Robert O’Neill is one of the most highly-decorated combat veterans of our time and the author of The New York Times best-selling memoir, The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior. A former SEAL Team Six leader with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, he deployed more than a dozen times and held combat leadership roles in more than 400 combat missions in four different theatres of war. A highly trained Navy SEAL, he led the military’s most elite and was involved in our nation’s most important campaigns. With most of his career shrouded in a classified cloak, O’Neill was the man on the ground we have never heard of but know exists. He was one of the quiet professionals performing the most difficult tasks in the most difficult circumstances, serving his remarkable career in the shadows and keeping America safe in the process.
Q: Why did you decide to talk about your story of killing Osama Bin Laden?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: When we were given the mission, we had the opportunity to either go or not go. For me, it was one of those situations where I realised that this is what I’m here for, this is why I joined the military. There were people from 84 countries who were lost at the twin-towers, and people from all over the world who fought Al-Qaeda on United flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania, and many people who died at the attack on the Pentagon. This wasn’t just an attack on America, it was an attack on the world. On our values. That’s why I wanted to go. If I left this mission, and didn’t go, I would be on my deathbed wishing I’d had that opportunity back.
The gravity of what we did wasn’t in our minds till later… we killed the #1 terrorist in the world! When we got back to the USA, my name was already out in our circle. We have SEAL teams in Virginia, San Diego, Washington and New York and the first question that any of them asked about the mission was, ‘who got him…’ and that’s how my name came out. I wasn’t comfortable with it at first, but it’s a secret you can’t keep! I donated my shirt to the 9/11 memorial museum in New York City. When I went up there, I wanted to be anonymous… it wasn’t just me on that mission, it was the team. I just happened to turn a corner because someone braver than me went left when I went right. I donated the shirt so that people could see it and say, ‘this shirt was there when we took down Osama Bin Laden…’ On the day, there was a group of 35 family members in a room. They had all lost loved ones on 9/11, and they put me on stage impromptu and asked me to tell the story. That was the first time I ever told the story about Bin Laden. The reaction from the families was powerful, there were people crying, with their heads down and people told me that while they could never truly have closure, that seeing a person who was there on that mission helped healing. That moment was an insight for me… if I could help 35 people, I could help 100,000 people, just by telling them the story. I’ve assumed the risk before, and if I can help people with that horrible day, I’ll continue to do it.
Q: What is the SEAL mindset?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: The SEAL mindset is to never quit. You also realise that it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you’re from, you can do anything that you want – as long as you have a positive attitude and realise that long term goals are achieved by short term goals. To succeed as a SEAL, you also need humility and a sense of humour- if morale is high, the team will work harder… if you can have fun, wherever you are, your team will function better… if you can keep morale high, you will lead a great team.
You can’t do anything by yourself. When we went after Bin Laden, there was a team that found him before we got there… a team of pilots that flew us in… the air crew that were guiding the aircraft… and all the teams who support them. Being a SEAL is a bit like being a salesman… there’s people who make the product, and the salesmen who go and deliver. In our case however, the customers are always wrong <laughs!>
Q: What is the role of goals and mastery in SEAL training?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: You need to master the basics and do the little things right. It’s about short-term goals. On a mission we’re not thinking. ‘right, we’re going to take this entire house down…’ we’re thinking, ‘right, I’m going to put my right foot forward as I turn left, and the guy behind me is going to cover my back…’ it’s keeping everything simple… like that acronym, K.I.S.S (Keep it Simple, Stupid!).
I’ve had people ask me before, ‘I’m not good at pull ups, how do I get better at pull ups?’ and the answer is pretty simple… do pull-ups! Keep it simple, master the basics. If you want to do something well you do it 1,000 times, if you want to do something great you do it 10,000 times.
There’s an old warrior saying, the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”
Q: How do you operate when you are experiencing fear?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: People like to say, ‘no fear!’ and I’ve never bought into that. Fear is healthy, fear is natural, and if anyone’s ever told you they’ve been to combat and were never afraid… they’re either lying or a sociopath. Fear is a very good reaction; it makes you think more clearly. If you watch a scary movie by yourself, you can hear everything in your house. That’s fear working… it’s good.
The fine line is panic. Panic is contagious- if one person panics, everyone panics. During the pandemic, one person thought they needed to buy all the toilet paper in Walmart, someone saw him do it and bought all the toilet paper someone else, and panic spread. You even see this boarding a plane- when someone from the wrong-zone tries to board, everybody runs, they all panic because that feeling is contagious. When one person panics, we all panic.
