A troubled homecoming for Bin Laden “shooter”

By David Rohde
February 11, 2013

Update at 12:20 pm EST on 2/13/13:

The Veterans Administration weighed in Tuesday on the dispute between Esquire magazine and Stars and Stripes over the benefits available to the retired Navy SEAL who reportedly killed Osama Bin Laden. In an email, a Veterans Administration spokesperson laid out the benefits available to combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan:

- Full access to VA health care for five-years after separation for OIF/OEF/OND combat Veterans.

- Post 9-11 GI Bill Education benefits which provides tuition, fees and a monthly housing allowance.

- Veterans’ Group Life Insurance, which provides renewable term coverage to veterans who had full-time Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage upon release from active duty or the reserves.

- Disability compensation, paid to veterans who are disabled by an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service. VA prioritizes disability claims for veterans who are experiencing financial hardship or homelessness, and therefore need immediate attention.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, which jointly published the original 15,000-word Navy SEAL piece by Phil Bronstein, issued a correction. The center said its original piece “misstated the extent of the five-year health care benefits offered to cover veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers health care during that period and not just for service-related injuries.” Esquire issued a similar correction but pointed out that the health insurance is only available to the SEAL himself, not his family.

The center, which has been reporting on the issue for months,  has done excellent work on of the overall issues facing veterans. (Bronstein is the executive chairman of the center and a former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.) Last April, reporter Aaron Glantz found that the average wait for San Francisco area veterans who filed a disability claim with the VA was 313 days.  And last Friday, Glantz and his colleague Shane Shifflett reported that processing delays have, in fact, increased since the VA promised to immediately reduce them last July.

“Between July and December, the average delay veterans across the nation faced increased by two weeks, to 273 days,” they wrote, citing an analysis of data they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Navy SEAL is one of 820,000 veterans who have disability claims pending with the VA, according to the center. Glantz and Shifflett said press reports highlighting individual cases sometimes resulted in immediate government action. That was true in the case of the Navy SEAL. On Tuesday in Washington, he met with nine members of Congress from both parties who pledged to help him and other veterans. The center reported that a senior VA official and over 200 readers also offered to help the SEAL. After the meeting, the SEAL said his goal was to highlight the problems faced by all veterans, not just him.

“I think that’s cool, but this is not about me,” he said, of the offers of help.

Update at 5:00 pm EST on 2/12/13:

Yesterday, I wrote a post about Phil Bronstein’s 15,000 word piece assailing the military for providing the Navy SEAL who reportedly killed Osama Bin Laden with no retirement benefits. The story, “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden… Is Screwed” was a joint project of Esquire and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

post by Stars and Stripes correspondent Megan McCloskey corrected Bronstein on an important detail that I had missed myself. McCloskey confirmed that the SEAL would not receive a pension because he retired from the military after 16 years instead of the 20 years required. But Stars and Stripes reported that the veteran would be eligible for five years of free medical care.

“Like every combat veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the former SEAL, who is identified in the story only as ‘the Shooter,’” MsClosky wrote, “is automatically eligible for five years of free healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Stars and Stripes said the SEAL was eligible for this VA program.

In a phone interview with Stars and Stripes, Bronstein said the SEAL did not know of the health care benefit.

“No one ever told him that this is available,” Bronstein said.

On Tuesday, Esquire fired back, arguing in a post that McCloskey, in fact, was wrong. They said that the SEAL was not automatically eligible for the five years of free health care. They also admitted that due to an editing error the online version of the story did not include a crucial paragraph.

“The online version of the piece omitted the following paragraph that appears in the print magazine,” Esquire said. “There is also a program at MacDill Air Force Base designed to help Special Ops vets navigate various bureaucracies. And the VA does offer five years of benefits for specific service-related claims—but it’s not comprehensive and it offers nothing for the Shooter’s family.”

Read the full Stars and Stripes piece here and Esquire’s response here.

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Original story continues below.

Phil Bronstein, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, has written a 15,000 word yarn that describes the courage, humility and poor job prospects of the Navy SEAL who apparently killed Osama bin Laden.

“A man with hundreds of successful war missions,” Bronstein wrote, “one of the most decorated combat veterans of our age, who capped his career by terminating bin Laden, has no landing pad in civilian life.”

Bronstein pulls no punches, assailing the military for not providing more aid to the retiring veteran and calling the treatment of the heroic SEAL “a travesty.” Indeed, he turns what could be a one-dimensional “Bin Laden Shooter Speaks” exclusive into a thoughtful examination of how the military is treating post-9/11 military veterans. After the Bin Laden mission, “the Shooter,” as Bronstein calls his main character, served an additional four-month tour in Afghanistan. He then decided to retire early from the military, four years shy of the twenty required for retirement.

“Here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:” Bronstein writes, “Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.”

I won’t reveal all the details of the piece, which was a joint project of Esquire and The Center for Investigative Reporting, where Bronstein is now executive chairman. But after killing bin Laden, the highly-skilled commando finds himself at a loss for what to do with the rest of his life. He separates from his wife and fears a retaliatory strike by jihadists.

“Since Abbottabad, he has trained his children to hide in their bathtub at the first sign of a problem as the safest, most fortified place in their house,” Bronstein writes. “His wife is familiar enough with the shotgun on their armoire to use it. She knows to sit on the bed, the weapon’s butt braced against the wall, and precisely what angle to shoot out through the bedroom door, if necessary. A knife is also on the dresser should she need a backup.”

Another stirring passage comes from one of the SEAL’s peers, another commando anxious about leaving the military.

“That night, one of the Shooter’s comrades, lantern-jawed, articulate, with a serious academic pedigree, told me: ‘I’ve seen a lot of combat, been in some pretty grisly circumstances. But the thing that scares me the most after fifteen years in the SEALs? Civilian life.’”

Current and former military officials complained to Bronstein that not enough was being done to aid the 200,000 Americans who retire from the military each year. Post-9/11 veterans have high unemployment rates and are plagued by homelessness and PTSD. Last year, moremembers of the American military committed suicide than died in combat in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. military is the best in the world at transitioning from civilian to military life,” retired Marine Major General Mike Myatt said, “and the worst in the world at transitioning back.”

A retired Special Operations soldier interviewed by phone on Monday was less sympathetic. The veteran, who asked not be named, praised the soldiers involved in the raid that killed Bin Laden. But he said the Pentagon makes sweeping efforts to help service members plan for retirement.

“I think they do a fabulous job,” the veteran told me, referring to the military. “It’s really on the individual and be proactive.”

He said work was available, particularly for former Special Operations soldiers with high skills.

“There is plenty of work there,” he said. “Plenty of work.”

Bronstein found one former SEAL with a Harvard MBA who had become a highly successful Wall Street trader. The retired SEAL said his own life reflected that “SpecOps guys could be hugely value-added” to civilian companies.  He said business schools — and college degrees in general — might be an important step for veterans.

The former Navy SEAL is right. When the one percent of Americans who serve in the all-volunteer U.S. military return  home they face the same grim reality as other Americans. Today, education and high skills are key to employability – even if you’ve killed the world’s most-wanted man.

 

Read Bronstein’s wonderful piece about “the Shooter” here and decide for yourself what the United States owes him.

PHOTO: A man uses a mobile phone to take a photograph of his friends on the demolished site of a compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

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