Leaving the Navy was the most difficult decision of my life.
The SEAL Teams were all I knew from the time I was 20 years old. I grew up there. My best friends and family were there. So walking away from all that was not something I did lightly. The weight of that decision wasn’t the only challenge I was facing.
I was going to be honorably discharged after more than 16 years of service. Because of my decision to leave when I did, I would be leaving without a pension. I hadn’t spent my twenties getting a college degree and starting a traditional career. Instead I dedicated myself to becoming a Team Leader with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. So, while my career as a SEAL was coming to an end, I had no idea how these non-conventional skills would be applicable in my new life as a civilian.
The only thing I knew for sure was how to be a Navy SEAL.
Every day I was a part of the SEALs, I was fortunate. I was able to go to work with people who were better than me. I think most guys felt the same way. I never considered myself to be a “cool guy." I worked with cool guys. I walked behind cool guys. Sometimes I found myself in the front, would turn a corner and then do something cool myself.
It was an honor to have been part of the greatest team ever assembled and asked to take on increasingly important missions. My team and I were always successful because of the fundamental tenants we learned as SEALs.
On the mission to rescue Marcus Luttrell, despite many days of hiking in harsh conditions at high-altitude, we never quit. On the mission to rescue Captain Richard Phillips, despite being called to war in the middle of an ordinary Friday, we were prepared to deploy anywhere and for any mission at a moment’s notice. On the mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, despite being asked to do what many believed to be impossible, we epitomized teamwork and accomplished our objective.
That’s how I found myself in Osama bin Laden’s bedroom, because I arrived on the shoulders of giants.
Make no mistake about it, my team (along with many other men and women) got me to where I was on that fateful night. The CIA agent who connected the dots. The leadership who planned and authorized the mission. The men and women who built the scale replicas of the compound. The helicopter pilots who ensured the mission didn’t end in disaster. All of the SEALs who cleared the compound. The point man who led the way to bin Laden’s room. And everyone else who contributed in between. They are all giants to me.
Now it's time for my next mission: Helping veterans and their families.
I find myself in a unique situation, with a platform others do not have. I don’t know why I have it, but my plan is to use it to do as much as I can for others.
Although Navy SEALs are deployed on high-visibility missions, there are veterans out there who had far more dangerous jobs than we did. The soldiers who spent months on end in Iraq and Afghanistan, clearing minefields, and patrolling through the remote villages. They're the heroes. While we had the ability to fight on our terms, most soldiers don’t have that luxury.
Many of them are now in the same position that I was. They are leaving the military before they qualify for retirement. They have no financial safety net and little-to-no support as they transition into civilian life. I want to directly support these veterans by helping provide direct access to transition services, family stabilization support and career development. In addition to advocating for veterans, I also feel a strong connection with 9/11 families.
There are thousands of families affected by the events of September 11, 2001. I recently had the privilege of meeting some of these families. Many of them shared how they were still dealing with the tragic events that forever changed their lives.
Connecting with these amazing people and seeing their faces as they shared their personal tragedies was one of the most touching experiences of my life.
They told me that hearing about the events of that night in Pakistan provided them with a sense of closure.
One woman, who had lost her husband, said, “Your team didn’t simply close a chapter, you closed the book. I’m finally not afraid anymore.”
That experience was a turning point for me.
Until then I didn’t see the benefit of sharing my story, but that day I realized it wasn’t my story at all. It was their story and I was only a small part of the final chapter…
That realization affirmed what I had been feeling all along, that this entire thing was much, much bigger than me. That was when I made the decision to share my part of their story.
On September 11, 2001 the world changed for everyone. For me, it meant conducting combat operations in Liberia, the Indian Ocean, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It meant working with the best people in the world from Joint Special Operations Command. It meant leaving home at a moment’s notice to conduct missions with the highest levels of government watching and not knowing if we would ever make it back.
On May 2, 2011, moments after shooting Osama bin Laden, I wondered if it was the best thing to happen or the worst. I'm still trying to figure that out. It's a difficult position that has caused many moments of pause and many sleepless nights. After meeting those who were affected by the events of September 11, I am now confident that the bin Laden mission happened the way it did for a reason.
Now, it's time to move forward.
Robert J. O'Neill