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Should bin Laden’s killer have stayed quiet?

In the past 10 days, Robert O’Neill, a retired member of Navy SEALS Team 6, identified himself as the man who killed Osama bin Laden. The funny thing is, Wally Safrit, attorney for the city of Kannapolis, knew this a year ago.

Last November in High Point, Safrit was attending a state beauty pageant his daughter, Elizabeth, was competing in when he met O’Neill, introduced as a friend of one of the judges and a former Navy SEAL. When Safrit learned O’Neill was on the mission that killed bin Laden, he naturally wanted to hear more, and over the next hour, as the men relaxed in a lounge area, O’Neill told him the whole story, down to the point of describing how he shot bin Laden while the al-Qaida mastermind tried to hide behind one of his wives.

O’Neill asked Safrit to honor his privacy and be discreet with the information, and Safrit obliged, but O’Neill willingly posed for a snapshot with Safrit before the men parted. Today O’Neill travels the country as a motivational speaker, and once he “outed” himself as the shooter, Safrit felt free, of course, to discuss publicly their long-ago conversation.

It’s pretty obvious from Safrit’s own encounter with O’Neill that the former Navy SEAL did not go to great lengths to keep his secret, well, secret. If he spent an hour talking with Safrit about the mission and his role in it, think of how many other people heard the same story.

Many members of the special operations community have not been pleased with O’Neill’s taking credit as bin Laden’s shooter. When word leaked out O’Neill was going public in newspapers and television, Rear Admiral Brian Losey, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci, the SEALs’ top enlisted man, released a joint statement. They said, “Any real credit to be rendered is about the incredible focus, commitment and teamwork of this diverse network and the years of hard work undertaken with little individual public credit. It is the nature of our profession.”

Men and women working special operations live by a “quiet professional” ethos. Taking credit or going public about a mission, such as the one which killed bin Laden, risks cheapening the SEAL brand. Of more concern, it takes away from the contributions of thousands of anonymous troops and civilians who in their own ways led U.S. forces to the time and place where bin Laden could be eliminated.

It’s easy to think of O’Neill and all members of Navy SEAL Team 6 as heroes, because they are.  It’s also understandable why O’Neill, in a media-frenzy, self-promotion society, would want to receive credit for the actual shooting of bin Laden, given that a movie and a book by a fellow Navy SEAL were already released. Other contributing factors had to be politicians taking credit for the killing and the government’s acknowledgment from the beginning that the raid of bin Laden’s lair was conducted by Team 6.

But the statement from Losey and Magaraci said it best when they also talked about the SEAL ethos: “A critical tenant of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’ Our ethos is a lifelong commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service. Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”

O’Neill will have a special notoriety for the rest of his life. But he’ll also wish, no doubt, he could recapture some of the respect he has lost with his SEAL brethren.

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