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Hero’s Dilemma Exaggerated Yet Real

Esquire magazine has just posted a much-discussed article about “the Shooter” who is said to have killed Osama bin Laden. This is not a simple tale of heroism, a la “No Easy Day,” the best-selling book written by another member of SEAL Team Six who was on the raid. This article has a strong point of view, as is made clear by the headline: “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden… Is Screwed.”

Journalist Phil Bronstein, who interviewed “the Shooter,” laments “that a man with hundreds of successful war missions, 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.” He explains that “the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no healthcare for his wife and kids, no protection for himself or his family.”

Numerous veterans have pointed out that this is an exaggeration and in fact Esquire has already posted a correction and changed the language above which had previously suggested that there is no healthcare for him, not just for his (separated) wife and his kids. The magazine notes: “A previous version of this story 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 comprehensive health care to eligible veterans during that period, though not to their families.” There are also numerous other benefits such as the GI Bill which would enable “the Shooter” to go to college.

Nevertheless the article does have a serious point to make—the nation is not doing right by the small number of infantrymen and special operators, a tiny percentage of the overall armed forces, who are at the pointy tip of the spear. The problem is two-fold.

First, the military’s retirement system is designed to provide generous benefits to those who retire after 20 years but far less to those who get out sooner, as “the Shooter” has decided to do. This is counter-productive because it leads the military to lose many who could make an important contribution even after 20 years of service, while not providing adequate recompense for those who serve for a slightly shorter period.

The second problem is that there is little if any difference in combat pay between those like “the Shooter” who routinely go on extremely dangerous raids or patrols and clerks who spend their entire deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq sitting behind a computer on a comparatively safe Forward Operating Base. We should offer more generous financial rewards to those who are in the thick of combat given the risk they take and the psychological trauma they will have to live with.  

Finally “the Shooter” faces an issue unique to his case: He will be a marked man for the rest of his life. Many people already know his name and it is a safe bet that Al Qaeda will be gunning for him. Under those circumstances the Navy owes him more than a handshake: It should offer him a new life and a new identity in a version of the “Witness Protection” program.

Even if Bronstein’s indictment is overstated, he has a valid point that we as a nation need to do a better job of caring for our heroes.



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