On the death of Osama bin Laden—and the secret life of the elite Navy SEALs who killed him - Macleans.ca

On the death of Osama bin Laden—and the secret life of the elite Navy SEALs who killed him

The author of ‘SEAL Team Six’ on the top-secret world of commandos

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On the death of Osama bin Laden—and the secret life of the elite Navy SEALs who killed him

Photographs by Stephen Morton/Getty Images

A sniper by trade, Howard Wasdin was a special forces commando attached to the U.S. military’s most covert unit—the same squad that would later assassinate Osama bin Laden. His new book, SEAL Team Six, offers a rare glimpse into the top-secret world of America’s best-trained warriors.

Q: How did you find out that Osama bin Laden had finally been located and killed?

A: My neighbour actually came over. I had gotten up early that Monday, was getting ready to take the dogs out, and my neighbour knocks on the door. He said, “Happy Dead bin Laden Day.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” He said, “SEAL Team Six shot him in the head.” While I was relieved—as most of us were at first—I wasn’t completely at ease until I found out that nobody had been wounded or killed. In that type of operation, that is just amazing.

Q: It came as no surprise to you that Navy SEAL Team Six, your former unit, was selected for this historic mission. Why?

A: Let me be clear: I think everybody who puts on a uniform for their country is a hero. The same guy standing in line serving me my chow, and then washing my dishes when I’m done, is part of the team. But what makes the SEALs elite is the mental conditioning that they start receiving on day one, and the overwhelming desire to be the best. You want to be the absolute best warrior on the planet, and you constantly put yourself under pressure to do that. The SEALs also want people who are intelligent and who can think for themselves. A lot of military people just take orders, and there is a place for that. But SEALs think for themselves from day one. That way, when something happens—a kid runs out of a room, a woman is held as a human shield—they can make those decisions on the fly. We always say: “Improvise, adapt and overcome.”

Q: We don’t know his name—and perhaps never will—but what can we assume about the man who fired the bullet that killed bin Laden? Knowing what you know, how would you describe him?

A: It is most likely somebody between 28 and 35, highly intelligent, probably has an undergraduate degree, and if he doesn’t, he’s working on it. He likely speaks two or more languages, is in very good physical shape—I’m talking Olympic-calibre shape—and has a deep sense of patriotism and honour.

Q: Over the past few weeks, the media has described SEAL Team Six as everything from X-Men to Jedi knights. What do you think?

A: I think those people are missing the whole point. These guys are none of the above. They are just people who have huge hearts. Most people, especially after all this, think of SEAL Team Six as “wind them up, point them in a direction, and go kill.” But you would be amazed at how they really are. If anything, they are generous to a fault. You can’t be this type of warrior if you’re not doing it for a higher reason. It’s definitely not the paycheque. The higher reason, in my opinion, is God and country—as corny as that sounds.

Q: To become a Navy SEAL, a recruit must survive “Hell Week”—a gruelling 5½-day training marathon of scant sleep, no mercy. Most candidates don’t make it to the end, let alone the first day. How did you manage to come out on the other side?

A: Everybody is tempted during Hell Week to quit. If you ever talk to a SEAL who tells you he didn’t at least think about it—that it didn’t at least cross his mind—he’s lying to you. We all say that at some point we had a moment of weakness—and I’ll tell you mine. It was on the third or fourth night, and I’m naked in the Pacific Ocean with stage two hypothermia. They get us out of the water, and one instructor calls me over: “Wasdin, get your ass over here!” I ran over, shivering uncontrollably, and he hands me a cup of hot chocolate. When you’re that cold, that is the most amazing thing you could ever have. He brought me over to a side of the ambulance so I can feel the heat coming out the back, and he tells me, “Wasdin, you’re married, you don’t need this. Ring this bell, I’ll let you drink that hot chocolate, I’ll put a blanket around you and put you in the back of that ambulance.” I looked in the ambulance and saw half a dozen guys in there, sitting with a blanket and drinking hot chocolate. I thought, “Yeah, what the hell am I doing?” But then I caught myself, and handed him back the hot chocolate.

Q: How did you fight that urge?

