VA's disability backlog hurts Navy SEAL who killed bin Laden

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The Navy SEAL who says he killed Osama bin Laden is unemployed and waiting for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

In an exclusive story for Esquire by Phil Bronstein of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Shooter adds many details to what already is known about the death of the al-Qaida leader. His name is withheld to protect his identity.

The Shooter told Bronstein, CIR’s executive chairman, that he alone killed the terrorist leader, recounting minute details of those brief seconds. As the second Navy SEAL up a staircase, he saw bin Laden inside a room.

“For me it was a snapshot of a target ID, definitely him,” he said. “Even in our kill houses where we train, there are targets with his face on them. This was repetition and muscle memory. That’s him, boom, done.”

But perhaps the Shooter’s most explosive revelation is that nearly six months after leaving the military, he feels abandoned by the government. Physically aching and psychologically wrecked after hundreds of combat missions, he left the military a few years short of the retirement requirement with no pension and no job.

"Navy SEALs go through a highly demanding selection process. They are selected for physical, mental and psychological qualities that are exceptional. The fact that this hero, with these qualities, cannot find employment is shocking to me," said retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command.

Like 820,000 other veterans, the Shooter has a disability claim that is stuck in a seemingly interminable backlog at the VA, where the average wait time currently exceeds nine months, based on the agency’s own data.

The speedier special track for Special Forces veterans appears to have eluded him, and so his neck, back and eye injuries remain uncompensated, removing a chance for a modicum of financial stability.

Since a required medical exam in August, which he said he attended in full dress uniform including his gold SEAL Trident and combat awards, the Shooter’s only communication from the VA has been computer-generated form letters.

“It is our sincere desire to decide your case promptly. However, as we have a great number of claims, action on yours may be delayed,” reads one letter dated Dec. 10. “If we need anything else from you, we will contact you, so there is no need to contact us.”

The fact that even bin Laden’s killer has to wait for his benefits “just underscores how much you’re squandering the talents of the generation,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“There is a widespread frustration with the inability of veterans to get their benefits when they come home, and that includes SEALS,” he added.

The VA did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

In an interview, Col. Tim Nye, spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., said the Shooter was treated according to military regulations. He did not deserve a pension, Nye said, because he served for 16 years, not the required 20.

“Those are the rules that are in place, and he was well aware of those,” Nye said. “Clearly, the best of the best, he has done everything that was asked of him and more – but that’s what he signed up to do.”

But in the U.S. Capitol, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both parties expressed concern.

“We obviously owe him a lot, and we’ve got to find a way to help folks who serve a long time but less than the retirement age and find some way for them to transition,” said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who leads the committee.

One of the country’s most prominent veterans, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “The country owes him its gratitude and the benefits we can provide him to assist him in anyway possible.”

Late Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced that he would be holding hearings next month on what he called "a broken claims system."

"It is simply not acceptable for any veteran to wait many months or years for the benefits that they are entitled to receive," Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said in a statement.

According to the Shooter’s account of the May 2011 mission, bin Laden stood in front of him, an AK-47 within reach. The terrorist, he said, pushed his youngest wife, Amal, in front of him in the pitch-black room. The Navy SEAL, wearing night-vision goggles, had to raise his gun higher than he expected before shooting three bullets into bin Laden’s forehead at close range.

“He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting,” the Shooter said.

In that moment, the Shooter said he felt a deep inner conflict, about whether he had done the right thing by killing the world’s most wanted man.

“I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I’ve done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done?” he said. “His forehead was gruesome. It was split open in a shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face. The American public doesn’t want to know what that looks like.”

The Shooter’s account differs from other descriptions of bin Laden’s death and contradicts some statements by Matt Bissonnette, another member of Navy SEAL Team 6. In his book, “No Easy Day,” Bissonnette said he stood directly behind the SEAL team’s point man when the point man shot bin Laden.

