Phil Bronstein wrote last month in Esquire of how the man who shot Osama bin Laden (whom he calls the Shooter as a cover name) was being "screwed" – his word – by the military after he resigned from the service.
(Zero Dark Thirty)
The story gained immediate attention not so much for the most compelling reason – inside information about the notable case of taking down the world's most notorious terrorist – but for the purportedly shoddy way that the military treats its veterans. Not just any veteran, mind you, but the important ones.
But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:
Nothing. No pension, no healthcare for his wife and kids, no protection for himself or his family.
Bronstein's lengthy article is long on insider information about the raid itself, but exists primarily as an exposition of what he bewails as a man practically betrayed by his country.
But there are small items that beckon to my hackles. Bronstein and his Shooter continually speak of SEAL Team 6 ("ST6"), the original name of the unit, but members of the community have referred to it as DEVGRU for many years (short for Naval Special Warfare Development Group). Use of ST6 is like referring to the CIA as the Company, branding the user as someone whose closest connection is through spy thrillers or, appropriately, journalists who claim to have the inside scoop. Likewise, he refers to the SEALs as being Special Forces, another grating slip: Special Forces within the US military is a specific term for the Army Green Berets; the SEALs and associated units within the Navy are called Special Warfare, and the overall term for the military as a whole is Special Operations. Individuals within this community who take the fight directly to the enemy are called operators. In an interview with Matt Lauer, Bronstein mispronounces the name of the dog brought on the operation. (Other sources – yes, more than one – pronounce it another way, with a story attached as to why, which at least begs the question.)
There are other niggling items, but what hits me first is Bronstein's claim of how he came to the story. First is his reflective, back-handed claim about his bona fides.
This was my first face-to-face meeting with the Shooter, following several phone conversations and much checking into my journalism background, especially in war zones. [Translation: these professionals accepted me as someone of note.]
At other times he refers to himself as a war correspondent. The best that I and some others can come up with is that he reported from "conflict areas around the world as a foreign correspondent for eight years, such as Peru, the Middle East, El Salvador and the Philippines." According to his bio as the Chairman at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, that would be between 1980 and 1988. He spent time in El Salvador during the war against the Farabundo Martí insurgents but he couldn’t have spent much time in the field. Likewise, he spent time in the Middle East during the Kuwait War – in Israel. He covered the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 to some acclaim. The Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorists were active in Peru during that time but there is no evidence of field experience there either. Interviewing participants in a conflict does not yield a comparison to Ernie Pyle. All in all, rather thin gruel for someone who styles himself as a war correspondent.
This adds to a wink-wink, nudge-nudge image as one who is in on the secrets, and falls into what I call the Bob Woodward approach – a well-accomplished journalist who nevertheless falls to the temptation of citing important revelations from a source who is either highly classified or dead, therefore unverifiable. Then there is the Dexter Filkins (author of The Forever War) method: unidentified or obscure indigenous sources, who he accepts at face value in their claims of veracity, whose views somehow translate into the widespread attitude for the entire community or region. They also immediately yield up deep and highly opinionated views about the Americans they have worked with for months to this reporter whom they have just met, for no other reason than his personal aura of being a journalist. (And is anyone vexed that he gets away with statements that he was walking around Ground Zero the day of the attack, talking on a cell phone? Is there anyone on the scene that day who finds that . . . odd?)
Bronstein's work at the CIR has already been focused on compensation issues for the military. It's no wonder that he would latch onto this angle for the public, but the story of the Shooter's shoddy treatment more than strains the credulity of the active duty and veteran audience.
Any private, seaman recruit, and airman basic knows that he has to serve for at least twenty years to receive a pension, and a military pension is one of the few remaining really good benefits available. While on active duty his take-home pay (considering that for this job he has to be at least a Chief (or E-7 in pay rate), and adding in his time in service, dependents status, extra incentive pay such as dive pay, jump pay, hazardous duty pay, and others) would certainly be north of $6000 per month. If he were to retire at twenty years as an E-7, he would receive at least $2100 per month, not counting disability pay for the ailments he listed. Still in his early- to mid-40s, he is highly employable, and the military retirement pay, while it can't buy you an island in the Bahamas, is nevertheless a generous extra stipend to his follow-on salary, and certainly belies Bronstein's quote of a fellow team member:
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.
Not true, on several levels.
There are transition assistance classes to aid servicemembers in their move to civilian life, far more organized and informative than in my day, but even in that shadow of a program available to me, someone had to sign off on my paperwork that I had taken the class. The Shooter couldn't just blow it off. The classes would tell him, for example, of the five years of free health care available to him as a combat veteran since the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007.
