The death of Osama bin Laden is one of the most talked about events after 9/11. There is a movie about that night, and it’s talked about in schools today. It’s easy to remember the headlines and celebrate a historic victory. But while that night ended one chapter of history, it also changed the life of the man who fired those three shots that were heard around the world.
Few people thought he had any shot at being accepted into BUDS Rob included. But there’s something about a person who is willing to push himself beyond any limits he once believed he could endure. That person cannot be dissuaded from any goal. That person will take the pain and channel it into a purpose that will get him through one moment, into the next, and then do it all over again.
Robert O’Neill is one such person.
“It’s not about getting from one year to ten years,” says Rob. “It’s about getting from breakfast to lunch, and can I make it to dinner?” Eating an elephant one bite at a time, and so on.
That’s how he worked 12 hours a day 4 days a week, shoveling crushed rock at a copper mine before delivering pizzas at night when he was still a teenager. It’s how he emerged from a basketball camp in his junior year of high school, as MVP. And it’s how he made it through one mission after another to emerge from his military career as one of the most widely recognized Navy SEALS of this generation.
“If you want to get better at doing pull-ups, do more pull-ups,” he writes in his book, “The Operator,” which pretty much sums up his simplistically badass approach to whatever challenge lies before him.
Rob is not the first Navy SEAL to write a book and he won’t be the last. Plenty of people condemn him for writing his. But when you’re the man who fired three of the most infamous shots of all time, your story will be told with or without you, so it may as well be told by you.
“People from over 80 countries were killed in both towers, so it’s the world’s story,” he says. “It wasn’t a war on lower Manhattan. It wasn’t a war on Shanksville PA or the Pentagon. It was a war on modern society and if people want to hear the story they should hear the story.”
He’s also consistent about breaking the operation down to illustrate all the men and women who were integral to its success. From the intelligence community to the leaders who pulled the team together, to the pilots and the airmen, and every man he served alongside that night, Rob notes it came down to him being the eighth person in line when the men before and behind him peeled off to engage other targets or sweep other rooms.
“All I did was turn a corner and shoot a famous guy,” he quips.
No matter how much he attempts to downplay his role that night, there is simply no avoiding the fact that it was going to be someone who fired those shots, and that someone was him.
Before he’d even returned to base, his name was being spread across the military and soon across the world. “It’s very difficult to put the shaving cream back in the can,” he jokes when explaining he had no control over the news being spread.
That raid was only one of over 400 missions he’s been on. He was on the team that rescued Captain Phillips, and another team that searched for Marcus Luttrell. He gave his utmost in service, just like so many others before him and so many still today. The time came, though, when he knew the military was no longer his life.
“The scariest thing I ever did was leave the Navy,” he writes in his book, but he knew he’d done his time, and his time had passed.
Americans may hail him as a hero, but that didn’t go very far in the day-to-day practicalities of life after the military. He’d retired before being eligible for a pension. He had a wife and children, and a mortgage to pay, and his family’s health insurance was canceled the night before his last official day of service.
Rob fell in step with this country’s veterans forging their paths in a society that had moved on without them while they served, and in which genuine heroes are outranked by young college graduates.
Behind the headlines, there was a tangible ripple of animosity toward Rob, from people in the military who accused him of “cashing in” on his service. His marriage crashed and his ex-wife and their children must live a life of semi-secrecy for their own protection. The kids cannot talk about their father not even when bin Laden is talked about at school.
That lasts forever, says Rob. His kids carry the weight of this country’s service in their own way, because of their father.
He’s happily remarried and unapologetically availing himself of the opportunities he gave so much for the rest of Americans to enjoy. He’s also using his experience to help other veterans find their new lives after service.
Your Grateful Nation is the non-profit he founded to assist other Special Operations Forces veterans successfully move from military to civilian life. It’s important to Rob that veterans understand the value they have after service and the skills they can bring from the military to civilian life.
Rob openly talks about how he came out of service with a hefty chip on his shoulder. He’d been under the impression he would be welcomed into the civilian workforce with open arms, out of gratitude for that service. He learned the hard way that this is not the case, and his organization applies those lessons to help others avoid his mistakes.
Veterans who go through Your Grateful Nation receive mentorship and career placement assistance. The best part of his week now, he says, is getting an email from a veteran or spouse, thanking him for making that second career possible.
Rob lost people he loved in the military. Those losses stay with him and he does what he can to support families of the fallen. He’s now part of helping Folds of Honor with its mission to provide scholarships to these families.
He is determined to continue that service now in a different way, by helping fellow veterans succeed after service. He’s a firm believer in the American Dream and its viability for anyone willing to work for it. He’s even got his own version of that.
For now, Rob is traveling the country as a speaker and advisor. One day, though, he envisions a simpler life centered around opening his own bar somewhere, maybe back in Montana or somewhere around Nashville.
The bar will be named after his favorite word from the Navy Shipmates. He laughs hard alongside his brother Tom when talking about it. “Welcome to Shipmates, Shipmate!” His brother laughs alongside him, and it’s easy to picture the two of them in Rob’s bar toasting to whatever seems appropriate at the time, for years to come.