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Former Navy SEAL who says he killed bin Laden details harrowing mission

Robert O'Neill, the former Navy SEAL who identified himself as the shooter of Osama bin Laden, speaks in Maryville, Tenn., in November 2014. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, O'Neill said Bin Laden's tall height and his build — even his nose — gave him away when he spotted him during the 2011 raid of his Pakistan hide-out.

LUKE SHARRETT/BLOOMBERG NEWS

By JEREMY REDMON | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 22, 2015

Robert O'Neill said he knew it was Osama bin Laden as soon as he saw him through his night-vision scope.

Then a Navy SEAL, O'Neill spotted bin Laden during a daring U.S. commando raid on his Pakistan hide-out in 2011. Bin Laden's tall height and his build — even his nose — gave him away.

The terror mastermind was acting suspiciously and wasn't surrendering. And O'Neill thought he was wearing a suicide bomb vest. So O'Neill said he shot bin Laden twice in the head. Once bin Laden fell, O'Neill said he shot him again just to be sure.

"It kind of hit me that it was kind of a big deal," said O'Neill, a highly decorated veteran who received military airborne training at Fort Benning in 1997. "And I wasn't sure if it was the best thing I had ever done or the worst thing I had ever done. I still don't know."

O'Neill, who has drawn a mixture of praise and scorn for identifying himself as the shooter last year, is scheduled to appear in Buford on May 2 for a charity event to support U.S. Special Forces veterans. O'Neill spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by phone this month about that harrowing night in Pakistan, the mixed reactions he has received since going public with his story and the charity he co-founded, Your Grateful Nation.

His answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

What do you remember most about the raid on bin Laden's compound? What sticks out in your memory?

Well, seeing him standing up — being one of the few people to ever see Osama bin Laden alive. It was under night vision, so I could still see the clothes he was wearing, the cap he had on his head and his short gray beard. … That stands out, as does first walking in and looking to my left to see the actual compound itself. And it looked exactly like I thought it would. And just thinking: "Wow, this is cool that we are here. This is actually happening." It was kind of surreal. It was a realization that we are never going to come home, so you might as well take in a few things and remember them and enjoy them.

Tell me about the moment you shot bin Laden. What happened? A lot of people, I'm sure, ask this question: Why shoot him instead of seeking to capture him alive? Maybe there were practical reasons?

Based on the way he was moving. When I was behind one guy, he went up the last set of stairs through a curtain and then I went behind him. And then I turned to the right into a room, like a doorway. … The way he was moving and the threat level that he presented as far as a suicide vest or the house being rigged to explode — the way he wasn't surrendering, the way he was sort of moving — indicated he could have been going for an explosive. And so I was within my rules of engagement to shoot him. And I shot him in the head and in the face because that's what you do with suicide bombers. I have heard before people say, "Well, you don't shoot them in the face." … Well, people who say that have never really been in a situation where they are dealing with suicide bombers. That is exactly how you handle them. That's exactly how you shoot someone who has a hostage because that is the quickest way to put them down. So I shot him twice in the head as he was standing there and then I shot him once more on the ground. Again, I thought he might have had a (bomb) vest … but he didn't.

Did you know it was him when you shot him or did you learn later?

No, I knew it was him the second I saw him. … It was less than a second, obviously. Just turning the corner, seeing him and shooting.

What gave him away? How did you know it was him?

His height, his build, his nose.

The feeling you had after knowing you had killed him — what was that like?

It took a few seconds. There were still threats in the room. And threats don't always mean physical threats. It means unknown spaces, open closets and then other people standing there. So they needed to be dealt with … putting the wife on the bed, putting the 2-year-old kid next to her and then sort of clearing the room. And then once that was over it kind of hit me that it was kind of a big deal. And I wasn't sure if it was the best thing I had ever done or the worst thing I had ever done. I still don't know. … It remains to be seen.

Tell me the reactions you have gotten from people about this?

Since I have come out and told the story, the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. I get mail either through Your Grateful Nation's website or through my website robertjoneill.com. … First-responders, a lot of firefighters, families who lost loved ones. Just the closure. Some of it is not all closure. They will say there will never be closure, but it helps the healing for sure. … They thank me and my team for what we did, for what we risked and for what we accomplished. So it's been overwhelmingly positive.

I'm curious about your response to the criticism you have gotten from fellow Navy SEALS, some of whom have said you should not have disclosed your role in the raid on bin Laden's compound. How do you respond to that?

