WASHINGTON – Former Navy SEAL Robert O'Neill, who says he fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden, played a role in some of the most consequential combat missions of the post-9/11 era, including three depicted in Hollywood movies. And now he's telling the world about them.
By doing so, O'Neill has almost certainly increased his earning power on the speaking circuit. He also may have put himself and his family at greater risk. And he has earned the enmity of some current and former SEALs by violating their code of silence.
But O'Neill, winner of two Silver and five Bronze Stars, makes no apologies for any of that. In a wide-ranging interview Friday with The Associated Press, he said he believes the American public has a right to more details about the operation that killed the al-Qaida leader and other important military adventures. And he insisted he is taking pains not to divulge classified information or compromise the tactics SEALs use to get the drop on their enemies.
"The last thing I want to do is endanger anybody," he said. "I think the good (of going public) outweighs the bad."
O'Neill, who last week began discussing his role in the bin Laden mission, was in Washington for a round of television and media appearances that drew both praise and criticism.
After helicoptering to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, assaulting the house and killing three men and a woman, some of the SEALs reached the third floor, where a CIA analyst had told O'Neill that bin Laden would be. O'Neill followed an unnamed point man into bin Laden's bedroom, he told the AP, and the point man tackled two women, believing they had a bomb, in what O'Neill calls an incredibly selfless act.
"A few feet in front of me, on two feet, was Osama bin Laden," O'Neill said. "I shot him three times in the head and I killed him."
Many are impressed by the deed, but not everyone is impressed with the telling.
"We work in secret and we pride ourselves on that, so if somebody comes out and spills this much, it angers the rest of us," Jonathan Gilliam, a former SEAL, said in an interview.
But Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, has said that O'Neill's descriptions were gratifying to the relatives of victims at a 9/11 museum ceremony where he donated the uniform he was wearing.
O'Neill's key role in the 2011 bin Laden raid was hardly his only brush with a high-profile mission. He was on the 2009 mission to rescue the captain of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates. That episode was featured in the Tom Hanks movie "Captain Phillips."
And he was part of the group that helped retrieve Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of a four-man team attacked in 2005 while tracking a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. The Luttrell episode was featured in the 2013 film "Lone Survivor."
Long before those operations, O'Neill came to embody the dramatic transformation of the role of U.S. special operations over the last 13 years.
O'Neill joined the Navy in 1995, and in those pre-9/11 days, the SEALs did a lot of training with foreign militaries. High-risk operations in remote locations, let alone gun fights, were few and far between.
After the U.S. went to war against al-Qaida, the SEALs and other elite units were called upon for one combat mission after another — in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. O'Neill believes he killed more than 30 people.
His most fulfilling time as a SEAL, he said, came in Iraq in 2007, when he was going on multiple combat missions a night, stalking and killing insurgents and bomb-makers.
One current and two former SEALs, declining to be quoted talking about a sensitive matter, say it is not disputed that O'Neill shot at bin Laden. But Pentagon officials say it's not clear whose shots were the lethal ones.
Another SEAL, Matt Bissonnette, wrote a book about the raid, "No Easy Day." Bissonnette's account suggests the point man fired the fatal shots, and that he and a second SEAL, presumably O'Neill, shot bin Laden when he was already down.
O'Neill disputed the account of his former teammate, whom he calls a hero. Everyone who was a part of the bin Laden operation and others like it deserve recognition, he said.
"I got there because amazing men did amazing things," he said. "These are real people that have real families — that mow their lawns, can barely pay their mortgages and then they get called."