According to the Shooter, the point man took a shot or two at bin Laden when bin Laden peeked around a curtain in the hallway a floor above them, but even after that the terrorist leader was still standing and moving. The point man was not in the room when bin Laden was killed, the Shooter said, because he had tackled two women into the hallway, believing they were wearing suicide vests.

“It was the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Addressing the differences, CIR Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal said: “The Shooter’s version of events is not the only one out there. But we believe his version of events is the most credible.”

The Shooter does not dispute Bissonnette’s account that Bissonnette entered the third-floor room after bin Laden already was fatally wounded, and along with another SEAL, continued to fire shots into the al-Qaida leader until his body was torn apart. 

Together with Bronstein, the Shooter saw “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Oscar-nominated film by Kathryn Bigelow about the killing of bin Laden. While Bigelow “Hollywooded it up some,” most of the Shooter’s criticisms of the film were minor. The stairs inside bin Laden’s compound were not properly configured, he said, and none of the SEALs uttered the al-Qaida leader’s name.

“The mission in the damn movie took way too long,” the Shooter said. But the portrayal of “Maya,” the CIA operative who identified the complex where bin Laden was hiding, was right on target, he said, adding, “They made her a tough woman, which she is.” 

The Shooter said the CIA operative broke down in tears at the sight of bin Laden’s body back at the Afghanistan base and that he gave her his magazine, which still contained 27 shots, as a souvenir.

“We looked down and I asked, ‘Is that your guy?’ ” he said.

After the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the Shooter served one more deployment in Afghanistan and then left the military.

“I wanted to see my children graduate and get married,” he said. He hoped to sleep through the night for the first time in years. “I was burned out,” he said. “And I realized that when I stopped getting an adrenaline rush from gunfights, it was time to go.”

Brandon Webb, a former course manager for the U.S. Navy SEAL sniper program, said the Shooter’s inability to earn his pension was perplexing, representing a failure of both the system and the sailor.

“I find it very strange that this SEAL took it upon himself to leave the Navy when he could have stayed in another four years and retired,” Webb said. “Something is not right here.”

The VA offers five years of virtually free health care for every veteran honorably discharged after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, even when he or she leaves the military early. But the Shooter told Bronstein that none of the counselors who came to SEAL Command told him that. That coverage also would not extend to his family.

“Families aren’t being cared for,” said Barbara Cohoon, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.

Her group, based in Virginia, is expected to testify Wednesday before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to push for increased access to health care, particularly mental health services, for military families.

“Oftentimes, they lose their support systems the moment a service member leaves the military,” she said.

Nationwide, VA documents show that nearly 681,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans discharged from the military have not sought health care from the VA. According to a study last year from the Urban Institute, 291,000 are uninsured – with neither private health insurance nor VA coverage.

The Shooter says his disability claim is less about the money it would provide than the right to free health care it would bring. While the VA now provides five years of virtually free health care to all honorably discharged Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, they can face bureaucratic nightmares later on if their conditions are not deemed service-connected.

Despite 16 years serving his country, the Shooter says he has never accessed – or been informed of – unique services available to Special Forces veterans, including an effort called the Care Coalition launched by Special Operations Command in 2005.

The Shooter also says he has seen no evidence that he has been routed through a special track for disability claims that the Department of Veterans Affairs set up for Special Forces veterans in 2009.

Under this policy, if a veteran files a disability claim based on involvement in a secret mission, VA claims examiners are supposed to turn files over to a special liaison at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., where Special Operations Command is located.

The move was meant to speed processing of claims by Special Forces veterans, who had difficulty proving their injuries were caused by military service because of the classified nature of their work.

Now out of the military, the Shooter has separated from his wife, but the two still live together for financial reasons. Since the raid in Abbottabad, the story says, “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.” He keeps a shotgun on the armoire and a knife on the dresser. The military provides no protection.

Nye, the spokesman for U.S. Special Operation’s Command, said that if the Shooter was concerned for his safety, he should have not spoken to the media.

“He’s made himself a public figure,” Nye said. “That doesn’t track that well.”

Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report from Washington. 

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