THE GOLFER WHO KILLED BIN LADEN

MEET ROB O’NEILL OF SEAL TEAM 6, WHO SQUEEZED THE TRIG­GER ON THE NIGHT OF OP­ER­A­TION NEP­TUNE SPEAR

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Front Page - BY TOM CAL­LA­HAN

There was a golf course nearby,” says Rob O’Neill, a mem­ber of SEAL Team 6. “I can’t say for cer­tain that I saw it, be­cause I had a lot go­ing on in my head. But I knew where it was, and I kind of looked for it off to my left on our fi­nal ap­proach to Osama bin Laden’s house. A golf course. It made the mission feel, well, dif­fer­ent. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been any golf cour­ses in Afghanistan or Iraq. We’re go­ing

into a place where they have golf cour­ses, I thought. Ab­bot­tabad must be a civilised place.” And for about the thou­sandth time, he asked

him­self, How did a guy from Butte, Mon­tana, ever end up here?

He loves Butte. “Ev­ery­thing in Butte re­volved around hunt­ing sea­son,” Rob says. “Elk. The only time we’d shoot a deer is if we couldn’t find an elk.” They ate the meat, of course. Steaks, stews, sausages, jerky. The O’Neill spe­cialty was a cube of veni­son, a slab of cream cheese, and a raw jalapeño pep­per wrapped in ba­con, dubbed “a spicy, creamy deer pig.”

“The real point of hunt­ing,” O’Neill says, “was be­ing with my dad. He got di­vorced, re­mar­ried – painful, ob­vi­ously. Be­ing out­doors to­gether was our way back to each other.”

Rob hit a few golf balls as a boy. “Driv­ing ranges, that sort of thing,” he says. But not many.

At 19 he joined the Navy with a guar­an­tee, in writ­ing, of a try­out to qual­ify for SEALs train­ing. Six­teen years later, dur­ing O’Neill’s exit in­ter­view, a mil­i­tary psy­chi­a­trist (“We al­ready know you’re crazy; we just want to find out what flavour you are”) no­ticed he had

left the space be­side “hob­bies” blank. “You need to find a stress-re­liever,” he told me, “and rec­om­mended golf. Now, I still ques­tion how in the world golf is sup­posed to re­lieve stress. I mean, be­ing out­side, walk­ing, is beau­ti­ful. The smells, the sounds, the quiet. Fine. Your bud­dies, their jokes. Good. But sooner or later you have to hit that lit­tle ball.”

He’s an ab­so­lute be­gin­ner with a bright new set of Titleist clubs that hap­pened to come with an en­chanted 6-iron.

“You know how peo­ple say that one great shot a round is enough to bring you back? I’m at the stage where I can hit that shot maybe three times in a round, usu­ally with my magic 6-iron, and it’s enough. I’m look­ing for­ward to when I’m not so busy and can re­ally jump in. But I’m al­ready hooked. The first time I parred a par 5, it was right up there with res­cu­ing peo­ple.”

O’Neill is four months younger than Tiger Woods, who turned 39 on the sec­ond-to-last day of De­cem­ber. If Rob has no am­bi­tion to be Tiger, Tiger once had an am­bi­tion to be Rob. (“I’ll switch with him,” O’Neill says.)

In an email ex­change not long af­ter his Cadil­lac Es­calade hit the fire hy­drant, Tiger replied to a flip­pant ques­tioner with a thought­ful an­swer:

“How close did you come to join­ing the mil­i­tary?”

“For nearly my en­tire life,” he wrote back, two days later, “I’ve won­dered what it would be like to be in the mil­i­tary. One of the ques­tions I hear most at my Foun­da­tion is, what would you be if you weren’t a pro golfer? I an­swer the same way ev­ery time. I’d be in Spe­cial Ops. Maybe Green Beret like Pop. I know some peo­ple that are Army Spe­cial Forces, and I’m amazed at what they do. I’m proud to call them my friends.”

Woods didn’t merely play Wal­ter Mitty at recre­ational sky-div­ing schools, he mixed with real Navy SEALs, tum­bling out of air­planes, heat­ing up ma­chine guns and even singing cadence in train­ing runs. “Deep down,” Hank Haney said, “he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. For sure that was on his list. I don’t know how close he came. How close is close? But I thought at the time there was a good chance it was go­ing to hap­pen.”

From what O’Neill knows of Woods, what chance would Rob have given him of mak­ing it?

“You never know who’s go­ing to make it and who’s not,” he says, “but ob­vi­ously he has some of the pre­req­ui­sites, start­ing with raw strength. I’ve heard he can bench-press a lot of weight. Is that true? He ob­vi­ously has the work ethic, the fo­cus, the drive. I don’t know how funny he is. (The few clos­est to Tiger say he can be hi­lar­i­ous.) You’d be sur­prised how im­por­tant that is.”

