Editor’s note: See the important update at the bottom of this story about the claim that the SEAL did not have health care.
Phil Bronstein spent more than a year researching a piece published Monday in Esquire on the life of the Navy SEAL who allegedly killed Osama bin Laden. He formed a friendship with the man, whom he refers to only as “the Shooter” throughout the piece for safety reasons, learning new details about the famous raid and — more shockingly — the Shooter’s life post-retirement.
The Shooter isn’t exactly able to write on his résumé that he’s the man who killed Osama Bin Laden– details about the mission are strictly classified and he adheres to a “quiet professional” code. The Shooter says he has no interest in making himself a public figure like the author of No Easy Day, who was also on the raid and was one of the men to shoot Bin Laden after the terrorist had been killed by the Shooter. So where is he now?
Apparently, in the same boat as many of America’s other veterans.
This is a man who recalls the Osama bin Laden raid not from images on a television, but from a first-person perspective. He related grisly new details in his first-ever interview, even sharing what he was thinking at the time:
[Bin Laden] looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting. He had a cap on and didn’t appear to be hit…
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.
In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time as he’s going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! same place. That time I used my EOTech red-dot holo sight. He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath.
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? This is real and that’s him. Holy shit.
His forehead was gruesome. It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face. The American public doesn’t want to know what that looks like. [Emphasis added]
So where is he now? The Esquire article explains:
“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. [Emphasis added]
The Shooter and his wife are actually separated, but still live in the same house to save money. The $60,000 a year he made with extra bonuses for different activities has dried up, and they haven’t yet found a way to replace it.
“We’re actually looking into changing my name,” she explained. “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.”
According to Bronstein, the only assistance The Shooter was offered was a witness-protection like program where the national hero would be “driving a beer truck in Milwaukee.” The family would have to sever all connections to their former life.
A former SEAL and mentor to the Shooter noted: “These guys have millions of dollars’ worth of knowledge and training in their heads…All sorts of executive function skills. That shouldn’t go to waste.”
Retired Marine major general Mike Myatt added: “It’s criminal to me that these guys walk out the door naked…They’re the greatest of their generation; they know how to get things done. If I were a Fortune 500 company, I’d try to get my hands on any one of them.”
Bronstein says one conversation in particular exemplifies the abandonment:
“I left SEALs on Friday,” [the Shooter] said the next time I saw him. It was a little more than thirty-six months before the official retirement requirement of twenty years of service. “My health care for me and my family stopped at midnight Friday night. I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no. You’re out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your sixteen years. Go [f–k] yourself.”
The Esquire article concludes with the Shooter’s perception of the movie Zero Dark Thirty, the author adding that a line from the film has been haunting him.
The tactics “sucked,” the Shooter said, and “the mission in the damn movie took way too long,” but other than that he said he was largely pleased.
But the real-life risks and ramifications were summed up by the actor playing the CIA station chief, who warned: “Once you’re on their list, you never get off.”
UPDATE: The blog Stars and Stripes is reporting that the Navy SEAL that reportedly killed Osama bin Laden actually does have health care.
Except the claim about health care is wrong. And no servicemember who does less than 20 years gets a pension, unless he has to medically retire.
Like every combat veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the former SEAL, who is identified in the story only as “the Shooter”, is automatically eligible for five years of free healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But the story doesn’t mention that.
The writer, Phil Bronstein, who heads up the Center for Investigative Reporting, stands by the story. He said the assertion that the government gave the SEAL “nothing” in terms of health care is both fair and accurate, because the SEAL didn’t know the VA benefits existed.
“No one ever told him that this is available,” Bronstein said.