Man Who Killed Bin Laden: “Is This the Best Thing I’ve Ever Done, or the Worst Thing?”

The Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden used this gear during the May 2011 raid.
Credit: The Shooter

Phil Bronstein, executive chairman of the Center for Investigative Reporting, wrote an amazing article in conjunction with Esquire.   The piece is a profile on the man who killed the most wanted terrorist of our time — Osama bin Ladenbut is also a chilling portrait of what happens to these super-elite soldiers once they’ve accomplished their mission. Bronstein writes about his first interaction with man to whom he refers as “the shooter:”

This was my first face-to-face meeting with the Shooter, following several phone conversations and much checking on my journalism background, especially in war zones. In a corner, pouring drinks, he and I established some rules. He would consider talking to me only after his last, upcoming four-month deployment to Afghanistan had ended and he had exited the Navy. And he would not go public; he would not be named. That would be counter to the team’s code, and it would also put a huge “kill me” target on his back.

The resulting article is a fascinating insight into this most historic raid, from which they thought they’d never return:

We all wrote letters. I had my sh-tty little room and I’m sitting on my Pelican case with all my gear, a manila envelope on my bed, and I’m writing letters to my kids. They were to be delivered in case of my death, something for them to read when they’re thirty-five. I have no idea what I said except I’m explaining everything, that it was a noble mission and I hope we got him. I’m saying I wish I could be there for them.

And the tears are hitting the page, because we all knew that none of us were coming back alive. It was either death or a Pakistani prison, where we’d be raped for the rest of our lives.

He gave the letters to an intel guy not on the mission, with instructions. He would shred them if he made it back.

You write it, it’s horrible, you hand it off, and it’s like, Okay, that part’s over. And I’m back, ready to roll.

The article provides fascinating nuggets about the raid: for example, “the shooter” reveals what quote from President Bush was going through his head en route to the compound, what music he listened to, what he thought when he saw bin Laden (about his height and his hair), his opinion on the movie Zero Dark Thirty, and his immediate thoughts after he shot him (He thought,Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done? This is real and that’s him. Holy sh-t.”)Amazingly, “the shooter,” didn’t die as he expected and returned back to his civilian life without anyone ever knowing of this huge career accomplishment.  Though Hollywood made a film out of the raid and books were written, the man who pulled the trigger came home, retired from service, he lost his military insurance.

“My health care for me and my family stopped at midnight Friday night. I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no. You’re out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your sixteen years. Go f-ck yourself.”

(For more on his transition, read this Washington Post article called, “Navy SEAL Lost Health Insurance After Killing Osama bin Laden.”)

In fact, Phil Bronstein discovered many of these lethal, highly trained American heroes are in a similar circumstance:

That night, one of the Shooter’s comrades, lantern-jawed, articulate, with a serious academic pedigree, told me: “I’ve seen a lot of combat, been in some pretty grisly circumstances. But the thing that scares me the most after fifteen years in the SEALs?

“Civilian life.”

Another Navy SEAL friend said:

“My wife doesn’t want me to stay in one more minute than I have to,” he says. But he’s several years away from official retirement. “I agree that civilian life is scary. And I’ve got a family to take care of. Most of us have nothing to offer the public. We can track down and kill the enemy really well, but that’s it.

“If I get killed on this next deployment, I know my family will be taken care of.” (The Navy does offer decent life-insurance policies at low rates.) “College will be paid for, they’ll be fine.

“But if I come back alive and retire, I won’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out for the rest of my life. Sad to say, it’s better if I get killed.”

Bronstein’s compelling piece gives insight into the events of that historic raid and into the type of men who pulled off the unthinkable.  It’s the kind of article that makes you thankful America is still producing men like this, yet infuriated we don’t honor their sacrifices once they’ve survived. Paul D. Miller — who worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009 — wrote about his mixed feelings upon seeing Zero Dark Thirty here, and concluded his article with a lovely quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.  Lincoln called upon our still-divided nation “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

We would be wise to heed Lincoln’s timeless words.