A lot of the criticism comes from people who have never been in combat. I expect a response and I totally respect their opinions. And my phone line is always open. I appreciate it. But it is something so personal to me with what I dealt with initially with the 9/11 families that were there when I anonymously donated my shirt to the (National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City). To see them and to see their response — it is bigger than me. … What the families and the survivors think is more important to me than the criticism.

I gather the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has looked into whether you were disclosing classified information when you came out with your story. Have you heard any resolution in that case? What's the status of that probe?

They have never contacted me.

What's your thought on that — the allegation that you may have released or revealed some classified information? Is that true?

I think the NCIS has a difficult job and they need to investigate every single complaint that is brought up. And this is one of those complaints. They are investigating to see if it has merit. I have reached out to them. And I'm willing to cooperate.

What is your opinion on this matter? Did you reveal secrets that you shouldn't have?

Absolutely not. There are things that I have signed that I said I wouldn't say and I haven't said them. And, to be honest, they are not that interesting. What I said is Navy SEALS were part of a team that got in a helicopter that flew to a building and went into it and killed people. I'm pretty sure that is not a secret.

Tell me what prompted you to go public with your story about shooting bin Laden?

I donated my shirt. I had been out of the Navy for a little while. And I had associates in contact with the curators of the museum. It was kind of a discussion with them that they would like for me to donate something. So I brought the shirt that I wore into Osama bin Laden's bedroom to the 9/11 museum to donate it. And part of the deal was I would get a personal tour before the place opened in the morning. … Part of the tour — at the end of it — they had about 20 or 25 family members who all lost loved ones on 9/11, whether it was a husband, a son, a daughter. … And they kind of just sort of put me in front of the room and said, "Hey, could you tell them what you are doing?" And the shirt was anonymous. All it said was that it was in Osama bin Laden's bedroom when he was killed. It didn't mention me by name or anything else. And then I was talking to these people. And to just see their responses, their tears. They were holding their heads in their hands. And I just started telling the story a little bit further and further. And then I finally told the whole story. And that was the first time I had ever mentioned publicly that I had shot Osama bin Laden in the face. And the responses were incredible. And I decided if I could help these families with this, then I could certainly help other families. And it is my small part of a huge story, and if that little part helps people, then, like I said, it is bigger than me. It is more important than anything I'm doing. And they deserve it. That's what prompted me.

I have read some other media reports talking about potentially other Special Forces operators shooting Osama bin Laden as well. Did that happen or not? Was it just you?

All I can say is what I saw. When I went into the room he was standing on two feet. And I shot him three times. And to be honest I don't even know what the autopsy said. I can't speak for others, so I'm not really sure to be honest.

What impact has bin Laden's death had on America's national security in your view?

I think it impacted it really well and I wasn't upset with (President Barack Obama) saying we did it right after we did it because I don't think as a country we are that good at psychological warfare. And in this case we did let the enemy know we have people in place who will come and get you, wherever you are. I agree with it. I like that we can flex a little muscle at the bad guys and say, "No, you don't." Even now it makes them sleep a little bit less easier. And that is good just to get in their minds. … I think we learned a lot and got a lot of valuable intelligence. I know we have developed targets … because of stuff we found. … I think it really put a hurting on al-Qaida. Obviously, they are trying to rebuild now. But it is more just … groups of thugs saying, "We are al-Qaida."… They don't really have the leadership they used to. And it was all thanks to that.

Let's talk about the charity now. Tell me about Your Grateful Nation.

This was formed based off of my experience. I left the Navy just after 16 years. I was up to my end of obligated service in the 16th year. I did extend to do one more deployment to combat after the bin Laden raid, which put me at 16 1/2 years. And it gave me a few months off to try to find employment, but I knew I wasn't going to get any benefits. You need to do 20 years to retire to get any benefits. … And in that time it was kind of frustrating because I wasn't sure what I was qualified for. It turns out I was fortunate that there are skill sets that people like. And I found that out the hard way. But what Your Grateful Nation does is just that. We reach out right now to special operators because we are small and we are a startup. And what we do is we offer that bridge, the individualized transition support, to get different kinds of employment. Anything that any major company would want — we are able to offer them a 30-plus-year-old person who is used to being part of a team, knows how to lead, knows how to be led, knows how to solve problems, knows how to think and make decisions in high-stress environments. Just quality people. … If you take a few weeks to teach them the job you want them to do, they are going to be the best. … We are able to offer these people to them. And we are also able to offer employment to special operators who don't know what they are qualified for but don't necessarily just want to go out, carry a gun and be security again — helping them with the realization they can do a lot more.

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