The American raid to kill Osama bin Laden may be the most famous top-secret mission of all time, and the latest petal of secrecy was peeled away by Bin Laden's killer himself.
On Monday, Esquire and the Center for Investigative Reporting co-released a gloomy profile of the unidentified Navy SEAL who says he killed Bin Laden with two shots to the forehead during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Now, the SEAL is struggling to adjust to civilian life.
The story, written by Phil Bronstein, recounts that the SEAL he calls "the Shooter" has survived a stretch of suicidal thinking, seen his marriage fall apart and his family live in fear since the White House identified SEAL Team 6 as the team that killed Bin Laden.
He told Bronstein that the Pentagon offered him a job driving a beer truck in Milwaukee as a sort of witness-protection program, which he turned down, and that he has since had trouble finding steady work that doesn't involve shooting someone.
As he takes his top-secret story public, he follows -- but does not quite duplicate -- the path of another SEAL involved with the raid, Matt Bissonnette, who converted his account into a lucrative book deal for "No Easy Day." The Shooter regales Bronstein with fresh details about the raid and its not-so-glamorous aftermath.
"But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after 16 years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendinitis, eye damage and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing," Bronstein writes. "No pension, no healthcare and no protection for himself or his family."
That proved to be the most controversial element of Bronstein's story because the claim is wrong: All Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get five years' worth of health coverage through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"You can’t say that he doesn’t get healthcare," said former Veterans Affairs official Brandon Friedman, now a vice president for Fleishman-Hillard. "For one thing, he gets healthcare for five years, and if those injuries were service-connected, then he could potentially have healthcare for the rest of his life."
Bronstein defended his story on Twitter, saying the government didn’t tell the SEAL he qualified for health benefits.
Friedman also challenged Bronstein's framing of the SEAL's retirement without a pension after 16 years of service. That put him four years shy of earning a military pension and qualifying his family for federal healthcare.
"He knew this in advance,” Friedman said. "He had a choice. He could have stayed in for four years and could have covered his family, but he chose not to. … I don’t think you could say anywhere in it that he got 'screwed.'” (Esquire's title for the story, which is on the cover of the March 2013 issue, is, "The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden ... Is Screwed.")
Friedman added, "It’s just something weird. Either the veteran wasn’t telling the truth, or the veteran didn’t know, and in all likelihood ... the veteran didn’t know what he was eligible for."
Ignorance turns out to be the case, according to a supplementary report on the Center for Investigative Reporting's website: There, the shooter says nobody told him he got five years of government-provided healthcare.
Veterans Affairs officials declined to comment on the story, referring a reporter to materials detailing departing veterans' five-year healthcare plans, among other benefits. A spokeswoman for the Defense Department also declined to comment on the story.
The Naval Special Warfare public affairs division issued a written statement saying the Navy had, as of November, a mandatory veterans retirement transition program called Transition GPS that is "designed to help assist sailors transitioning to civilian life."
"The program highlights skills needed during this transition to include resume writing, interviewing skills, networking, finding a job, stress in transition, etc.," the statement said. "It also spends an entire day with representatives from the VA reviewing their benefits as a veteran."
Bronstein's story called the Navy program "remedial level, rote advice of marginal value: Wear a tie to interviews, not your Corfam (black shiny service) shoes. Try not to sneeze in anyone's coffee."
Bronstein also interviewed a SEAL friend of the Shooter who was similarly scared of civilian life, but who was also scared of retiring early without a pension and without healthcare for his family.
"If I get killed on this next deployment, I know my family will be taken care of," the SEAL tells Bronstein, citing the Navy's generous life-insurance plans. "College will be paid for, they'll be fine. 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."
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