Fear is healthy, but panic is contagious. As a leader, you also realise that calm is contagious. It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, if you can portray calm- your people will be calm.
Q: How do you cope with the emotional weight of missions?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: I got lucky, I got to work every single day with people who I thought were better than me, and who made our work seem normal. I would have friends that would make worldwide headlines conducting operations against Al-Shabab in East Africa or missions like the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips on board the Maersk Alabama. I would see some of these dudes that just did these things and would be like, ‘wow! You just did the most incredible thing in the history of the SEAL team…’ and they would be like, ‘yeah, cool… can we go work-out now?’ There was this kind of nonchalant attitude because everyone was doing something great and so surrounding ourselves with greatness seemed normal
When we went after Osama Bin Laden, we knew it was a big mission, he was the number one target in the world. I remember being in Bin Laden’s house and we all knew that the house could blow-up at any moment. I was looking around at the other guys on the team- nobody paused- everybody was just doing their job. It was inspiring.
I don’t know if it’s humility or arrogance, but you play at the level of your competition. Watching people perform at such a high level brings you up. It’s the rising tide that makes the boats float, right? When you’re on a mission, you are just focussing on the next thing you have to do- the gravity of the situation only kicks-in much later.
Q: What has your work as a SEAL taught you about death?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: The dangerous part of our work is complacency. I got out of the Navy because I stopped getting adrenaline in gunfights. That’s when it gets dangerous. You don’t want to get killed because you get bored. A bullet only needs to be right once.
Reflecting on combat, you do think about the people you were in gun fights against. You thought of them as the bad guys but were you just shooting at each other simply because you were born in different parts of the world? Could things have gone differently? If I had met those people I shot in a different situation, maybe we could have had a cup of tea or a beer together, maybe we would have gotten along…
Life is so fragile, and war is loud, fast, scary and permanent.
Q: How can you humanise the enemy?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: When you first go to war as a young guy, it’s almost like you want to get into combat. You want to be the first kid on the block with a confirmed kill. Quickly though, you realise that these are real people!
In theatre, we have ‘cultural sensitivity teams.’ At first, we were just dumb guys with sledgehammers and guns going through houses – but the training teaches you that you can’t just go into someone’s house, put your hands-on females or grab the Quran. You don’t want to be that jerk, and you need to know the right way to approach things. I remember going into a house in Iraq, and looking down, noticing I’d stomped mud from my boot into their carpet. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can see why they hate us… I’d be mad too if someone did this in my house…’
You have to bring the human element to the fore. At first it was let’s go to war… then it was let’s do the right thing… and then it was why are we even doing this?
Nowadays we also have drones which change everything. I’ve never flown a drone, but I know people that fly them out of air force bases and drop bombs via remote control. When they reflect on what they’ve done, it really bothers them. Remote control war takes the human element away, and that can be dangerous. We’re getting into an era of magnetic and cyber-warfare and it removes the fact that it takes people getting up close and personal to realise the human consequences of conflict. Most of the gunfights I’ve been in were in the size of a room and it’s very personal…
Q: How do you adapt to life again after war?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: The key to getting over war is to talk about it. This is something a lot of veterans have issues with. A lot of veterans don’t want to admit there’s some sort of issue they should talk about; they don’t want to seem like they’re the weak link. This isn’t just a veteran’s issue… anyone with any kind of psychological issue can receive sympathy or empathy from people if they just talk. Nobody will think of you as the weak link- they’ll either help you, point you to help, or perhaps even tell you they’re going through the same. We all need to be more open; we’re all going through something and communication is important.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Robert J. O’Neill]: I was a semi-chubby white kid from Montana who couldn’t swim. I became a Navy SEAL who ended-up in Osama bin Laden’s bedroom on a Tier 1 Mission to take down the #1 terrorist in the world. My life is proof that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want.
As long as you keep your mind in the game, your body will follow. You convince your body through your mind. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘well, I was going to quit, but my body pulled me through…’ it’s your mind that pulls you through, and your body follows.
There will always be those exceptional talents like LeBron James and Michael Jordan, but most of us will get better at pull-ups, push-ups and anything else we want to if we keep our heads in the game and keep going.
You need to rid your life of negative energy, stay positive, surround yourself with positive people and get into a routine that means you do something positive every day. Wake up in the morning, do some exercise, make your bed, whatever it takes…