“Dad, thanks for teaching me teamwork on the basketball court and how to hunt and how to shoot.”
Robert O’Neill, former U.S. Navy SEAL and Special Warfare Operator, on a final call to his father as he embarked on the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, a feat from which he likely would not return
Considering hunters are a cornerstone of mainstream America, you never know who you will cross paths with at a hunting show—a professional athlete or musician, a legislator, your next-door neighbor or even avid hunter Donald Trump Jr. But one person I saw at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo (WHCE) in Salt Lake City, Utah, this weekend was extra special. The sight of him humbled me and filled my heart with gratitude that words could never express. There stood Robert O’Neill, the American patriot who killed al-Queda founder Osama bin Laden—the mastermind behind 9/11—at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011.
The former U.S. Navy SEAL, senior chief petty officer and special warfare operator was at the WHCE at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Friday alongside 55,000-plus fellow hunters and addressed attendees at the evening banquet. You could have heard a pin drop as the crowd listened to O’Neill explain how events played out on the day he fired the headshot that killed the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Before relaying those events, O’Neill shared that he’d always wanted to be a sniper. He got a laugh from the crowd when he said, “The Marine Corps is a department of the Navy. It’s just the men’s department.” As for the time rocker and NRA Board Member Ted Nugent drove him, Donald Trump Jr. and former FOX News commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle to a Kid Rock concert, he got another rise from the crowd. He told his buddy, “I hoped we’d get pulled over,” knowing the officer would say “I don’t know who the guy in the back seat is, but he must be important because his driver is Ted Nugent.”
O’Neill said he actually thought of leaving the military several times. “But something would happen and I’d say, ‘I can’t leave now.’” One of those times was in the midst of 9/11 while with SEAL Team Two in Virginia Beach, Va. “I said I can’t leave now. They taught me how to fight.” So O’Neill went on to carry out 400-plus combat missions.
Highlighting just two of his experiences, he relayed how in 2005 he and his team were part of the effort to rescue Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only one of four SEAL Team 10 members who were sent to Afghanistan to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah and survive when their mission was compromised after being discovered by goat herders. Luttrell highlighted the mission in his book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Red Wing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” later depicted in the 2013 film “Lone Survivor.”
“I can’t leave now” happened again in 2009 when four Somali pirates attacked U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. After the pirates took Captain Richard Phillips hostage, O’Neill and his team rescued him, taking out three of the four pirates and capturing the fourth.
Killing Osama bin Laden: The Man on a Mission Undertakes His Most Noted Feat
Knowing the crowd most wanted to hear about the events of May 2, 2011, O’Neill said, “Then we got the call to go on the mission to get Osama bin Laden, knowing it likely would be one way and none of us would get out alive.” He said the team had new untested helicopters, hoped the equipment worked and knew Osama Bin Laden just might blow up himself and his family. A SEAL Team Six member asked him, “If we know we’re going to die, why are we going again?” He told the crowd it was only human to ask that as they headed into what likely was their final mission. “We’re going for the single mom who dropped her kids off on a Tuesday morning on 9/11 and 45 minutes later jumped out of a skyscraper. She was not supposed to be in the fight. We are supposed to be in the fight. That’s why we’re going. And I thought to myself, ‘If I didn’t go, when I’m 90, would I give everything back to go?’ As President George Bush said on 9/11, ‘Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward—and freedom will be defended.’”
Citing that there was a 95 percent chance his mission was a one-way trip, O’Neill told the crowd that his final phone call was to his father. “Dad, thanks for teaching me teamwork on the basketball court and how to hunt and how to shoot,” he said. I thought of how, in the face of almost certain death, O’Neill’s final thoughts were of his cherished family values and traditions surrounding the freedom to hunt, shoot and enjoy the great outdoors.
“So we fly from Afghanistan to Pakistan,” he said. “We’d have 90 minutes to get to Osama bin Laden’s house.” Talking up SEAL Team Six’s mettle, he added, “I looked over and saw some of the guys sleeping!”
While O’Neill and his team had planned and trained for the mission for several years, including practicing in a true-to-size replica of bin Laden’s compound, not everything during the mission went according to plan, starting with how one of the helicopters crashed in bin Laden’s yard. A SEAL team member was circling the compound’s perimeter and saw the crashed chopper, got on the radio and said bin Laden’s men had been planning for our attack because there was a chopper “just like ours” in the yard. “That is ours,” O’Neill said. “We just crashed.”
O’Neill said he was walking behind fellow SEALs as they searched bin Laden’s three-story compound. They saw his son Khalid, armed with an AK-47, and shot him. O’Neill and an unnamed point man went to the third floor and found bin Laden in his bedroom. O’Neill took aim and shot and killed him.
Ever humble and the epitome of a team player, O’Neill is quick to note that when on a mission, all he had to do was focus on his job and watch the back of the guy in front of him. He never worried because his teammates were doing the same. “I was part of a team that was bigger than any one man,” he often says.
Transitioning to Civilian Life
By the time O'Neill retired from the U.S. Navy in 2012, after 16 years of distinguished service as a Navy SEAL, he’d become a highly decorated sailor, receiving two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars with Valor, a Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, three Presidential Unit Citations and a Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Valor. Later that year he co-founded Your Grateful Nation (YGN), an organization that helps Special Operations veterans to transition into civilian life. As O’Neill notes on his website, “YGN offers essential transitional services and family stabilization support by providing executive-level mentoring and career placement opportunities to veterans who are leaving the military and entering into the private sector.” (For more information on YGN, click here.)
About the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo: Sponsored by the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife in Salt Lake City, Utah, the annual Western Hunting and Conservation Expo (WHCE) grows exponentially from year to year as it caters to the entire family and all demographics. The loud-and-clear message is that hunting is conservation as the show raises nearly $5 million for fish and wildlife conservation and habitat restoration. The WHCE is widely called the “mule deer show” for good reason. Not only is the MDF a co-sponsor but the mule deer is an iconic symbol of the West, conjuring images of sweeping beams and forking antlers. More than part of the Western landscape, they are part of the American story.