Former SEAL who says he killed bin Laden tells his story to packed Nixon Library
By JONATHAN WINSLOW | The Orange County Register | Published: July 27, 2017
YORBA LINDA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — A thousand people at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum thundered with applause when Robert O’Neill, the retired Navy SEAL who says he shot Osama bin Laden, took the stage to share his story on Wednesday, July 26.
O’Neill’s talk, woven through with a sense of humor that surprised and delighted the audience, focused less on his encounter with bin Laden on May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and more on life lessons from his journey. One of the mentions he made of the incident was simple: “Bin Laden got what he deserved.”
The audience was packed into the library’s East Room, spilling over into the Fred Malek Theater, where a simulcast from the other room was shown.
Seventeen years before bin Laden's death, O’Neill was home in Butte, Montana, facing a different struggle: heartbreak. He’d just been dumped by a girl, and he wanted to get out of town. Inspired by his friends in the Marine Corps, he stopped by a recruitment office. As luck would have it, he said, the Marine recruiter wasn’t in the office – but the Navy’s was.
Facing hellish training that he called “a beat-down for eight months,” O’Neill, 41, said he quickly learned to have a sense of humor in the face of hardship with SEAL Team 6.
“Don’t be afraid to enjoy yourself. Every single day, smile,” O’Neill said. “Think about this: none of us are getting out of this alive. I don’t believe in statistics, but I happen to be sure 10 out of 10 people die.”
After becoming a Navy SEAL, O’Neill rose to senior chief petty officer and was deployed on more than 400 missions, including two that were made into movies: the 2009 rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips (2013’s “Captain Phillips”) and the 2005 mission to save Marcus Luttrell, a fellow SEAL (“Lone Survivor”).
When his team was given the bin Laden mission, O’Neill said he was sure he wouldn’t be coming back. Before leaving, he left behind a tear-stained letter for his seven-year-old daughter – addressed to her 20 years later, apologizing for missing her wedding.
But O’Neill made it back. Since then, he’s been giving hundreds of speeches around the country and abroad, more recently promoting his newly released memoir “The Operator.” Like his talks, the book goes through O’Neill’s life and shows how his experiences can reveal lessons for others.
The gear O’Neill wore the night he hunted down bin Laden – boots, helmet, bullet-proof vest, all in desert-camouflage – is on public display at the library until the end of July.
Ron Clark, 65 of Diamond Bar, said he was drawn to the talk by two things: memories of 9/11 and the excitement of the day bin Laden was brought to justice.
“It was very inspiring,” Clark said. “I feel a lot of pride to know we have people like that, trained so expertly to do things most of us would never know how to do.”