When the man who shot Osama bin Laden recently revealed himself publicly, it rekindled concerns that the most famous mission in the history of Special Operations Forces has irreparably compromised the code of silence that had long cloaked such “black ops” units. Former Navy SEAL Team 6 member Robert James O’Neill’s revelation provoked intense criticism, for instance, from his former team members. The commander and master chief of the Navy Special Warfare Command wrote a letter noting that “we do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety, or financial gain.” The U.S. government is already reportedly requiring former SEAL Team 6 member Matt Bissonnette to forfeit $4.5 million of the proceeds from his book No Easy Day, written under the pen name Mark Owen, because he failed to submit it for Pentagon review before publication. Recently I spoke about the controversy with Bissonette, who is publishing another book about his transition to civilian life titled No Hero. Edited excerpts of that interview follow.
In the recent letters criticizing revelations about the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Navy Special Warfare Command leaders emphasized the “critical tenet” of your former profession is to “not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my action.” Are you guilty of breaking that creed?
I don’t think so. I admit the last two years have been really tough, and that’s especially true with the current situation and other people talking about their individual actions on the raid. From the beginning with my book I tried to separate myself from those focusing on what they personally did. I focused on what I thought the team did right. I didn’t even put my own name on the book. Yes, that was partly for security reasons, but I also didn’t want it to be about me. It’s about the team. The same thing holds for No Hero. I continue to write under the name Mark Owen, the better to talk about the team, and not any one person.
You are reportedly suing your former lawyer for $8 million for allegedly advising you that the manuscript for No Easy Day did not need to be submitted to the Pentagon for prepublication review. Do you still plan to donate the proceeds from the book to charity?
Donating the proceeds to charity has been my plan from the beginning. Of course, I have to deal with this legal drama first. But when it’s all sorted out, I hope to honor that commitment to donate the proceeds to charity.
Why did you decide to write a book about your life as a Navy SEAL and the bin Laden raid, knowing that by breaking the code of silence you would upset some of your former team members?
Because I read a book in junior high called Men With Green Faces that inspired me to want to become a SEAL and serve my country. I wanted to do the same thing with No Easy Day. Also, the idea that there should be no discussion about what SEALS or Special Operations Forces do seems kind of irrelevant at this point. [Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta essentially authorized the movie Zero Dark Thirty on the Bin Laden raid, and he also wrote his own book [Worthy Fights]. [Former Joint Special Operations Command commander] Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote his own book [My Share of the Task]. [Navy SEAL] Marcus Luttrell wrote his book [Lone Survivor, which was turned into a movie]. [Navy Special Warfare Command Cmdr. Admiral Brian] Losey comes out and says SEALs shouldn’t be talking about what they do, which would be an easier argument to buy if the command itself didn’t authorize the Hollywood blockbuster Acts of Valor, which included real active-duty SEALS and exposed real tactics. So the argument that we shouldn’t be telling our stories doesn’t mean that much, if our own leadership is doing it. Heck, [SEAL Team 6 founder Richard] Marcinko and [U.S. Army Delta Force founder Charlie] Beckwith both wrote books [Rogue Warrior, and Delta Force,respectively], and no one really complained.
But weren’t you legally bound to have No Easy Day prereviewed by the Pentagon?
I’ve admitted publicly that I got some really bad legal advice and failed to have my book prereviewed, which I really regret. I’ve learned from my mistake, and I submitted No Hero for prereview by the Pentagon. That’s another lesson I took from my military experience. Learn from your mistakes, move on, and worry about what comes next. My larger point is just that it’s really hard for me to accept this argument that members of the military shouldn’t talk about what they did in these wars. We should be able to share our stories. Now, I tried to do that the right way by pointing out over and over that I couldn’t have accomplished anything without the team.
In No Hero you write about the difficult transition from warrior to civilian, and how you have experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Yeah, of course there’s nothing new about that story. A lot of veterans struggle to put their wartime experiences behind them and figure out what to do with their lives. That can be a pretty scary challenge, especially with some of the baggage we carry from our service. In my case, I went on 14 straight combat deployments. There are 40 dead friends whose numbers I still keep in my telephone. Those names haunt me.
Can you ever fully get over that kind of experience and loss?
You know, I had committed and sacrificed everything to live the life that I first dreamed of as a young kid reading Men With Green Faces. Being part of that brotherhood; sacrificing for each other; living for something bigger than myself; doing these cool missions—that was the dream, and I got to live it for 14 years. But it definitely takes a toll, both physically and emotionally. No one walks away from that kind of experience without baggage, to include PTSD, and I’ve got my share of that baggage. I may be a SEAL, but I’m still human like everyone else.
Was there a moment when you sensed the emotional toll your service was exacting?
I remember coming back from the raid on bin Laden’s compound, which was my last mission. I didn’t sleep for five days once I got back home. I ran into one of my best friends at work, and I asked him, “Hey, man, are you sleeping at all?” He just shook his head. “No man, I haven’t slept in days.” I kind of sighed with relief when I heard that. I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is normal.’ Looking back, if we had returned from that mission and just slept like babies, that would have been crazy. Believe me, we’re not machines.
Many observers hoped that with the death of bin Laden, the threat from Al Qaida and affiliated groups would fade. Are you surprised that the Islamist extremists have come back stronger than ever in the guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?
No, we shouldn’t be surprised. The second you take these guys for granted, and assume they are no longer evolving and changing as they look for new ways to kill us, you will be in trouble. This is hard for me to say, but if we just stay on the defensive and hope the world out there becomes a better place, we’re going to get hit hard again. We have to keep after these extremists, maybe not with another invasion of Iraq, but absolutely with operations by Special Operations Forces. I assure you, these extremists won’t be negotiated into stopping what they are doing, or believing something other than what they believe.
Why did you decide to retire?
Well, my first deployment was when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and after that I raised my hand and volunteered for 13 more deployments. I spent very little time at home during those years. Then in 2011 my enlistment period was ending, and I was already leaning toward getting out rather than reenlisting. Then the bin Laden raid spun up, and when I got back from that, I visited Ground Zero in New York. I knew then that 9/11 and the bin Laden mission were perfect bookends to my military career. Right there at Ground Zero I decided that was it. I was hanging up my guns.