By Aaron Glantz, Center for Investigative Reporting
The Navy SEAL who says he killed Osama bin Laden was on Capitol Hill attending a series of private conversations Tuesday with congressional leaders.
The meetings came a day after a story in Esquire revealed that the man who killed the al-Qaida leader was unemployed and waiting for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The man is identified in the story, done in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Reporting, only as “the Shooter” to protect his identity and his family.
“The Navy SEAL in the Esquire article has come forward in an effort to assist all our special forces, who are American heroes often unknown to the public, to get the benefits and assistance they need to transition back to civilian life,” said Eve Burton, senior vice president of Hearst Corp., which publishes Esquire. Burton attended the meetings as well.
The SEAL met with nine lawmakers from both parties, including members of the leadership of both houses, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, reportedly was moved by the Navy SEAL’s plight and the challenges he and other veterans face as they transition back into civilian life.
“Sen. Murray certainly thought his advocacy will go a long way,” said a congressional aide who attended the meeting, adding that the challenges faced by the SEAL are far too common.
“He was very compelling,” said the aide. “Very few times did he talk about himself, he talked about his unit … and the universal issues faced by veterans.”
The author of the magazine article, CIR’s Executive Chairman Phil Bronstein, also attended the meetings as a journalist – along with representatives from Esquire and a former CIA official.
“It went really well,” the SEAL told Bronstein. “I think we raised awareness. Now it’s just a question of acting.”
In the Esquire article, the former SEAL said he fired the fatal shots that killed bin Laden, recounting minute details of the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
But perhaps the story’s most explosive revelation was that nearly six months after leaving the military, the SEAL feels abandoned by the government. He left the military a few years short of the retirement requirement with no pension and no job.
On Tuesday, Bronstein said that the former SEAL advocated for an earlier vesting period for pension benefits, automatic enrollment for veterans in VA health care and special job placement services for veterans of special operations, who are forbidden by law from talking about details of their military service.
“They thanked me for what I was doing now, which was giving a voice to those who were in my circumstance,” the SEAL told Bronstein.
Treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is a topic of rising concern on Capitol Hill, with a series of hearings scheduled for Wednesday and beyond. On Monday, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was time to rethink pension requirements in the wake of the Esquire story. Sanders announced he would be holding hearings next month on what he called the VA’s “broken claims system.”
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama also renewed his vow to help the country’s veterans.
“We will keep faith with our veterans – investing in world-class care, including mental health care, for our wounded warriors; supporting our military families; and giving our veterans the benefits, education and job opportunities they have earned,” the president said.
Since the SEAL’s account was published Monday morning, a number of media outlets, including Stars and Stripes, have questioned why bin Laden’s killer lacked health insurance. The VA offers the option of virtually free medical care to all honorably discharged Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for the first five years after their discharge.
On Tuesday afternoon, Tommy Sowers, the VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, tweeted his thanks to Stars and Stripes national reporter Megan McCloskey, who wrote a blog challenging the claim that the SEAL didn’t have access to health care.
CIR has since issued a correction, expanding on the availability of health care during the five years after discharge: “The Department of Veterans Affairs offers health care during that period and not just for service-related injuries.”
According to Bronstein, the SEAL told members of Congress that he was not aware of the benefit, which does not extend to family members. 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.
Since the story ran Monday morning, CIR has received more than 200 emails from individuals offering help to the SEAL and his family. They ranged from a reader in Washington state who offered the man use of a home outside Seattle, to a job offer from a captain in the Bakersfield, Calif., fire department, to an opportunity to be part of pit teams at NASCAR races.
But bin Laden’s killer made it clear he hopes to raise awareness about the straits faced by other special operations veterans but does not want any handouts.
“I think that’s cool, but this is not about me,” he said of the many offers.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sowers, the assistant VA secretary, tweeted his willingness to help the SEAL, who still is waiting for the agency to approve his disability claim. Sowers is a former Green Beret, deployed twice to Iraq.
“If ‘Shooter’ wants direct help from me,” he tweeted, “DM (direct message) me.”
Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this story from Washington.
The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org. Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.