Woods might be too in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic. At Ry­der Cups, he hasn’t been an es­pe­cially suc­cess­ful team­mate.

“That’s okay,” O’Neill says. “That can be taught. When he’s with six other guys car­ry­ing his share of a very heavy log in the wa­ter at night, he’d learn what team­work means. Re­ally the only ques­tion is, would he be will­ing to drown?” Not al­most drown. Drown. “That’s the big­gest thing that washes guys out of SEAL school. You have to near-drown a whole bunch of times and com­pletely drown once or twice. Ac­cord­ing to how many min­utes it takes to bring you back to life, that’s how they can tell if you re­ally drowned. The point is, you’re free to quit at any time. And you prob­a­bly won’t be sur­prised to learn, peo­ple tend to change when you tie them up and throw them in the pool. As the say­ing goes, a bul­let never lies, ei­ther. When you get shot at, the truth comes out. And there’s noth­ing in this world eas­ier than quit­ting. But then Tiger hasn’t been much of a quit­ter, has he?”

THE RAID ON BIN LADEN

The “lot go­ing on” in O’Neill’s head dur­ing SEAL Team 6’s 90-minute flight from Jalal­abad in Afghanistan to Ab­bot­tabad in Pak­istan be­gan with num­bers and ended with words.

“I was count­ing up to a thou­sand,” he says. “Some guys pray, I’m sure. Oth­ers lis­ten to their iPods. I count. Five­hun­dred-fifty-six, 557, 558, 559 . . . un­til we turned into Pak­istani airspace and, I don’t know why, but I stopped count­ing and started re­peat­ing what Ge­orge W Bush said on 9/11: ‘Free­dom it­self was at­tacked this morn­ing by a face­less cow­ard, and free­dom will be de­fended.’ I said that over and over in my head un­til we landed.”

The 23 SEALs on the mission, Op­er­a­tion Nep­tune Spear, May 2, 2011, wouldn’t have been sur­prised if bin Laden’s house had ex­ploded when they en­tered. In fact, they were sur­prised that it didn’t.

O’Neill was on “the train,” as the SEALs call the line, rush­ing up the stairs to the sec­ond and third floors. “But the point man stopped at the land­ing, and ev­ery­one else went right and left to clean threats on the sec­ond floor, leav­ing just the two of us to go on. At the top of the stair­well, the guy on point went through a cur­tain and, en­coun­ter­ing two fe­males, grabbed them and fell on them.”

It must have been like throw­ing him­self on a hand grenade.

“That’s ex­actly what it was like,” O’Neill says. Be­cause they had to pre­sume the women were wear­ing sui­cide vests and were will­ing, maybe even hop­ing, to be mar­tyred.

“I turned right,” he says, “and there he was, Osama bin Laden, on his feet. He had his hands on his wife’s shoul­ders, look­ing a lit­tle con­fused, steer­ing her to­wards the com­mo­tion, grop­ing his way in the dark. It was re­ally dark.”

And only the SEALs were wear­ing night-vi­sion gog­gles.

“Be­cause of his act of not sur­ren­der­ing, he was a threat. He could have ig­nited a sui­cide vest or a house-borne ex­plo­sive de­vice any sec­ond. So I shot him in the face twice, and he went down. And I shot him in the face again.”

They had heard he was tall, but he was even taller than they ex­pected. Back in Afghanistan, some­one stretched out be­side him to gauge bin Laden’s height at

‘ I THOUGHT, COULD IT BE MORE UN­REAL? THIS GUY DID ONE OF THE MOST EVIL THINGS IN THE HIS­TORY OF THE WORLD, AND NOW HE’S DEAD AT MY FEET, AND I’M EAT­ING A SAND­WICH, AND I’M FROM BUTTE, MON­TANA.’

6-4, at least. “He looked thin­ner than his pho­to­graphs, too,” O’Neill says, “maybe be­cause his beard was trim­mer. He was wear­ing one of those white hats. His head was shaved but had grown out to a stub­ble, al­most a crew cut.”

Some fi­nal chores re­mained, like col­lect­ing bin Laden’s com­put­ers.

“On the first floor, the first room on the right,” O’Neill says, “there was a lit­tle girl about 5 years old, too out of it from fear even to cry. So I picked her up and brought her out in the hall­way and found a woman to hand her to.”

In an­other room, a boy of 2, bin Laden’s youngest son, was stand­ing be­hind a bed, barely tall enough to see or be seen over the mat­tress. Rob scooped him up, too.

Did they make him think of his own kids? “I don’t talk about my kids,” he says. But, af­ter a mo­ment passes, he mur­murs, “When you see kids like that in a sit­u­a­tion like that, of course, how can you not think of your own kids? I can see those two lit­tle kids still, any­time I shut my eyes.”

