Phil Bronstein got the first interviews with the man who actually fired the bullets that killed Osama bin Laden—a man who is a hero to most Americans, but whose story since leaving the Navy has not been a happy one. Bronstein, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, talked to multiple members of the Navy SEAL team that carried out the famous mission, and says he has confirmed the identity of the man who pulled the trigger, though he won't be revealing his name.
"The Shooter," as Bronstein refers to him in the piece, was a long-time veteran of the Navy who is well aware of the gravity of what he did, but is now forced to live a life of obscurity and financial instability after leaving the military with almost nothing to show for his heroic deeds. Bronstein's story adds a ton of fascinating first-person details about the mission to kill bin Laden, taken directly from the man who was the last to see him alive. But perhaps, even more interesting than the raid, is the fate of those who lived to tell about it.
Unlike Matt Bissonette, the outed SEAL teammate who immediately wrote a book about his story, The Shooter has avoided any attempts to cash in on his fame—partly because of "the code of the 'quiet professional'" and partly because he fears reprisals from terrorists should his identity become known. His wife, who he is separated from, and kids are considering changing their names to legally distance themselves from The Shooter. He also taught her how to use a shotgun, should she have to defend herself in an attack. But The Shooter, mired in anonymity, finds himself out of work and unable to use his most marketable asset to his advantage.
Even more shocking is the treatment he's getting—or not getting—since leaving the Navy. The Shooter retired last year after 16 years in the service. Unfortunately, you have to stay 20 years to get a Navy pension, so by leaving four years early he gets nothing. Even if he had stayed, The Shooter's pension for half a lifetime of dangerous combat work would be the same as a member of the Navy choir. The government cut off his health insurance the day he quit, and it takes an average of nine months for the Navy to adjudicate disability claims, of which he has several.
Despite President Obama's frequent assertion that "No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job," The Shooter is yet another veteran who appears to be left to his own devices. His only real option for steady employment is as a security contractor, which means more guns and more overseas deployments, a career path he says no longer interests him.
There's much more to find in Bronstein's piece, which appears in the March issue of Esquire and at the Center of Investigative Reporting, which he is chairman of. With Zero Dark Thirty still in theaters and on the minds of many Americans, the details of the raid from someone who lived it are riveting—including his review of the movie itself. (According to The Shooter, the filmed version of the raid is too long; nobody talks in the middle of missions like that; and "Maya," the CIA agent at the heart of the story, is just as tough in real life. And actually a woman. The Shooter says he gave her his gun clip as souvenir of the raid.)
For the first time we also get The Shooter's thoughts about taking down one of the most wanted men in history. He claims that for most of his life he believed he was put on Earth to do something special and now he's done it. Though he isn't about to spend the rest of his life bragging about it.
"I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I've ever done, or the worst thing I've ever done?"