The Shooter tells of the strain on his family, a true enough fall-out of life in the Spec Ops community, but now he and his wife are fearful that the family will be targeted because of the part he played in the operation. What better reason to keep his mouth shut? News of the forthcoming publication of No Easy Day by 'Mark Owens', a nom de plume but a fellow DEVGRU participant in the raid, was enough for the press to crack through the veneer of the pseudonym to discover the author's real name, Matt Bissonnette, in about a day. Real professionals take operational security very seriously, to protect themselves and others.
The Navy response to the accusations in Bronstein's article was swift and to the point. No less than Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, Commander Naval Special Warfare Command, released a statement that included:
This former SEAL made a deliberate and informed decision to leave the Navy several years short of retirement status. Months ahead of his separation, he was counseled on status and benefits, and provided with options to continue his career until retirement eligible. Claims to the contrary in these matters are false.
[Pybus is] very disappointed with the few people who use their SEAL cachet for self-serving purposes, particularly through falsehoods and certainly when the safety and security of themselves and their active-duty teammates and families are put to risk.
RADM Pybus went on to say that the command would still help the Shooter "address health or transition issues, as we would for other former members. . . . Naval Special Warfare has bright and motivated people engaged in difficult, but satisfying work. They are very familiar with their compensation and options."
The answer as to why the Shooter placed himself in this position is buried in the article:
It didn't work out. His teammates moved on to other endeavors. He is left to suffer the consequences of the risk that he took, which is not at all uncommon. I myself had a couple of great opportunities evaporate in like fashion, but you move on. Yet he feels that he is owed something for the role that he took in his claim that he was the one who killed bin Laden.Back in April, he and some of his SEAL Team 6 colleagues had formed the skeleton of a company to help them transition out of the service.
First of all, he was not the designated shooter for the mission. Practically any of the 23 operators could have found themselves in the position of taking out Geronimo, and based on how they stacked up and spread out as they secured the various rooms en route to the third floor, the Shooter was the one who ended up confronting the target, in his words.
Second, as much as I respect the members of the Spec Ops community, we all have to remember that combat is a shared burden with the conventional forces as well. The straight-leg infantry at COP Keating, to give just one example, performed gallantly under over-whelming conditions and received recognition for their valor up to and including the Medal of Honor. Declaring that the Shooter, no matter what his skills and qualifications, is somehow eligible for special compensation to remedy a decision that he himself made hardly seems equitable.
The outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in answering a press question about the Esquire article, drew the same distinction: "Acts of that kind of bravery and courage go on often every day in a war zone." He rhetorically questioned whether everyone who performs courageously in such dangerous circumstances should have a "separate fund to try to assist them", and added that "the reality is, men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to sacrifice for this country."
But the story ravels still further. Brandon Webb of the web log SOFREP.com, and a respected former SEAL in his own right, tracked down the background of the story and reports that the Shooter was not, in fact, the one who took the kill shot. He was in on the op certainly, and was one of the few involved in the take-down on the third floor, but his claim beyond that doesn't add up.
Webb goes on to add:The actual shooter at Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSW DEVGRU or SEAL TEAM 6) has continued to maintain his professional integrity and has not come forward with the story, and likely never will. Looks like Esquire and Bronstein are the ones who are really screwed, not their interviewee; our sources say he's off cashing large checks from unsuspecting donors who bought the Esquire pity piece.
- The 'Shooter' was removed from his DEVGRU Squadron for talking about the operation openly after being warned to 'can it'
- He was encouraged by leadership to remain in the SEAL community to finish out his career and gain his full retirement benefits.
- Apparently against his concerns about personal security he has been very active on the public speaking circuit.
Webb obtains further information from another SEAL, such as the agreement among the operators to try to avoid a head shot, so as to help in identifying the body. He also questions the Shooter's claim that only two of them, the point man and himself, stepped up to the third story to engage bin Laden and what turned out to be several wives. There was no need to hurry (well, people in those situations are very well aware that the clock is ticking) and whoever was up there would have had more time to prepare a defense. The shooter says that the point man, after firing a couple of rounds at bin Laden's partial target, then swept two of the wives in the hallway away from the door, but the source states unequivocally that "there were ZERO women in the hallway" (they were in the bedroom) and the point man would not drop his muzzle unless he were certain that his target was down. He also uses the later witnessed blood spatter to show that the point man, much shorter than the Shooter and bin Laden, was the actual executioner.
Esquire, predictably, puts out the tired drivel that it stands by its story (though without explaining how). Between Bronstein and the SEALs, you should know where to put the smart money.