When Osama bin Laden was assassinated, the entire world was fascinated by the men who had completed the seemingly impossible mission that had dogged the U.S. government for over a decade. SEAL Team 6 became synonymous with heroism, duty, and justice. Only a handful of the elite men who make up the SEALs, the US Navy's best and bravest, survive the legendary and grueling selection process that leads to becoming a member of Team 6, a group so classified it technically does not even exist. There are no better warriors on Earth.
Don Mann knows what it takes to be a brother in this ultra-selective fraternity. As a member of Seal Team Six for over eight years and a SEAL for over seventeen years, he worked in countless covert operations, operating from land, sea, and air, and facing shootings, decapitations, and stabbings. He was captured by the enemy and lived to tell the tale, and he participated in highly classified missions all over the globe, including Somalia, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As a coordinator for several civilian SEAL training programs, and as a former Training Officer of SEAL Team Six, he was directly responsible for shaping the bodies and minds of SEALs who carried out the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
Virginia, May 1, 2011
Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
—President Barack Obama
It was a quiet Sunday night, and I’d just returned from a long weekend of SEAL training at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I poured myself a glass of wine and was watching an egret rise from the marshland behind my house when my cell phone rang.
Reading my wife, Dawn’s number on the LED screen, I answered. “Hey, honey, what’s up?”
“Don, where are you?” she asked. She sounded excited. Almost out of breath.
“I just got home. Why?”
“You need to turn the TV on. Tune it to CNN.”
“Just do it. You are not going to believe what just happened!”
As soon as the TV screen lit up I saw a photo of Osama bin Laden—similar to the one I’d been using for dry shooting practice in my basement. Underneath ran a banner: bin laden killed in pakistan.
I leaned forward. Adrenaline started pumping through my veins. I’d been on numerous ops to try to nail the bastard. And I had never really gotten over the horror and embarrassment of the attacks on 9/11.
Could it be true that we had finally gotten public enemy number one—the hated and greatly feared leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group?
Dozens of questions started running through my head, including: How was be killed? Did he put up a fight? Who ran the op? Then I heard Wolf Blitzer mention SEAL Team Six. I couldn’t believe my ears.
Then Wolf Blitzer mentioned the name again.
Even though I was stationed at SEAL Team Six from 1985 to 1989 and 1995 to 1998, I’d rarely heard its name uttered in public. Maybe once or twice when the team’s founder, Richard Marcinko, appeared on TV. But besides that, almost never, not even by guys on the teams.
Officially, there was no SEAL Team Six (ST-6). Instead, it was referred to as United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG) or DEVGRU.
Unofficially, ST-6 was the most highly trained warfare unit on the planet.
Now Wolf Blitzer was announcing to the world that ST-6 had carried out the mission that killed bin Laden.
Many of the active-duty SEALs on Team Six were guys I had taught how to shoot and conduct ship and aircraft takedowns, and trained in urban, arctic, desert, river, and jungle warfare, as well as in close-quarters battle (CQB) and military operations in urban terrain (MOUT). I knew how they thought, how they trained, and how they were selected.
A couple months earlier, I’d attended a ST-6 reunion in the building where I had worked for many years, and many of the active-duty guys were serving us beer and liquor. The current SEALs kept pictures of the SEALs I’d served with on the walls.
I spoke with an an active-duty guy who was a member of Blue Team, one of ST-6’s assault teams. “During the eighties and nineties we trained and trained and trained but had only the occasional op. Now you guys are conducting missions back to back. With two wars going on, how the heck do you have time to serve us drinks?”
He answered humbly and respectfully. “Yes, but you’re the guys who paved the way. We’re extremely grateful to all of you.”
Later this young, professional soft-spoken SEAL with a fresh scar across his face took me to his cage and showed me his gear. My attention was drawn to the three-inch-long, two-inch-diameter desert-camouflaged silencer that he kept in the lower left pocket of his CT (counterterrorist) vest.
“Is that for your MP5?” I asked. The MP5 I was referring to was actually an MP5-N, a variant of the Heckler and Koch nine-millimeter submachine gun developed specifically for the U.S. Navy; it is lightweight, air-cooled, and has a retractable stock.
I said, “We never had silencers this small.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I like it. A couple of months ago during a raid, we made a silent entry and I entered this room and used it to kill four known terrorists. It worked so well that a couple other terrorists from the same cell remained sleeping in a room down the hall. I killed them too. They never knew what hit ’em.” He said this matter-of-factly. He was a professional: killing terrorists was part of his job.
One of the members of ST-6 who went on the raid that killed bin Laden told me later that he’d been on more than seventy raids over the last couple of years. The pace of combat was intense, and important commendations such as Silver Stars and Bronze Stars were handed out so often that the team no longer had time for medal ceremonies. Instead, the Silver and Bronze Stars were sent in the mail.
I listened as Wolf Blitzer on CNN described how the SEAL team had been flown in by Black Hawks from Afghanistan and attacked the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, right under the noses of the Pak army. He said that one specially modified Black Hawk helicopter had gone down hard and hit a wall, which had made it impossible for the SEALs to fast-rope into the compound as planned.
But SEALs were trained to prepare for all kinds of contingencies. Something always went wrong. You did your best to “plan your dive and dive your plan.”
I knew that there had been hundreds of raids against bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders that had come up empty. Dry holes, we called them. Missions that the American public never heard about.
