The Operator: Firing the Shots that killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior
by Robert O'Neal
358 pages, $28
The historic mission that brought him worldwide fame started when Robert O'Neal was trying to decide what tequila drink to order. He was on a training session in Miami when the call came for him and others with him to hustle back to base.
What followed were weeks of highly secret training at a mock compound erected to mirror where the world's most sought-after terrorist was hiding. It culminated in O'Neal standing eye-to-eye with Bin Laden and, without hesitating, firing.
“Osama bin Laden stood near the entrance at the foot of the bed, taller and thinner than I expected, his beard shorter and his hair whiter," O'Neal writes. "He had a woman in front of him, his hands on her shoulders. In less than a second, I aimed above the woman's right shoulder and pulled the trigger twice. Bin Laden's head split open, and he dropped. I put another bullet in his head. Insurance.”
That action portends to mark O'Neal's existence for the rest of his life. But will it also haunt him? He doesn't know, only that it's caused “anxiety and sleepless nights” trying to determine if it was “the best thing that ever happened to me, or the worst.”
The “best” because it brought him international attention and fortified his years of training as a Navy SEAL, one of the most elite units in the armed forces. The “worst” because it fostered envy, resentment and hard feelings among the men he fought with, and eventually convinced him to leave the Navy before he intended.
So just who is this guy who killed bin Laden? Operator tells us he was a native of Butte, Mont., who joined the Navy after graduation from high school specifically to become a SEAL. Physically fit, he passed the rigorous training seemingly designed more to keep out the unfit than to greet the fit. “It won't surprise you to learn,” O'Neal writes, “that in reality pool camp was simply another excuse for instructors to beat the daylights out of the students while also scaring the snot out of them.”
O'Neal writes in depth about the path he took to earn his SEAL patch. Along the way, the reader learns much about the elite force the nation relies on to undertake often-dangerous covert missions.
O'Neal took part in more than 400 of such missions during his 16 years as a SEAL, including the successful effort to free Capt. Richard Philips from his Somalia kidnappers and the search for Army deserter Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban. He accumulated a chestful of medals for his bravery, perhaps the most harrowing when his unit was under fire on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and O'Neal had to run across open terrain to call for air support.
None, of course, was more important than the mission to capture or eliminate bin Laden. O'Neal recalls he and his mission partners were convinced they would not return. He wrote letters to his family to be opened upon his death.
“We were trying to get down to the truth about why were still willing to do this when we pretty much knew were were going to die,” writes O'Neal. “What we came up with was that we were doing it for the single mom who dropped her kids off at school and went to work on a Tuesday morning, and then an hour later decided to jump out of a skyscraper because it was better than being burned alive. A woman whose last gesture of human decency was holding down her skirt on the long way to the pavement so no one could see her underwear.”
This illustrates a side of O'Neal that normally might not be expected from a trained killer — he can write. Usually, when a professional not aligned with the literary world writes a book, the author's name appears “with” the person who did the writing. No so in Operator.
O'Neal, the author, exhibits skills in blending humor with pathos, in describing the intricacies of becoming a SEAL and relating the toll a SEAL's life takes on his family. He throws in a history of the SEALs along the way, one noteworthy item regarding the name -- it has nothing to do with the aquarium swimmers; it stands for Sea, Air and Land.
And because of the highly sensitive work SEALs do, Operator's pages often sport blacked-out words to cloak a specific team identity. O'Neal also utilizes pseudonyms throughout Operator to protect colleagues and family members, even his wife.
Movies have been made about the missions the author undertook with his mates, namely the rescue of Capt. Philips from Somalian pirates and the killing of bin Laden. But reading about them through the eyes of a participant, a participant with surprising literary skill, defines them in a way no movie could.
Lee Coppola is a prize-winning former print and broadcast reporter, a former federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University's Journalism School