A: The way to get through Hell Week is to not look at it as Hell Week. You have to look at it as “Hell Minute.” “I’m going to get through this minute. I’m not going to think about two minutes from now.” Because on Tuesday or Wednesday night, if you’re thinking about how you have to make it to Friday, you can’t mentally tackle that. You just can’t wrap your mind around that. You have to go minute by minute—which is exactly the way this operation went down to get bin Laden.

Q: Obviously, there is more to Hell Week than figuring out who can stay awake for five days while crawling through mud and being tossed into the ocean? What is the bigger point?

A: The one thing I can tell you for sure is that the guys who made it through Hell Week with me would never quit. It doesn’t matter if they’re shot, it doesn’t matter if they’re bleeding to death, it doesn’t matter if they’re amputated. It doesn’t matter what is happening. The guys who made it through Hell Week, you’re going to have to cut them up in little pieces to make them quit. That is the whole reason behind Hell Week.

Q: You spent time in SEAL Team Two, one of the “regular” SEAL units. When you were later promoted to Team Six—the elite of the elite—what was the key difference?

A: It’s not so much a change in the calibre of man as it is a change in the amount of support, toys, money and specialized training. In the regular SEAL teams, for example, you do a cursory course in CQB [close quarters battle]. But in SEAL Team Six, you eat, breathe, sleep and live this every day, so the big difference is going from being really good at CQB to being the masters of CQB. I can’t even put it in words what going to a different level is all about. It would be like you’re driving your car one day, and the next day you’re a NASCAR racer. You’re the same person, but you just went to a different level.

Q: What about the “mental conditioning” you talked about? How is that honed?

A: That is all part of the training. We would have our hands tied behind our back, feet bound, and be thrown into the swimming pool. Most people are going to freak out over that, but that is just one way we were taught to control our fear, control our emotion, keep your heart rate down, relax and concentrate on what you’re doing—right now. The difference between a regular person and a warrior is not that you’re not afraid. Hell, I was afraid. I don’t want to go into combat with anybody who is not afraid because it’s healthy to have fear. But what makes a warrior is the guy who can control that fear, channel it, and actually use it as a weapon.

Q: How do you do that? How can you train yourself to use fear to your advantage?

A: It’s not a sexy answer. It just comes down to doing the same thing over and over and over, and when you practise, practise, practise, train, train, train, it becomes muscle memory. When fear does kick in, you’ve rehearsed it so many times that the training and muscle memory take over.

Q: Obviously, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was no ordinary operation. As they flew to Pakistan that night, how would the team members control their emotions? They were, after all, about to finish a mission that the country had waited 10 years to complete.

A: Again, it’s not a sexy answer. You know how you do it? You stay focused on the moment. You don’t let the endgame—putting a bullet in Osama bin Laden—come into your thinking. You think about what you’re doing right now. How many steps is it from the wall to the front door? How many from this angle? That is how you stay focused.

Q: Could they have taken bin Laden alive?

A: I can’t speculate on that, but our military has a rule of engagement that is called “justifiable use of deadly force.” And, that is something you train in every day. So I will tell you for a fact that if bin Laden was killed it was because he was doing something that wasn’t compliant. He might not have been holding a gun, he might not have been going for a gun, but he was not standing still with his hands up. He was killed based on his actions in that room, not what he did to us on 9/11.

Q: Should the photos of his corpse be released?

A: I do not think so. I’m a diehard Republican, but I’m giving President Obama credit on a lot of fronts here. He got it right when he didn’t tell Pakistan we were going in. He got it right by burying him at sea so that nobody can make a pilgrimage to his dead body. And he got it right not releasing the pictures. Why should they be released? So we can incite people? The only caveat to that would be if there are surviving family members from 9/11 who, if it would help them get on with their lives to see this man dead, then maybe those are the only people who should be allowed to see them in a dark room somewhere.

Q: You were badly wounded in Somalia and forced to retire. You’re now a chiropractor in Georgia. Do you miss the old life?

A: There was a time when I did. In a really dark hour, I did. And when I found out this happened, I was in my living room walking through the scenario and thinking, “God, I wish that could have been me.”