One he­li­copter had crashed on the way in, so Rob was de­lighted to hear “we wouldn’t have to steal cars and drive home.” Back­ups flew them to Jalal­abad and then to the nearby Ba­gram Air­field.

“So I’m in a han­gar at Ba­gram,” O’Neill says, “and Pres­i­dent Obama comes on TV to make the live an­nounce­ment: ‘Tonight I can re­port to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and to the world that the United States con­ducted an op­er­a­tion that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida . . . ’

“When he said, ‘Osama bin Laden,’ I looked down at bin Laden on the floor. He’s right there. I thought, Could it be more un­real? This guy did one of the most evil things in the his­tory of the world, and now he’s dead at my feet, and I’m here eat­ing a sand­wich, and I’m from Butte, Mon­tana.

“‘Okay, Mis­ter Pres­i­dent,’ I said out loud, ‘you can go ahead and say no Amer­i­cans were harmed any­time now.’ Fi­nally he did. Our fam­i­lies back home could breathe again.”

The CIA an­a­lyst who would anony- mously be­come a film hero­ine greeted the re­turn­ing he­roes in Jalal­abad.

“I don’t talk too much about her,” O’Neill says. “What I will say is, she’s one of the most im­pres­sive peo­ple – not women, peo­ple – I’ve ever met. Very driven. This is what she was here to do. And con­fi­dent. Even a lit­tle cocky, but in a great way. She was dead cer­tain about ev­ery­thing. ‘I’m not guess­ing,’ she told us. ‘This build­ing. Third floor. That’s where he is. A hun­dred per­cent. And you’ll run into his son (23-year-old) Khalid on the stairs on your way up.’ ” Khalid died that night, too, on the stairs, cradling an AK-47. Could she have been a SEAL? “She would have been too tough to be a SEAL,” Rob says. “We have soft sides.”

At the sug­ges­tion of the point man, he took the mag­a­zine out of his gun and pre­sented it to her. “There were 27 bul­lets left in it,” he says. Was she emo­tional? “No. We walked over to bin Laden’s body (the body bag had been un­zipped), and I asked her, ‘Is that your guy?’ She looked down and said calmly, ‘Yes. I guess I’m out of a job.’ ”

THE RES­CUE OF CAP­TAIN PHILLIPS

Like the woman from the CIA, O’Neill can recog­nise him­self in a lot of movies. “I was the lead jumper,” he says, “the first guy out of the plane, in the res­cue of (Maersk Alabama Cap­tain) Richard Phillips from So­mali pi­rates. In my very first de­ploy­ment with SEAL Team 6, we hiked four days through Afghanistan’s moun­tains look­ing for (SEAL Team 10) sur­vivors of Op­er­a­tion Red Wings, the am­bush in Shuryek Val­ley. We found only Mar­cus Lut­trell alive, the ‘Lone Sur­vivor.’ There were so many mis­sions. We went af­ter Bowe Bergdahl, too,” be­fore a prisoner swap with the Tal­iban brought Sgt Bergdahl home.

Though they never get the tat­toos right, on bal­ance he likes most of the films. “They’re Hol­ly­wooded up a bit,” he says. “Why wouldn’t they be?

“For re­al­ism, I think ‘Lone Sur­vivor’ is the great­est war movie since ‘Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.’ I’ve been in gun­fights in the moun­tains of Afghanistan, and if you want to know what it looks like and sounds like, that’s pretty good. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was in­ter­est­ing, en­ter­tain­ing. I en­joyed it. When they show the SEALs, I see ev­ery mis­take, but I don’t mind. They do things tac­ti­cally we wouldn’t do. They say things we wouldn’t say. But that’s okay.

“‘Cap­tain Phillips’ was prob­a­bly the best at mak­ing SEALs look like SEALs. You no­ticed, af­ter the shots were taken, the guys just left. It’s like, Time to go home. I talked to one of the snipers. I told him, ‘Hey, man, you were just part of the big­gest op­er­a­tion in SEAL Team his­tory.’ And that was true at the time be­cause it was be­fore bin Laden. All he said was, ‘Yeah, can we go home now?’ ”

How does one re­tire from a job like this?

“It’s weird to think about it,” O’Neill says, two years later, “but the adren­a­line you feel in gun­fights can wear out or wear off. You know that phrase about a danger­ous sit­u­a­tion, ‘It sure got my at­ten­tion.’ Well, be­lieve it or not, it can lose your at­ten­tion, too. You can be­come com­pla­cent, even un­der fire. And that’s the time to stop. Af­ter the bin Laden raid, I thought, When am I ever go­ing to get this ex­cited again? Ex­cite-

ment’s the wrong word, though. Ac­com­plish­ment. When am I ever go­ing to feel this sense of ac­com­plish­ment again? I’ve al­ways be­lieved that ev­ery­one is put on this earth to do one spe­cial thing. You just don’t know what it is. Now you tell me, is there a big­ger achieve­ment out there some­where, a bet­ter feel­ing? I just don’t think so. I could have put in the ex­tra four years in the Navy to reach 20. I did an ex­tra four months just be­cause I thought that was the right thing to do. But this isn’t the kind of job where you hang on for a pen­sion.”

