Were they heroes? Or were they fulfilling their job descriptions?

We know the bare outline of the May raid: Some of the United States’ best sailors and soldiers entered Pakistan undetected, slipping through the darkness in secret stealth helicopters across 100 miles of potentially hostile territory. They continued the mission despite losing a helicopter and dispatched the target — elusive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Then they scooped up a wealth of intelligence materials and disappeared.

Although there’s plenty the public may never know about the operation, the details that have leaked out have been breathtaking, providing a rare glimpse into the ultra-secretive world of the U.S. military’s most elite troops.

Often working in tandem with intelligence operatives, they are called up at a moment’s notice, sometimes disappearing for months into the globe’s darkest locales to do exacting, perilous work that never will rivet the public’s attention like the bin Laden kill.

Danger and secrecy — it’s what the so-called “quiet professionals” of the special operations community know they’re signing up for when they choose to enter the exclusive fraternity that has borne an outsized load of the United States’ decade-long war against terrorists.

So again, were they just doing their jobs, or did the Navy SEALs and Army special operations aviators who carried out the bin Laden mission go above and beyond that day?

Yes on both counts, say men who have done similar work.

“It’s a SEAL’s job to kick ass,” said Richard Marcinko, a former SEAL officer who founded the storied SEAL Team 6, known officially as Navy Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU, which stormed bin Laden’s hideout.

Still, Marcinko said, the question of how to define heroism in the context of special operations is fair to ask. He often wondered about it when he recommended his own troops for medals.

“So when they do kick ass, are they doing their job like they’re paid to do — and remember they get paid extra for this work — or are they going above and beyond?” he said.

Because of that uncertainty, Marcinko often made conservative medal recommendations for his troops. But medal review boards sometimes saw the operations in a different light, bumping up about 10 percent of his recommendations to a higher award — fine by him, he said.

Based on what he’s heard about the bin Laden operation, the special operators involved deserve medals for heroism, but nothing over the top, Marcinko said. Contrary to early reports, they were not heavily engaged within the bin Laden compound, nor did they have to fight their way out of Pakistan.

“Just for being there and not getting hurt, by all means, a Bronze Star,” he said. “The guys who went through the door, do they get a Silver Star? Maybe so.”

Other former special operators were less conservative.

Former SEAL Stew Smith said the difficulty of the mission, combined with the strategic and symbolic value of killing the world’s leading terrorist, should qualify many of the team members for Navy Crosses, the highest medal the Navy can award, second only to the Medal of Honor.

But looked at another way, the raid wasn’t fundamentally different operation from many others done daily by special operations units from the various services in Afghanistan and Iraq, Smith said. The main difference was the objective, and the resulting level of fanfare.

“This is what they do for a living — get off helicopters in a hurry, run into unlit buildings and clear them, and get out,” he said. “So in that way, the bin Laden operation was Mission 101 for most of these guys. You just happened to have a high-value target on the other end.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not at all easy. But guys at that level can make it look easy.”

The high-risk, high-reward nature of their missions means special operators have abundant opportunities to earn medals. When they do, however, they often can’t go into details about why a particular decoration happens to be hanging on their chest.

“We certainly were awarded medals for bravery and acts of heroism,” said Cliff Newman, a former Army Green Beret who fought as part of the secretive MACV-SOG unconventional warfare operations in Vietnam. “The thing is, the medal citation will say it’s for something done ‘in the field of operations’ rather than where it happened. And if what you were doing is classified, it doesn’t talk about that either.”

Special operations troops aren’t bothered by the fact they can’t sit at the bar bragging about the hair-raising deeds that won them their medals.

“No way,” Smith said. “Even regular soldiers and sailors often don’t even want to talk about their medals. My granddad, for example, didn’t want to tell me why he had a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.”

Elite fighters are more interested in respect from their peers than public adulation, Smith said.

“Even long after they retire, it’s not normally something they want to relive with people who aren’t one of them, with people who didn’t go through it and might not understand,” he said.

Maturity is a key characteristic of elite troops, Newman said. The SEALs on the team that got bin Laden are likely confident but low-key in their everyday lives, motivated by patriotism and professionalism — “guys who’d fit right in at the neighbor’s barbecue,” he said.

“I would guess the average age of the guys on that team is probably in their 30s, so these aren’t kids right out of high school and basic training,” he said. “By the time you’ve gone through what they’ve gone through to get to that point, you don’t do those things for medals. You do them because it’s your job, and you simply want to do a good job.”

So beyond practicalities such as promotion points, medals don’t matter much?

That’s what special operations guys often claim, anyway, said Kyle Lamb, who joined the Army’s elite counterterrorist Delta Force in 1991 and retired in 2007 after actions ranging from the Battle of Mogadishu to more recent missions in the war on terror. He can’t go into detail on many of them, he says.

The point to keep in mind is that medals aren’t meant just to gratify the servicemember they’re awarded to. When the classified details are no longer important, the reminder of a loved one’s heroism will be.

“Someday your kids and grandkids are going to be digging through an old box,” Lamb said. “For them, the medals are going to matter a lot.”

carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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