Navy SEAL Shooter from Butte Explains Going Public
BY PAT HILL
Though the folks in Butte, Montana, already knew one of their own had served with the Navy SEALs, they learned with the rest of the world last month of Rob O’Neill’s claim that he was the man who killed Osama Bin Laden.
O’Neill outed himself as the man who shot Bin Laden in a two-part Fox News special that aired in November, but when O’Neill was featured in his hometown newspaper, The Montana Standard, a year ago, the now-38-year-old retired Navy SEAL gave no hint that he was the shooter.
He did reveal in that interview that he had helped rescue former hostage Capt. Richard Phillips, whose ship was boarded by Somali pirates in 2009 in the Indian Ocean. The movie Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, is based on that incident. O’Neill also said that he assisted in the rescue of another Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor in a failed operation meant to capture a Taliban leader. Lone Survivor, a popular film starring Mark Wahlberg that was released earlier this year, is based on that failed mission and subsequent recovery effort.
O’Neill told the Standard in that 2013 interview that when he was involved in intense and risky missions like these, he would often think of his hometown and wonder, “How did I get here from Butte, Montana?”
O’Neill, who was born and raised in Butte, joined the Navy in 1995, a year after graduating from high school at Butte Central, a Catholic school in the mining city. His initial plans were to join the Marines and become a sniper, but when O’Neill arrived at the recruiting depot on Harrison Avenue in Butte to enlist, the Marine Corp recruiter was out of the office—but the Navy was in.
The Navy recruiter convinced the 19-year-old to join the Navy instead, and aim for a slot as a sniper with one of the highly regarded Sea Air and Land Teams—the SEALs.
SEALs undergo over a year of rigorous training before joining one of the elite special operations SEAL teams. Last month, in the wake of his claim that he shot and killed Bin Laden, O’Neill told the Standard that his Butte roots helped him hang tough during that training.
“I’m sure [my upbringing] did [help], you know, part of being a Navy SEAL is just never quit, and just basically being tough,” he said. “That Butte tough definitely helped. Yeah, it definitely helped. I think that if more people from Butte tried out for the Navy SEALs, they would make it.”
O’Neill went on to participate in hundreds of SEAL operations during his military career, and received 52 awards and citations for his service: these include two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars with Valor, and three Presidential Unit citations. In 2012, Senior Chief Petty Officer O’Neill retired from the Navy with 16 years of service under his belt. He now works as a motivational speaker, appearing in venues across the country, and addressing audiences ranging from college football teams to the United Nations.
The Standard reported in their 2013 piece that during these speaking engagements, “Although O’Neill can’t discuss particulars of his missions, he will talk about his experiences through lessons learned and emotions he felt.”
But O’Neill changed his mind. He revealed one big particular of the Bin Laden mission earlier this year after a trip to New York City and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum—located on the site where the twin towers collapsed after being struck by two airliners commandeered by terrorists aligned with Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization. Fox News tagged along on that trip, during which O’Neill donated to the museum the shirt he had worn on that SEAL Team Six mission to kill Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. O’Neill had not yet decided whether he would reveal himself to the world as the man who delivered the fatal shots, but he did tell a small group of 9/11 victims’ families behind closed doors about his specific involvement in the mission, something O’Neill said he had never done before. O’Neill said that after observing the families’ “emotional reactions of relief” upon hearing first-hand of Bin Laden’s death, he decided to take matters a step further.
“I realized it would be irrespon-sible of me not to give everyone closure,” O’Neill told Fox News.
During the second part of the two-night Fox News report, the former SEAL gave step-by-step details of the 2011 raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, up to and including the moment when he realized Osama Bin Laden was right in front of him.
“Standing on two feet in front of me, with his hands on his wife’s shoulders, was the face I had seen thousands of times,” O’Neill told Fox News; he said within a second after he recognized Bin Laden, he shot the terrorist twice in the skull, and once more as he hit the ground. O’Neill said that as he stepped closer to Bin Laden after firing, he saw the shadowy Al Qaeda leader take his last breath.
All SEAL Team Six members were onhand a few weeks later in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where they received thanks for a mission well done from the President, Vice President, and other Cabinet members. When the question of who shot the fatal shots into Bin Laden’s skull came up, O’Neill was silent when the rest of the Team responded in unison: “We all did.”
When O’Neill decided to end his silence regarding his actions on the Bin Laden raid, he was also aware that he was potentially putting his family, and perhaps even his home town, in harm’s way. He was also aware that not everyone would be agreeing with his decision to come forward as “The Shooter.”
“I’ve always had those kind of concerns [regarding national security],” O’Neill told the Standard last month. “I’m not going to get into any detail on that, but we do have stuff in place, and I’ve assumed risk before and I am now, and before it was worth it, and I think this is worth it.”
O’Neill also seems confident regarding his family’s safety, and his father didn’t seem too worried, either, when he reportedly told a British newspaper that he’d paint a target on the family’s front door for ISIS.
“I disagree with that,” O’Neill told the Standard. “But he’s never experienced being a celebrity or being even asked by a world-wide newspaper, so it’s more of a ‘he was caught off-guard,’ more of a conversation between two people. Part of why I’m confident my family will be safe is because of being in Butte. I’m good friends with a lot of the local law enforcement and local SWAT team. They’re very, very competent guys, and I’m comfortable with the whole city. I would say it is a time to be vigilant and if you see something that’s out of place, let somebody know. But…there’s a lot of other spectacular targets in this country that would be of more interest to a lot of potential threats. Not that it’s not real, but if I was really concerned about that I wouldn’t have done this.”
Others are concerned that the security of future SEAL operations may have been put at risk. In the wake of O’Neill’s revelation regarding the Bin Laden raid, both the admiral and the senior enlisted man in the Navy’s Special Warfare Command reminded current and former SEAL Team members in a letter last month of a critical tenet of the organizations ethos: “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.”
“Violators of our Ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor Teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare,” wrote Rear Adm. Brian Losey and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci. “We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice.”
But O’Neill, fully aware of his detractors, told the Standard he has no intention of profiting from his decision—no book or movie plans—and that he was not paid by Fox News for their interview.
“There’s been some feedback, and even people that disagree with me, they’re supportive and they’re positive about the message,” O’Neill said regarding reaction in Butte to his decision. “And one of the things that we fight for is for freedom, and one of the freedoms is the freedom of speech, and I respect everyone’s opinion, even if they, you know, weren’t there.”