Of course, more than a few SEALs think go­ing public was the wrong thing for O’Neill to do. Rear Ad­mi­ral Brian Losey, head of the Naval Spe­cial War­fare Com­mand, wrote in an open let­ter: “A crit­i­cal tenet of our ethos is, ‘I do not advertise the na­ture of my work, nor seek recog­ni­tion for my ac­tions.’ ”

But O’Neill is at peace with his de­ci­sion. “I don’t jus­tify my be­hav­iour by any­one else’s be­hav­iour,” he says. “I’m as­sum­ing some SEALs aren’t happy with it, and that’s fine. Some I haven’t heard from, even though I’ve kept the same con­tact in­for­ma­tion. But oth­ers have reached out to me and are on my side.”

Should only the Sec­re­taries of De­fence, the Gen­er­als and the Ad­mi­rals re­tire and write books?

“I’m go­ing around the coun­try giv­ing speeches,” O’Neill says. “I’m telling the story. I’m en­joy­ing it, and I hap­pen to think it’s good for the public to know some of th­ese de­tails. Clas­si­fied ma­te­rial, no. SEAL tac­tics, no. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing for our enemies to know we’ll come get them.”

Put most sim­ply, he is do­ing it be­cause he wants to, and to make a living, pre­sum­ably a rather good one at the mo­ment.

“What are you sup­posed to do,” his fa­ther Tom, a re­tired stock­bro­ker, asked a re­porter for Lon­don’s Daily Mail, “when you come out of the mil­i­tary af­ter such ser­vice? Be­come a greeter at Wal­mart?”

Rob’s only re­gret about re­tir­ing is “miss­ing the guys. The bus ride to the two-mile ocean swim on Fri­day. The jab­bing back and forth. The laugh­ter. I al­ways will.”

He won’t miss kiss­ing his chil­dren good­bye, know­ing it might be for the last time. Be­fore the bin Laden raid, he wrote farewell let­ters and en­trusted them to a non-SEAL friend to hold. He won’t miss that ei­ther.

Af­ter writ­ing The Sa­tanic Verses, a fear­ful Sal­man Rushdie tip­toed from bush to bush for years. Isn’t O’Neill afraid of fame and reper­cus­sions?

“I don’t worry,” he says. “I’m pre­pared. I un­der­stand se­cu­rity.”

Tom O’Neill has joined him on the speak­ing trail. “We’re a good team,” Rob says, and his dad agrees. “We get along pretty well. I don’t want to be Michael Phelps’ mother, I just want to sup­port Rob in what­ever way I can, driv­ing the bus, any­thing that needs to be done.”

And Tom has bought a set of used clubs. “Now that Rob’s into it, I’ve got to try,” he says. “You know, Evel Knievel came from Butte. His wife, Krys­tal, still lives there.” Around town, the late mo­tor­cy­cle dare­devil is as well-re­mem­bered for golf as for com­pound frac­tures. “They say he would bet $10 000,” Tom says, “on a sin­gle putt.”

In the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of fa­ther-son sol­i­dar­ity, with­out even los­ing a bet, the el­der O’Neill has an ap­point­ment pending with the won­der­fully named Joey No­body for the pur­poses of ac­quir­ing his first tat­too.

Mean­while, Rob is so cov­ered with ink he could be hung in the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

SEAL num­bers and in­signias, Na­tive Amer­i­can war­riors, feath­ers, dream catch­ers and, wind­ing around the left biceps, those words from for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, de­liv­ered on Septem­ber 11, 2001:

“Free­dom it­self was at­tacked this morn­ing by a face­less cow­ard, and free­dom will be de­fended.”

‘ I’VE AL­WAYS BE­LIEVED THAT EV­ERY­ONE IS PUT ON THIS EARTH TO DO ONE SPE­CIAL THING. YOU JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS.’

THE INK IN­CLUDES SEAL IN­SIGNIAS AND A STATE­MENT FROM PRES­I­DENT GE­ORGE W BUSH DE­LIV­ERED ON SEPTEM­BER 11, 2001.

ROB O’NEILL ON DUTY IN LIBERIA ( left) AND SPEAK­ING AT A MO­TI­VA­TIONAL

AND LEAD­ER­SHIP SEM­I­NAR.

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