Rob O’Neill, who is one of the most highly-decorated combat veterans of our time and the author of the memoir “The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior,” will be the keynote speaker at the Western Growers Annual Meeting in Desert Springs in late October.
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 theaters of war. His most famous mission was the one that took out Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. But it wasn’t the best executed mission he was ever on.
O’Neill told Western Grower & Shipper that it is the mission everyone wants to talk about and it is emblematic of what the Navy SEALs do, which is rise above adversity to accomplish the task. In this case, the adversity was a situation that did not go as planned. One of the helicopters crashed in the Osama bin Laden compound and the SEALs had to improvise. In the original plan, O’Neill would be stationed on the roof, he said. Instead he was in the middle of the action and fired the fatal shots.
The former SEAL ran through several other missions that rank higher on his “best” list, but only in that they were perfectly executed. “There was not a bigger one (than the Osama bin Laden raid) in modern history.” He revealed that when President Obama and his team made the decision to go ahead with the raid, it wasn’t because they knew bin Laden was there. “We were told, they knew we could get in and out safely, whether he was there or not.”
O’Neill said the SEAL team knew of the mission about three weeks before it occurred. “We did not have to train for it as we were already well trained.”
But there was preparation and O’Neill said “it is the preparation that makes the mission.” His team was in a position to take off and be in the compound with 90 minutes. On the fateful weekend, they were given a two-day window to accomplish the task and it actually began on Sunday, May 1, because the typically well-publicized National Correspondence Dinner was scheduled for the night before. “If we would have gone during that dinner, all of the Cabinet members and the President would have had to get up and leave and someone might have figured out what was going on,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, O’Neill re-upped for six more months and went on one more mission before retiring in 2012. In 2014, he revealed that he fired the round that killed Osama bin Laden. His frankness has been criticized by some who believe that “SEALs don’t talk.” But O’Neill said the criticism tends to come from outside the service. “There are at least five other books written by SEALs.”
Since his retirement from the SEALs, O’Neill has been on the speaking circuit, giving as many as 300 speeches a year, though he has backed off from that level of engagement. He is deeply involved with The Grateful Nation, a non-profit group that helps Special Forces members re-enter civilian society and the workforce after their military careers come to an end. O’Neill said these individuals are problem solvers with great team work experience. “They have the skills employers want.”
The Grateful Nation works with these individuals to place them in positions that utilize their skills.
O’Neill left the SEALs only a few years before he would have reached the 20-year mark that guarantees a pension. While it was a difficult decision, he said the pension benefit did not enter into the equation. Instead, he wanted to watch his kids grow up and noted that it was more difficult to get the adrenaline level up to where it should be prior to a mission. “I was never hurt in a mission and it didn’t make sense to me to stay for six more missions before retiring. There was a lot that went into the decision.”
He and his wife recently dined with President Trump and he strongly believes that more military veterans should run for office, but that doesn’t include him. “I won’t say never, but I don’t think that’s in my future. I was never a Boy Scout,” he said, speaking of the connotation not the organization. “I was a Navy SEAL and everything that goes with that for 17 years.”
But he does have strong views about the government and what it can accomplish. He is not a big fan of the Veteran’s Administration. “It’s a tough one. It’s a big government-run industry…run a lot like the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). Right now I am having issues with the VA finding my doctor.”
As a veteran of four different theaters of wars, he hopes he never sees the United States in another full-scale war. But he is proud of the U.S. Military and says it is still the most well-prepared unit in the world, though stretched pretty thin right now. “We can’t police the entire world. We need our allies to step up and solidify their defense spending.”