Given that, the SEALs sitting in the two Black Hawks must have had doubts that Osama bin Laden—known as UBL in military parlance—was even in Abbottabad. But some of those misgivings would have evaporated within minutes, after they breached the wall and took fire from the guesthouse. The threats shooting at them were protecting someone. Who?
Adrenaline slammed through their veins as they entered the main house. They were dressed in CT flight suits, body armor, Adidas boots, Kevlar helmets with comms, and balaclavas to mask their identities; they had NVGs, pistols on their sides, and a couple of them had breaching gear. They held their M4s and MP5s at the ready as they scanned the rooms looking for immediate threats. They encountered wives and children, people SEALs generally refer to as nonthreats or, sometimes, unknowns—because you can never be sure. The SEALs focused on hands first, because hands hold weapons.
They were also looking for suicide vests and booby traps of any kind.
They’d taken a specially trained combat Belgian Malinois with them to help sniff out hidden explosives. The dog’s teeth were fitted with titanium caps so it could bite through body armor.
As in most SEAL missions where there is a known floor plan (or even a good sense of the floor plan), the commandos of ST-6 had practiced the op until they could do it blindfolded. They knew the number of floors and the placement of windows, and were prepared to blast through obstructions like gates and metal doors.
They were equipped with night-vision goggles and communications equipment that linked them to one another and to their command and control in the aircraft overhead.
Masters of CQB (close-quarters battle), the SEALs moved quickly from room to room. Every man had a specialized job and knew what he was supposed to do. They were all shooters first, but some breached, some covered, some secured the nonthreats. Each of the two assault elements featured one sniper armed with a .50-caliber rifle and a shock-and-awe man armed with artillery simulators and CS gas grenades. They’d previously memorized photos and studied descriptions of everyone in the house.
One of the SEALs spotted bin Laden on the third floor landing peaking out of a bedroom door. Can you imagine?
The SEAL motioned to the two operators behind him, and the three men crossed immediately to the bedroom where they found the six-foot-four al-Qaeda leader standing with two of his wives.
UBL’s fifth wife, Amal al-Fatah, charged the lead SEAL shouting in Arabic and waving her arms. Fearing that she might be wearing a suicide vest packed with explosives, the first SEAL to enter the bedroom shot her once in the leg.
Then he pushed bin Laden’s other wife aside.
One of the SEALs behind him already had bin Laden in his sights. The al-Qaeda leader stood by the bed wearing a white prayer cap and robe.
The shooter did what we call a Mozambique — shots to the center of mass and one to the head. UBL was hit once in the chest. The second round took the top of his head off. He crumpled to the ground and bled.
At that moment that ST-6 member must have felt like the luckiest man in the world.
Once the shooting was over, the building secured, and UBL confirmed dead, the commo rep on the SEAL team radioed back to command and control: “For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo. Geronino E-K-I-A!” So far the mission had taken only eighteen minutes.
Other SEALs had already started going through the house collecting intel. A treasure trove of computers, cell phones, thumb drives, computer disks, and documents. Amazing!
One of the ST-6 commandos who participated in the op told me, “The mission was so easy, it was like shooting at paper targets.”
As I listened to the news on CNN, I felt powerful emotions—tremendous relief and overwhelming pride at ST-6’s success and the fact that they got this mission in the first place.
Not too many years earlier I was on a beach in northern California with ST-6 practicing an OTB (over-the-beach) hostage rescue. We inserted off a mother craft, in a storm.
The waves were enormous. One second we were twelve feet below a rapidly building crest, and the next we were lifted up so high we could see miles beyond the beach.
As in most water ops, we were paired up as swimmer teams. My buddy and I struggled but made it safely to shore. As the team medic, I had to treat three fellow SEALs who almost weren’t as lucky. They nearly drowned.
The JSOC general who was observing the mission came over to me and asked, “Are you going to be able to swim these hostages out of there on the real mission?”
I said, “Sir, we’ll be fine. But the hostages, especially the injured hostages, might not do so well. Some will make it, but some may not. It depends on the intensity of the surf.”
He thanked me for my frank answer.
Later, we learned that particular mission had instead been assigned to the Army’s Delta Force. We were asked to hand over our fins and OTB gear to our Delta counterparts, even though they weren’t trained in OTB assaults.
We were pissed. Once again, the big green machine (the Army) had nabbed a mission that should have been ours!
In those days, Delta and ST-6 fought over all the good CT missions. But now Delta had to be kicking themselves with envy. They knew the hit on bin Laden would never be topped. Not in our lifetimes.
Soon after SEAL Team Six captured and killed bin Laden, my phone started ringing off the hook. One call after another came from reporters working for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and even al-Jazeera TV. They were also e-mailing and texting me.
They all wanted to know the same thing: You were a commando on ST-6, you were the ST-6 advanced training officer; how did ST-6 train for this op?
Yes, I was the ST-6 advanced training officer; I knew how the team trained for its raids. But I wasn’t about to give away any specific mission- or training-related information that might aid our enemies.
Instead, I gave them all the same answer: “They trained harder than anybody else in the world. They trained for the insertion, actions on the objective, lots of shooting in the shooting house, breaching, emergency medicine, commo, contingencies, hostage handling, intel searches, and for the extraction.”
And as I spoke, I felt a strong sense of affirmation. Now fifty-three years old and a veteran of many ops, scrapes with death, broken bones, and ruined marriages, I knew that every minute of my time with the SEALs had been worth it.
Maybe the young SEAL Team Six member I’d met in the team room months before was right: in my own small way, I’d helped to pave the way to this great success.
I wanted to think so. I still do.