Aware and Prepared for Threats, His First Time Back in Montana Since Killing Bin Laden
NEWS FLASH: During Q&A after talk in Helena, Rob O’Neill calls FOX News, his new employer, “not that honest.”
BY BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
During his career in the Navy, Rob O’Neill served as a team leader within the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six, and completed more than 400 different combat missions within four dramas of war.
The Butte native was deployed more than a dozen times and took part in high-priority operations including the killing of Osama Bin Laden (Operation Neptune’s Spear) and the killing of Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, who had hijacked the , resulting in the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips.
It was Friday, March 21, on what O’Neill said was his first return to Montana since the Bin Laden mission. The former SEAL talked with Helena high school students and mingled with curious, excited guests at the Montana Club, before he spoke at the Helena Civic Center about success, leadership and life, stressing self-reliance and mental preparedness.
O’Neill and I had coffee for 10 minutes before the throngs arrived. Asked about his own security after having revealed that he fired the shots that killed Bin Laden, O’Neill told the Pioneer that he was “aware and prepared” for any terror threats that might arise given his public disclosures. In that context, I stood next to him for an hour and listened at the dinner. I walked with him over to the Helena Civic Center, where he spoke for 2 hours. Security at the Civic Center was palpable—dogs, police, a sense of heightened vigilance, and of course O’Neill himself, the embodiment of the United States military’s Special Forces.
O’Neill said he had not been back to Montana since killing Bin Laden and that he now lives in Texas. During our conversation, he shared some humorous anecdotes about his first job in McDonald’s, in Butte, as he did while speaking at the Civic Center, as part of his personal perspective on life resulting from his career as a Navy SEAL.
In his 90-minute talk in Helena, O’Neill took people back to his earliest days growing up in Butte. He said joining the Navy, rather than another branch of service, was a lucky choice—the recruiter for the Marines was absent that day.
“I was 19 in Butte, and I had just gotten out of a horrible relationship with my high-school sweetheart. My adventure was to join the military—the adventure that of a lot of Montana kids follow. I was a hunter who wanted to be a sniper.”
“Success is not something that is obtained or achieved,” he later said. “It is something that is rented and borrowed—you have to make the choice every single day to be successful. Just because you come from Chicago, Miami or New York, it doesn’t mean you are more prepared or qualified than someone from somewhere else. I was born in Butte, Montana, and I ended up in Osama bin Laden’s bedroom. You can go anywhere.”
O’Neill mixed in a few humorous anecdotes about his inability to swim—an essential for Navy SEALs. He took his first lessons in the Montana Tech college pool.
From there, O’Neill explained the challenges of SEAL training, the rigors of 1,000 pushups, sit ups, and squats per day, the “drown-proofing” exercises, and the 13 weeks of subsequent tactical training. At 21, he embarked on his first deployment, a pre-9/11 period of non-combat, relatively peaceful deportations all over the world. “There is nothing better than Germany during Oktoberfest,” said O’Neill. “I call this the global war on tourism part of my life.”
His assignments quickly accrued in their severity. He served as the lead jumper on the operation to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips, whose ship was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009 in the Indian Ocean. The Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips is based on that incident. O’Neill also helped save Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor in an ill-fated mission to capture a Taliban leader. Lone Survivor, a film starring Mark Wahlberg based on those events, was released in 2013.
On September 11, 2001, 19 militants linked with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Over 3,000 people were killed during the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. The death and chaos triggered major U.S. initiatives and O’Neill said he “couldn’t wait to get to Afghanistan” as soon as he could.
As part of a Tier-1 Unit, O’Neill was no longer a conventional soldier but a nonexistent one. From that point forward, he would use fake email addresses and alias and wake up each new morning sworn to the eradication of “kill houses,” “shoot houses,” or “houses of terrorists.” He faced near-death ambushes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, foreign fighters with white skin shouting Allahu Akbar, rocket-propelled grenades, and all the other harrowing war-movie scenarios one can imagine. Yet in more than 400 combat missions not one man in his team was ever seriously hurt, he said.
“Stress is a choice,” said O’Neill. “All stress in life is self-induced. Fear lets you know you are alive. But panic will get you killed. I relied on every other man to be doing their job and I did mine.”
O’Neill showed images of interdicted terrorists who, he said, were planning to blow up a village frequented by Americans outside Kabul. “We stopped them and I will put it this way: their suicide mission was successful.” Describing one photo of a typical “terrorist house” which he engaged in close quarters battle, “it is part crossword puzzle and part Ewok village, full of bad individuals.”
He did not expand on the capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden.
“The story is out there,” said O’Neill, who did an anonymous interview with Esquire magazine in 2013 about the fateful bin Laden raid, and took part in a Fox News special about it last year. “I can tell you I’m the only American to have seen bin Laden alive and the only one to have shot him three times in the head.”
Several months ago, O’Neill revealed that he was indeed the Navy SEAL who shot and killed bin Laden, with a bullet to the forehead in a nighttime raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. The 38-year-old said that he had weighed the decision of whether to out himself as the assassin for months before arriving at his decision.
Since being honorably discharged in 2012, O’Neill has brushed with increasing notoriety since leaving the military. He provides leadership, management and risk-assess-ment advice to various organizations as a speaker and consultant. He recently signed a deal to work as an analyst for Fox News.
“…Despite emphasizing the key bulletins of honesty and loyalty throughout his speech, O’Neill murkily added during the question and answer session, “I signed with a media group that is not that honest.” …”
Despite emphasizing the key bulletins of honesty and loyalty throughout his speech, O’Neill murkily added during the question and answer session, “I signed with a media group that is not that honest.”
O’Neill has critics. His sensitive revelations have ignited debate over whether military personnel locked in some of the nation’s most critical national-security initiatives ought to be heralded for their service, or keep knowledge of their roles in clandestine operations from public consumption.
Asked if he felt as if he were standing in jeopardy every minute, he answered wryly, “I am aware and prepared. I don’t feel as if ISIS or al-Qaeda would be looking at an individual as a target. I would be more concerned where there are roomfulls of Americans—like here.”
When he returned to Butte in December 2013 to visit family, his first stop when he got there was to grab a pork chop sandwich. He jokingly claims that McDonald’s in Butte “was the best job I ever had.” He was 15 at the time and two of his siblings were also employed there. “Some guy actually wanted to know what the fish sandwich was made of. I told him, well, sea bass. My brother, he was more serious about things, he said, ‘don’t you know it’s North American cod, dummy?’”
Returning to Montana, he said, always strikes a chord, a fond reminder of the good things in life.
“I love coming home. I look forward to it every time. Sometimes, it takes leaving to realize how good stuff is.”