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His actions were praised by Barack Obama and considered by many to be the key foreign policy achievement of the US president’s first term. Yet the former US Navy Seal who killed Osama bin Laden has revealed that, after leaving the military, he has been given no pension or health insurance and struggles financially.
The special forces operative, named only as “the shooter”, has provided some of the most detailed testimony about the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011, as well as outlining the difficulties of his return to civilian life after the mission.
Having joined the US Navy in the 1990s at the age of 19, the shooter said he had taken part in hundreds of combat missions with its Sea, Air, Land (Seal) teams and killed more than 30 enemy combatants. When Seal Team Six was chosen for the Bin Laden mission, he asked to be part of the assault group that would enter the house.
As the team worked its way through the building, many of its members peeled off to search the rooms. Only the shooter was left behind as the “point man” by the time they reached the top floor where Bin Laden was hiding.
“I rolled past him into the room, just inside the doorway,” he told Esquire magazine. “There was bin Laden standing there … He’s got a gun on a shelf right there, the short (Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle) he’s famous for.”
The shooter then describes Bin Laden moving towards the weapon. “He’s got a gun within reach. He’s a threat … In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time as he’s going down. He crumpled on to the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! Same place … He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out.
“I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath. And I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought, ‘Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done’?”
Before the Abbottabad raid, the woman CIA analyst responsible for identifying the al-Qaeda leader’s hideout asked the shooter why he seemed so calm. “I told her, ‘we do this every night. We go to a house, we f**k with some people, and we leave’.” He later gave the woman the magazine from the rifle he used to shoot Bin Laden, as a souvenir.
The shooter left the US Navy in September last year after 16 years in the Seals, and says he now suffers from numerous medical complaints from his exploits.
He says he chose to retire because he feared he would not live to see his children grow up “and I realised that when I stopped getting an adrenaline rush from gunfights, it was time to go”.
Had he fulfilled the official retirement of 20 years’ service, he would have qualified for a pension. But because he left early, he lost all of his $60 000 (R539 200) annual salary, as well as health insurance for himself and his family. He now pays almost $500 a month for private insurance.
The Urban Institute, a US think tank, estimates that about one in 10 military veterans have no basic health insurance, and their elite status does not afford the Seals any special treatment when they retire.
The members of Seal Team Six are also hampered by its policy of confidentiality, which leaves them unable to capitalise on their achievements when finding jobs in civilian life.
The shooter’s uncle reportedly tried to get him work as a consultant with Electronic Arts, the games developer behind the Medal of Honor series, but was not able to identify him as Bin Laden’s killer because of the codes of conduct and secrecy required.
“He’s taken monumental risks,” the shooter’s father told Esquire. “But he’s unable to reap any reward.”
One of the men on the Bin Laden mission has benefited financially from that distinction, but at the cost of his anonymity. Matt Bissonnette wrote a best-selling account of the raid, No Easy Day. Yet despite writing under a pseudonym, he was named on a jihadi website soon after publication.
Fearful of retaliation for his part in the raid, the shooter has taught his children to hide in the bath if their house comes under attack, and trained his wife to fire a shotgun. The family has a “bolt” bag filled with necessities should they be forced into hiding at short notice.
Their marriage became so strained by the shooter’s work that he and his wife are, in fact, separated – though they still live under the same roof to save money.