Rob O’Neill and his fellow SEAL Team Six members didn’t kill Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, for the reward or the glory, he said on Sept. 11.
They did it, he stressed during his Yakima Town Hall presentation at The Capitol Theatre, for the single mother who took her child to day care the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, went to work in New York City’s Twin Towers and died in the attacks by bin Laden’s Islamist terrorist group, al-Qaida.
The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 killed 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 that day. More have died in the years since and countless others continue to suffer the impact. In mentioning that nameless woman and all the others whose day began with no hint of the horror to come, O’Neill acknowledged the somber anniversary.
“It’s a very solemn day,” he said.
As for conspiracy theorists who say the attacks were an inside job? “It happened. It’s real. Think about (the victims) when people say it’s an inside job,” O’Neill said in comments before his talk.
His introduction by Jan Mendenhall, Town Hall board president, gave the usual packed house a hint of the memorable verbal and visual ride to come. O’Neill kicked off the 2019-20 speaker series.
“His mantra is, ‘Never quit,’” Mendenhall said of the former SEAL Team Six leader with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.
A contributor to Fox News, O’Neill wrote “The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior.” He deployed more than a dozen times and held combat leadership roles in more than 400 combat missions in four different theaters of war.
O’Neill wanted to join the Marines but ended up in the Navy, he said. The native of Butte, Mont., didn’t even know how to swim, but learning was only the start of the brutal Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Training. “Eighty-five percent of the people who try out do not complete this course,” he said.
“We get to run 6 miles a day just to eat,” he added of the eight months of days filled with more running, thousands of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups and heart-stopping training drills.
Clad in jeans, a casual blazer over an oxford shirt and sneakers, O’Neill talked rapidly as he walked around the stage, gesturing before stark photos of exhausted trainees. He recalled an exercise where they had to tie five different kinds of knots underwater while holding their breath, noting that lessons learned there apply to civilian life as well.
“Never quit and you’ll be fine,” he said. “Panic will not help. Stay calm.”
Photos of SEALs in training gave way to video of SEALs parachuting in utter darkness as O’Neill recalled participating in the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, whose ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in April 2009. O’Neill was the lead jumper for Phillips’ rescue.
Amid his rapid speech, O’Neill sprinkled his talk with occasional expletives, which he cheerfully admitted.
Recalling the emotional aftermath of a lengthy aborted effort to catch a terrorist who was making explosives killing American soldiers overseas, O’Neill said he heard “words I can’t say up here, and I’ve dropped a few f-bombs” as the audience laughed.
In all of the incredibly stressful situations O’Neill recalled, communication was key to success, he said. He supported his team and they supported him.
“Why we were successful, one of the reasons was we were good to each other,” O’Neill said. “Nobody wants to work for a d---.”
O’Neill, 43, has learned to relax, to a point. He golfs in his spare time and enjoys attending sporting events.
And though he says terrorists of one kind or another will continue to target innocent people, he applauded those in the military and civilians who strive to protect them. Most people are “really good people,” O’Neill said.
“We’re all here on this planet together,” he said. “I was raised Catholic. Some of the most generous people I’ve met are Muslims.”
He offered plenty of advice learned from his time as a SEAL — own your mistakes and learn from them, but don’t dwell on them. Never look back. Don’t start an argument you can’t win. Get over it. Micromanagement is counterproductive. Don’t rest on your laurels.
And even some warm-and-fuzzy advice, along with a hint at his dim view of social media.
“Start your day off with a smile. Give someone a hug. Don’t check your Twitter until noon,” O’Neill said.