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Navy SEAL Who Killed Osama Bin Laden Faces Insecurity, Financial Challenges

February 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks with journalist Phil Bronstein who wrote an Esquire profile of the Navy SEAL credited with killing Osama bin Laden. Since the SEAL -- known as "the shooter" -- retired from service, but he's been met with significant challenges, or as Bronstein writes, "no landing pad in civilian life."
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn now to the story of the man credited with killing Osama bin Laden and the post-military challenges he’s faced.

Ray Suarez has more.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, United States: Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

RAY SUAREZ: May 1, 2011, President Obama announces to the world that a 10-year manhunt is over. The founder and face of al-Qaida is dead.

In a late night raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a group of U.S. Navy SEALs, now well known as Seal Team 6, had stormed the walled compound where bin Laden was quietly living and operating. Now writing in “Esquire” magazine, Phil Bronstein of the Center for Investigative Reporting has tracked down the man credited with taking the kill shot who has since retired from the Navy.

The man, described only as the shooter, tells of his struggle, no pension, difficulty finding employment, a lack of health insurance, and no security protection for his family or himself. The former SEAL has also filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related injuries. Average wait time for a decision exceeds nine months.

We reached out to the Pentagon for comment on the article. A spokesperson there said — quote — “We’re not responding to it in any way, either to confirm or deny anything.”

For more on this, story I’m joined by the article’s author, Phil Bronstein. He’s the executive chairman of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Welcome to the program.

PHIL BRONSTEIN, Center for Investigative Reporting: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, this is a man whose identity is secret. You can tell from the Department of Defense they don’t want to say anything about anything. How did you determine to your own satisfaction that the shooter is who he says he is?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Well, this is a relationship that started about a year-and-a-quarter ago through some mutual friends. And so he was introduced to me as the guy, as we like to call him by people long before I ever met him.

These were people who had — for instance, there was a party of SEALs who had been on that mission in Washington a week after the mission. And I wasn’t there, but he was there along with other fellow SEALs who were on the bin Laden mission. And there was a lot of conversation acknowledging that he was the shooter.

And other members of his squad, his red team squad, were clearly in agreement with that. And I did speak with three different people who were at that dinner, some military, some not. And then, over time, I just — you know, I started — finally started talking to him directly. It was a matter of sort of triangulation, to the point where I felt like he definitely had the most credible story about what happened.

There were also little details in there, Ray. I mean, he talks about going in the room, rolling in the room, as he puts it, and being kind of shocked at how tall bin Laden was and having to raise his gun up to shoot him. And it’s not that those details really, you know, verified anything in particular, except that they were details that were — I thought were somewhat telling.

RAY SUAREZ: At the outset, he didn’t know what his role would be in the operation, so he’s not the person who came in on that helicopter knowing that he would be the person who would take out bin Laden, did he?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: No, he absolutely did not.

He did have a role. They all had roles. His original role had been as a team leader. And he was going to be the leader of the exterior team. So, that was the team of people that they dropped outside of the compound initially to check the perimeter. They had an interpreter. They had several snipers and they had this dog, Cairo.

And the idea was to keep local Pakistanis from Abbottabad and the environs away, which they did. It wasn’t that hard, as it turned out. But that was their job. He was originally on that team, and actually managed to get himself transferred to this team that was going to be fast-roped onto the roof, because he thought that would — they needed more assaulters, and that would give him an opportunity to perhaps be one of the people to shoot bin Laden.

As it turned out, they actually got dropped off outside the compound, had to blow their way in, and then they all went up the stairs.

RAY SUAREZ: From the guy, you get a rare look inside that building as the operation is going down. But then the article pivots, and you lament the fact that 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.

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: What is he up to now?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Well, there is something in the story. I mean, obviously, we don’t get too specific about him engaging in some what we call discreet consulting.

So, he’s not broke. Since the story came out yesterday, people have talked about, you know, here’s a guy who is broke, because it’s a more dramatic way to put it. He’s not broke. But he does have bills. He has a family that he has to take care of. He has no pension because he left before the 20 years that it normally takes for you to retire.

And he’s — you know, the work that he’s doing is not necessarily consistent or long-lasting.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, not broke, but insecure, in his own words.

 

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Very insecure about a number of things. He’s insecure about how he’s going to feed his wife and kids — and that — again, don’t mean that to sound like he’s out on the sidewalk, but as we all worry about our families — but also about safety and security, because one of the things that happened is when they got back from the mission, they had a conversation, what if their names should come out?

So, Matt Bissonnette, who wrote the book “No Easy Day” under a pseudonym, his real name came out two days after the pseudonym everywhere. And within a day or two after that, his picture was on a jihadi Web site. What happened is the SEAL command told the shooter, you know, we can perhaps give you some kind of witness protection program. We don’t have it yet. We haven’t created it yet, but we could.

And someone, perhaps half-jokingly, said to him, and you would — you could drive a beer truck in Milwaukee. And he just felt like being put in a situation as though you were a mafia snitch just didn’t seem quite right to him.

RAY SUAREZ: After 16 years of very intense combat and highly skilled work in our military, was this a case of willful neglect or just, as many soldiers experience, a bad handoff from the Department of Defense to Veterans Affairs, where you go after you’re done with your active-duty service?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: I think it’s probably the latter, Ray.

I mean, I think it’s hard to imagine anybody willfully condemning these guys not to have a good experience on — outside of the military. And I think that — I work at the Center for Investigative Reporting. And we have done a lot of reporting — Aaron Glantz, our reporter — on how sort of all vets who are coming out — and that’s about 200,000 a year — that the wait for a disability claim to be adjudicated is average nine months, which is — and much more in some other areas.

So, this guy has that issue. He’s been waiting for his claim. He filed his claim in August, I think. Still hasn’t heard anything, except please stand by. And there’s no — there’s really no facilitation. There’s no organizing principle for someone of those kind of — that kind of still, these particular skills that these guys have, the teamwork, which is not necessarily that unusual, but the level of activity that they do.

They go out on missions. And they — they’re very focused and they make decisions under the most difficult of circumstances. And they have been doing this steadily now since 9/11, that is, going out, finding people, high-value targets and killing them.

So it’s hard to imagine initially, OK, what do I do? One of his friends said, I know how to hunt and track and I know how to kill. I don’t know how to do anything — but the fact is, they do have what we call executive skills, functioning skills. It’s just a question of how you translate it.

And the military doesn’t really want them to leave, because this is the group of people, special operators, that’s going to be increasingly fighting our wars in our asymmetrical battlefield. So they have — you know, they have some programs perhaps for — incentive for people who want to get out of other services. But in these elite force units, they just don’t have — they don’t want them to leave. They want to save the slots. They want to keep the money for the next round of special operators who are coming in.

So, I mean, there were programs, some programs available to this fellow, and he didn’t even know about them. He had met — for a year, he had been planning to get out. And he met with people from the VA and elsewhere. And they just didn’t know. And we have since found out — and I have talked to people at the VA who say the Department of Defense is very bad at communicating with soldiers while they’re still in the military that this is available, this is available, this is available.

RAY SUAREZ: The article is called “The Shooter.” You can read it online. Phil Bronstein wrote it. He’s from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Thanks a lot.

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Thank you, Ray, for having me.