The feature story in the most recent edition of Esquire magazine deals with the experiences of the SEAL who shot Osama Bin Laden during the historical raid and after he left the Navy. The article, titled “The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden . . . is Screwed,” has generated some controversy because of the perception among many veterans and agency officials that it gives little play to the veterans benefits unused by the subject while suggesting that the government is guilty of a “startling failure . . . to help its most experienced and skilled warriors carry on with their lives.”
But is the man who killed Osama Bin Laden really ‘screwed’?
“That’s not the word I would have used,” the article’s author Phil Bronstein said, explaining that the title was created by somebody on Esquire’s staff after he submitted it. “But I stand by the magazine’s use of it.”
The veteran newspaperman and war correspondent insists his goal was not to paint the former SEAL as a victim, but to highlight where the system – including the support of non-profit organizations and corporations along with the Department of Defense and the VA – falls short of giving top tier operators what they need once they elect to transition to civilian life.
Bronstein first met “the Shooter” after being approached by the SEAL’s mentor to provide some perspective that might help the man deal with issues in his personal life, including his desire to get out of the Navy even though he only had four years until he was retirement eligible. The SEAL’s relentless operational tempo since 9-11 had cost him his marriage and left his body in bad shape; he had no desire to stick it out until he hit the 20 year mark.
As the months went on, Bronstein earned the trust of the Shooter. The SEAL agreed to have his account of the SEAL Team 6 raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan made public in the form of an in-depth article in Esquire magazine. And as the writer’s understanding of the Shooter’s life beyond the Navy grew, he increasingly felt that the story was about more than just the raid itself.
But when the story hit newsstands and the web last week the negative response was immediate, and not just from readers venting through social media channels. A Stars and Stripes item written by Megan McCloskey pointed out that Bronstein’s article left out basic facts regarding the Shooter’s benefits eligibility and quoted former VA official Brandon Friedman as saying, “Misinformation like this doesn’t help veterans. When one veteran hears in a high-profile story that another veteran was denied care, it makes him or her less likely to enroll in the VA system.”
In turn, Esquire put out a statement claiming that they had omitted benefits details in the online version of the story and that those details had been reinserted.
But all of that back-and-forth misses the point, according to Bronstein.
“These Tier One operators suffer from what I call ‘The Matt Damon Effect,” he said. “The public sees the movies and they think these guys are invulnerable, that they can survive anything and keep going.” As he got to know the Shooter he realized that wasn’t the case. The Shooter wasn’t a victim, but he needed help in starting life after taking off the uniform.
“The TAPs program isn’t enough to prepare these guys,” Bronstein said, adding that, regardless of who’s to blame, the Shooter was unaware of his VA healthcare eligibility once he got out. “It’s about transition to a new way of life, including translation of skills. That can be tricky for a Tier One guy considering the nature of what he’s done.”
Bronstein pointed out that classification issues and personal security concerns make a career move more complicated than that facing the average military servicemember. But the fact he has been approached by everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to members of Congress since the article hit the streets gives him hope that the problem he flagged might be solvable.
“There’s a difference between ‘helplessness’ and ‘needing help,’” he said. “I wanted to do a story that moves people to feel something and then do something.
“Since the story came out I’ve heard from everyone from Sean Hannity to Sean Penn asking me how they can help SEALs as they transition out,” Bronstein said. ”The difference in [the political outlooks of] those two guys captures the range of the impact of the story.”