Robert O’Neill ate a last meal with his children and then hugged them goodbye — “most likely forever,” he privately thought.
Even his wife didn’t know where he was going.
On May 2, 2011, two helicopters touched down, one crash-landing, under the cover of darkness within an al Qaeda compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The 23-strong team entered a house and crept up the stairs.
A SEAL in front of O’Neill went along a hallway to provide cover, he recalled. When O’Neill entered the bedroom, he saw a man — bearded, tall, and gaunt — standing there.
“I knew it was him immediately,” he said. “He was taller than I imagined.”
O’Neill, a senior chief petty officer in the US Navy SEALs, aimed his rifle and fired twice, he said, hitting the 6-foot-5 figure in the head both times. Osama Bin Laden collapsed. O’Neill shot him again.
Despite his training, which taught him to immediately start gathering intel, O’Neill said he was momentarily dazed by the magnitude of what he had just done.
He snapped out of it when a colleague said, “You just killed Osama bin Laden.”
On July 26, the retired SEAL, in the midst of a lecture series to publicize his memoir, “The Operator,” will come to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda to speak about his life and how his experiences can translate to the lives of others.
And, for the first time ever, the gear he wore the night he hunted down bin Laden — boots, helmet, bullet-proof vest, all in desert-camouflage — is on public display, until the end of July.
Navy SEALs in desert camouflage. (U.S. Navy photo)
“This will probably be our biggest event of the year,” said Joe Lopez, spokesman for the non-profit Nixon Foundation.
How did the Nixon pull off the coup before any other museum?
“They asked,” O’Neill, 41, said this week. “They asked, and I said, ‘Why not?'”
Hours after the raid, when then-President Barack Obama announced from the White House that Special Forces had killed bin Laden and that “his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” Americans erupted in celebration.
The details of the mission were classified. Retaliation, if members of SEAL Team 6 became known, was possible. Secrecy was paramount.
The initial excitement he felt over firing the kill shots, he said, eventually waned as his name spread through the military community and Washington, D.C.
“The secret was poorly kept,” O’Neill said. “And my name got leaked.”
So in November 2014, O’Neill fully came out and said he indeed was the shooter.
Some fellow SEALs were irked at O’Neill’s position under the spotlight. Several, anonymously, have accused him of breaking the military code by seeking glory or even lying about being the one who killed bin Laden.
The US government won’t confirm the shooter’s identity.
“I don’t really care,” O’Neill said. “I was with the team. The tactics got me to the spot. I just fired the shots. There’s no doubt it was me.”
“The Operator: Firing the Shots that Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior” came out in April. The book, O’Neill said, is about success — how “a guy from Butte, Montana, who didn’t know how to swim, became a Navy SEAL.”
And how that guy, who had never envisioned a career in the military, spent 16 years in uniform because of a breakup with a girlfriend.
“I wanted to leave town so I signed up for the Navy,” he said. “That’s part of the book. Don’t just sit there and sulk. Do something.”
O’Neill went on 400-plus missions, including the 2009 rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, and the 2005 mission to save fellow SEAL Marcus Luttrell. Those rescues were turned into Tom Hanks’ film, “Captain Phillips,” and Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s “Lone Survivor.”
“When I discuss my missions,” the former special operator said about his appearances, “I tell them why we were good at the missions, how we worked as a team, and how and why we developed these traits.”
O’Neill, a Virginia native, has yet to visit the Nixon Library. But when approached, he quickly agreed.
“This is huge for us,” Lopez said. “We also thought it would be cool to have something he wore that night on display.”
Officials thought a boot would be good. Or maybe a glove. Perhaps, if lucky, his helmet.
Minus a T-shirt donated to New York City’s 9/11 Memorial Museum, the Nixon got to borrow everything.
“My uniform was at my dad’s house,” he said. “So I had it shipped there.”
O’Neill’s gear is mounted on a mannequin inside a glass case, flanked by American flags with a video nearby explaining his non-profit, Your Grateful Nation, which helps veterans, particularly those from the Special Forces, prepare for second careers.
The case is next to the front entrance in the lobby, opposite a wall-length portrait of the 37th president.
“He’s a hero,” said retired Air Force Maj. Terry Scheschy, of Riverside County, who fought in the Vietnam War and, last week, visited the Nixon Library. “To me, this provides a lot of value to the museum.”
Betty Kuo, 42, of Manhattan Beach, came to the Nixon with her family, including her two young children and their cousins. As she was buying tickets, the children saw the SEAL uniform and sprinted toward it.
Kuo joined them.
“It’s good to teach them that we’re safe, but we can’t take that for granted,” she said. “The military keeps us safe.”
Going into the mission, O’Neill certainly didn’t feel safe himself — he had doubts that his team would escape without harm.
“I thought the mission was one-way,” he said. “That’s why everyone was so excited after the mission. We all got out.”