On Tuesday’s Stern Show, Howard welcomed Robert O’Neill, the former Navy SEAL who fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. During his special sit-down interview, O’Neill gave Howard a step by step account of what went down during the historic mission to take out the terrorist leader.
“We went in there preparing to die to get him,” O’Neill told Howard.
After a nearly decade-long manhunt for bin Laden following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (which bin Laden and the militant group al-Qaeda eventually took full responsibility for) he was located living in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Finding out bin Laden’s whereabouts came in part from the intelligence gathering of one American analyst — a woman who O’Neill said prepared him and his team prior to the mission being carried out.
“She knew where everybody would be and she was 100-percent right on everybody,” O’Neill said of bin Laden’s compound and the people inside of it.
The woman, who O’Neill did not name, was the basis for the 2012 film “Zero Dark Thirty” starring Jessica Chastain. Howard wondered if the real-life intelligence officer was as beautiful as her Hollywood portrayal.
“I promised I would never describe her but, yeah, she’s attractive,” Robert said with a laugh. “And she’s just bad ass … one of the most bad ass people I’ve ever met.”
O’Neill then described the careful planning that went into making the raid a success. “We had the perfect plan, rehearsed it over and over again,” he said. As well-practiced as they were, O’Neill told Howard quite possibly the worst thing that could have gone wrong did after one of their helicopters crashed while approaching bin Laden’s compound. The pilot of that helicopter would later tell O’Neill he was unable to hover that close to the ground due to warmer than expected temperatures.
“He crash landed it in a position to save everyone’s life,” O’Neill said.
Once on the ground, the SEALs silently entered the home in pitch-black darkness. Inside they encountered bin Laden’s son Khalid on the staircase—just as the female intelligence officer had predicted—and shot him dead.
As team members continued splintering off in an effort to clear the compound, O’Neill found himself being led up to the second floor by his point man, or the team member in the very front. “I’m behind him with my hand on his shoulder,” O’Neill explained. “He’s the front, I’m the back.”
His point man then spotted two women behind a curtain that appeared to be putting on vests, possibly preparing to detonate a suicide bomb. In a true act of bravery, O’Neill’s partner jumped on the women and risked his life in order to save the mission.
“He was a bad motherfucker,” O’Neill said of his fellow SEAL’s courage.
With the two women subdued, O’Neill found himself in the lead position, heading into bin Laden’s bedroom. “I just turned right in the room and there I am in the room with bin Laden,” O’Neill said. “I took the shot from the doorway.”
It was three shots that took bin Laden down — two while he was standing and a third shot as he hit the ground. “I heard him take his last breath. I saw his tongue stick out,” O’Neill told Howard. “I can close my eyes and see it anytime I want.”
With the target eliminated, O’Neill and the SEAL team then took photographs of bin Laden’s body. Conspiracy theorists have since questioned whether those pictures actually exist which O’Neill admitted annoys him.
“I hope they get released, at this point. I’m just tired of hearing about it,” he told Howard.
O’Neill told Howard he was surprised to see how tall Osama bin Laden was in person. He also confirmed the terrorist was keeping blocks of opium in his home that looked like freeze-dried steaks, as well as his own personal stash of pornography.
“I’ve seen some bad stuff, but I’m also a believer that, you know, we were warriors sent to do a warrior’s job,” O’Neill told Howard.
There is no doubt the mission to take out bin Laden this way was a risky one, but one President Obama was willing to take. O’Neill said the Commander in Chief made the right call sending in the SEALs the way he did.
“It was his call. And I’ll tell ya right now … that was a ballsy call and that was President Obama,” O’Neill said. “That mission was one of the few times I’ve seen just complete bipartisanship.”
Howard asked Robert how he and all Navy SEALs are able to deal with being in the line of danger so often. “It’s OK to be afraid. A lot of people say ‘no fear’ — that’s bullshit,” Robert said. “Fear is OK because it’s natural and it’s healthy. Fear will make you think more clearly.”
As for taking out bin Laden, O’Neill said his motivation to carry out that mission was simple and recalled what he and what one of his fellow SEALs discussed before heading in that night.
“We said, ‘We’re not going for fame and we’re not going for bravado. We’re going for the single mom who dropped her kids off at school on a Tuesday morning and 45 minutes later she jumped to her death out of a skyscraper because that was a better alternative than burning alive,’” Robert told Howard.
Mindset is perhaps the most crucial part of what makes a good Navy SEAL and O’Neill told Howard very few individuals have what it takes to join the exclusive military force.
“You can’t tell who is going to make it through the training,” O’Neill said, adding that even after someone is selected to train to become a SEAL, he suspects 80 to 85 percent of them won’t make it. The test that advances someone to SEAL selection isn’t an easy one, either. O’Neill broke down what trainees must complete just to be considered: a 500-yard swim, followed by 42 continuous pushups, 50 sit-ups, 8 pull-ups, and a mile and a half run—in boots—that must be completed in 11.5 minutes.
“That’s an easy test,” Robert said. “That’s to get orders to go to SEAL training.” However, he admitted even he failed his first attempt after he fell short on completing the pushups portion.
Once in SEAL training, the exercises only get harder, testing trainees in three phases: physical, diving, land warfare. O’Neill told Howard about “hell week” which starts on Sunday afternoon and doesn’t end until the following Friday.
“By Wednesday morning when the sun comes up, you’re so wet and your skin is so soft from the salt water, like, your body starts to bleed,” O’Neill said of being exposed to the elements as a trainee.
Howard wondered if any of these guys ever shit their pants during hell week.
“That’s just a given!” O’Neill revealed.
SEAL trainees can sometimes also expect to hallucinate while out in the field, but O’Neill told Howard that was actually a highlight for him. “That was actually the best part because once you start to hallucinate, nothing matters anymore,” he explained, adding that one vision he remembered included a dragon floating above an aircraft carrier.
One well-known SEAL workout involves tying trainees’ hands and feet together and forcing them to try and swim for up to an hour.
“I actually found it relaxing because that was an hour a day no one could yell at me,” O’Neill told Howard, saying he would just focus on his breathing, exhaling so he’d sink to the bottom and then kicking himself back up to the surface to inhale again, repeating the process over and over. “It’s just teaching you that panic isn’t gonna help,” O’Neill explained.
O’Neill chronicles his life as a SEAL and the various military operations he was a part of in his new book, “The Operator.”
“This is the first book about some of these missions that’s been vetted by the Pentagon,” he told Howard. “I think as long as no tactics are given up and no one’s put in danger … these stories should be told.”