Read Bronstein’s article here, and see him discuss how he got this interview below:

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About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.

  • jatheist

    My favorite part of the interview was this ‘shooter’ quote:

    “I’m not religious…”


  • Rozann

    I’m sorry that the man and his family lost their insurance when he left the military, but he knew that going in and getting out. Insurance only continues for someone who retires. It’s the same for anyone who changes jobs in the civilian world. He needs to look into the VA for help in changing careers. They have great programs which my husband took advantage of and after twenty-six years in the Marines went to college (BYU) and became a high school industrial tech teacher, woodshop is his specialty. Unfortunately, under the current president and administration our military are getting the very short end of the stick, while those in the civil service get ever cushier remuneration and benefits. Things are upside down and backwards in America. We salute all those who have and are serving, including two of our five children.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Anyone who changes jobs in the civilian world is entitled to COBRA at least.

  • cliff

    @ Rozann: Not sure what the current president has to do with any of this. The rules about military retirement benefits have been the same for many years.
    If “the Shooter” had stayed in the military for 3 more years he could have retired with full benefits, including health care for the whole family and $30,000/year in retirement pay (quite a bit more if he joined the reserves)

    • Rozann

      I just meant that the current administration is cutting medical insurance benefits and raising insurance rates for the retired military, while those in the civil service are getting more benefits at less cost to the worker. The current president wants to gut the military and is doing all he can make it unattractive to serve.

  • Jeff

    The Shooter is authorized Department of Veterans’ Affair medical coverage for all his service related injuries. I don’t know how it works in the Navy, but the Army forces everybody from privates to generals to go to a transition class at least six months before they separate. That class covers job-hunting, post-service benefits, and they have a VA counselor come in to help fill out paperwork to document those service related injuries. (Or even non-related. I cracked a tooth on a popcorn hull less than a month before I retired; I spent over a year with a VA dentist getting the damage repaired.)

    Unfortunately the system isn’t set up to protect families as tightly. Separate from service (as opposed to retiring) and your family loses their medical coverage that day. But retirees’ families are covered for life (spouses) or until they turn 21 (children). And there is a 15-year retirement option out there, albeit with reduced benefits.

    But the point is the Shooter (as a 16-year veteran) should know this stuff. He could have arranged a desk job or a training position for himself and coasted along for the last few years of his enlistment and retired with full benefits. The Shooter should have been trained on his benefits; if he wasn’t that’s the Navy’s fault. If he was, then he wasn’t paying attention.

    While I agree that separated military personnel certainly need to be taken care of this situation just doesn’t ring completely right.

  • rumitoid

    Sorry, this article seems bizarre to me. What does it have to do with Evangeical Christianity? The only link I see is the unfortunate marriage with the Republican Party, looking to roast the president as it has been doing for over four years now. We are not to care for these men and their families because they are soldiers but only because they are made in the image of God, as we all are. They deserve no special treatment but just the usual treatment by a Christian: our love and compassion. The question, “Is this the best thing I ever did or the worst?” is profound and one you need to answer Rozann. What are your priorities in this world?

    I found the celebrating in the streets of America after the news of bin Laden’s death both understandable and very disturbing. My thoughts also went to those men who are trained to kill in this fashion. Should I consider them heroes or pray for their souls? Was this the best outcome or the worst?

    • rumitoid

      Sorry, I said Rozann instead of Nancy.

  • REG

    I would suggest he return to the service and do his 4 years and/or join the reserves and at least he would be eligible for his retirement. Or better yet, he can get a civil service job and then they will count his 16 years time will count towards his retirement and he will get the civil service benefits.
    This is a sad situation, however, he knew going in what the terms were and hopefully, he will get on the right track and move forward.
    Good luck
    The wife of a Colonel, and even I know the benefits.