t want anything more to do with guns or killing people, so that line of work is out. His marriage is ending, although he and wife are separating on good terms. And lurking in the background is fear that they or their children may become targets for retribution.
As his wife puts it:
“He gave so much to his country, and now it seems he’s left in the dust. I feel there’s no support, not just for my family but for other families in the community. I honestly have nobody I can go to or talk to. Nor do I feel my husband has gotten much for what he’s accomplished in his career.”
Exactly what, if any, responsibility should the government have to her family?
The loss of income and insurance and no pension aside, she can no longer walk onto the local base if she feels a threat to her family. They’ve surrendered their military IDs. If something were to happen, the Shooter has instructed her to take the kids to the base gate anyway and demand to see the commanding officer, or someone from the SEAL team. “He said someone will come get us.”
Because of the mission, she says that “my family is always going to be at risk. It’s just a matter of finding coping strategies.”
The whole piece is definitely worth a read, particularly if you’ve seen the movie version, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which is absolutely absorbing. But here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:
“We all wrote letters (before the bin Laden operation). I had my … little room and I’m sitting on my Pelican case with all my gear, a manila envelope on my bed, and I’m writing letters to my kids. They were to be delivered in case of my death, something for them to read when they’re 35. I have no idea what I said except I’m explaining everything, that it was a noble mission and I hope we got him. I’m saying I wish I could be there for them.
“And the tears are hitting the page, because we all knew that none of us were coming back alive. It was either death or a Pakistani prison, where we’d be raped for the rest of our lives.”
He gave the letters to an intel guy not on the mission, with instructions. He would shred them if he made it back.
“You write it, it’s horrible, you hand it off, and it’s like, Okay, that part’s over. And I’m back, ready to roll.”
Then they’re gathered by a fire pit (in Afghanistan), suiting up. Just before he got on the chopper to leave for Abbottabad, the Shooter called his dad. “I didn’t know where he was, but I found out later he was in a Walmart parking lot. I said, ‘Hey, it’s time to go to work,’ and I’m thinking, I’m calling for the last time. I thought there was a good chance of dying.
He knew something significant was up, though he didn’t know what.” The Shooter could hear him start to tear up. “He told me later that he sat in his pickup in that parking lot for an hour and couldn’t get out of the car.”
On preparations should things go awry:
“The group discussed what would happen if they were surrounded by Pakistani troops. We would surrender. The original plan was to have Vice-President Biden fly to Islamabad and negotiate our release with Pakistan’s president.
This is hearsay, but I understand Obama said, Hell no. My guys are not surrendering. What do we need to rain hell on the Pakistani military? That was the one time in my life I was thinking, I am f…ing voting for this guy. I had a picture of him lying in bed at night, thinking, ‘You’re not f…ing with my guys.’ Like, he’s thinking about us.”
On approaching the bin Ladin compound:
“I remember banking to the south, which meant we were getting ready to hit. We had about another fifteen minutes. Instead of counting, for some reason I said to myself the George Bush 9/11 quote: Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended. I could just hear his voice, and that was neat. I started saying it again and again to myself. Then I started to get pumped up. I’m like: This is so on.”
On the end of the long hunt, as they moved through the compound toward the target:
“We had to move, because bin Laden is now going to be grabbing some weapon because he’s getting shot at. I had my hand on the point man’s shoulder and squeezed, a signal to go. The two of us went up. On the third floor, he tackled the two women in the hallway right outside the first door on the right, moving them past it just enough. He thought he was going to absorb the blast of suicide vests; he was going to kill himself so I could get the shot. It was the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen.
I rolled past him into the room, just inside the doorway.
There was bin Laden standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders, pushing her ahead, not exactly toward me but by me, in the direction of the hallway commotion. It was his youngest wife, Amal.
He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting. He had a cap on and didn’t appear to be hit. I can’t tell you 100 percent, but he was standing and moving. He was holding her in front of him. Maybe as a shield, I don’t know.
For me, it was a snapshot of a target ID, definitely him. Even in our kill houses where we train, there are targets with his face on them. This was repetition and muscle memory. That’s him, boom, done….
And I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done?”
At the end of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the camera focuses on the CIA analyst whose dedication and even obsession with tracking bin Laden finally ended up putting him in a body bag. Her mission complete, she has no idea what comes next or where to turn. The Shooter clearly shares both her sense of great accomplishment and her sense of emptiness.
– Jay Bookman