Next week I will visit hallowed ground. I will stand on the corner of West and Vesey Street, face the National September 11 Memorial, and look skyward toward the flight paths of American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175, which struck the World Trade Towers eleven years earlier. I will do it because I have a choice, because I am one of millions of Americans that hasn’t forgotten, and because there is no place on earth I’d rather be than downtown Manhattan on the anniversary of 9/11.
Since that first jumbo jet slammed into tower one at 8:46:30 AM that Tuesday morning our nation has struggled through two long wars that have tested the mettle of America’s finest young men and women—and which were arguably focused on killing one man. This past week not only reminded me of these long wars, but it also offered some odd nostalgia and a large dose of déjà vu.
First, I learned the same time as the rest of the world that one of America’s secret members of SEAL Team Six, which executed Operation Neptune Spear, had authored a book titled No Easy Day, about the shadowed exploits of the team and how al Qaeda mastermind Usama Bin Laden really met his maker. I was a shocked by the news. Like most tier one operators, I thought I was still in tune with the happenings of the secret world I left behind, even in retirement.
Then I learned the book’s author elected to invoke a pseudonym. The author chose to conceal his true name for two reasons—reasons with which I am very familiar. One, to ensure America focuses on the story and his teammates, not on “Mark Owen,” the individual. Had Owen used his true name, the claims of glory hunting would be loud and wide spread. Second, he chose to author under a pseudonym to protect his family and former teammates from enemies of the state.
During his many years in Six, Owen kept secrets. He is now sharing some of what he experienced. His critics have called those experiences “secrets.”
But Owen isn’t the first Six guy to share his experiences. With a quick count, I know of five Six guys to beat the pseudonymous Owen to the punch. The tsunami of negative press and personal attacks on both the author Owen, and his co-writer Kevin Maurer, surprised me. Sure, I knew they would take it on the chin for a bit, but I didn’t anticipate the massive amount of character bashing, name-calling, and the irresponsible leak of Owen’s true name and home address. It hit close to home.
Four years ago I authored the book Kill Bin Laden, appeared on 60 Minutes, and took on a pseudonym to protect my family and stiff arm the cries of glory hunting. These same steps were taken by Owen, who isn’t looking for fame either. “The UBL raid was such a gigantic event that this story needed to be told for the history books,” Owen said.
In 2008, I told the true story of the early hunt for Bin Laden because I felt America needed to know. But after reading Owen’s book, I know his story is clearly more important. Whether Americans needed to know or not is truly debatable. Owen’s work closes the loop on one of the longest manhunts in history and is certainly something the majority of Americans want to know.
And if not all Americans, Owen knows a specific class of young men will appreciate it. “99% of the SEALs that I know joined because they also read a book,” he said. Owen isn’t the only SEAL that thinks books written by warriors for America’s future warriors are a good idea. In a recent open letter to current and former members of the special operations community, Admiral McRaven, a former SEAL Team Six commander and current commander of all special ops troops wrote that he personally benefited from reading about the “exploits of our legendary heroes” in books that share “wonderful accounts of courage, leadership, tough decision making, and martial skill.”
At the same time it reminded me of a culture literally set in stone that mandates a life time tag of persona non grata, or PNG, for any Tier One operator who writes about his unit.
The culture of a Tier One unit is not only unique, it is protected. But, after ten plus years at war, most Americans know there to be two Special Mission Units—the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. Members of these organizations sign non-disclosure agreements, or NDA, before they can drop their kit bags in the team room. The signature is binding for life. The NDA is perfectly clear about disclosing information, and includes steps that must be followed to ensure the information is checked by competent authority prior to release. If signing the form letter isn’t enough deterrent from one day sharing experiences, the culture is designed to police anyone considering otherwise.
Basically, what happens down range stays down range. You don’t talk about it, you definitely don’t write about it. And anyone who blows off the rules, even if he does seek and receive security reviews from the proper authorities for 18 months as I did, is ostracized, demonized, and banned. That’s not Merriam-Webster’s exact definition of having been PNGed, but it about covers it.
Everyone serving in a Tier One unit has their every need seen to while they are operational. Nine out of ten, upon retirement or release from these two elite units, will only have the skills, knowledge, and know-how they learned while serving the ranks—skill sets that are limited to a select few, but very much earned by the same select few. Are these skill sets marketable? Of course they are. Whether they should be is irrelevant. The demand is there and the operators need to work when they leave the teams, too.
Almost every former unit operator includes the phrases “Delta Force” or “SEAL Team Six” in their resumes. The ones that don’t are so well known in their trade that it isn’t necessary, or they still have some support or business ties to the organization that they don’t want to jeopardize. Either way, captured on a web site or not, you are cashing in largely on what you learned and experienced while serving the Tier One ranks.
Some “black” SPECOPS warriors become independent contractors with the CIA and head back down range. Former teammate and Delta operator William “Chief” Carlson did in 2003 and was killed in a Taliban ambush. Former mate Dale “Slugger” Comstock, one of the operatives in the NBC reality show Stars Earn Stripes spent eight years serving his country as an independent contractor on the battlefield. Some take less dangerous routes. They may teach tactics, shooting, jumping, driving, lock picking, assault planning, or even open up their own business to solve real problems. Among a dozen other things related to the skills you learned and earned while in a Tier One unit, you can even consult for a video game company.
And, you can write a book.
From that moment on, it’s yours to lose. The standards are extremely high, as they should be. We all know that talking about the unit, particularly in a tell-all memoir, regardless of how vanilla the contents are, is tantamount to alumni suicide.
Let me be clear here. I’m referring only to members of Delta Force and SEAL Team Six—not Army Green Berets, not “white” Navy SEALs, not conventional military soldiers, airmen, or Marines. If you are even remotely interested in reading this post, you know the book stores are filled with memoirs authored by former military men and women. Yes, absolutely, they are true heroes, but I know of none that are PNGed from their communities.
Write about your time in a Tier One unit absolutely equals PNG for life. This will prove to be the most damning psychological stain on Owen. Been there, done that—when I wrote Kill Bin Laden, in which national security was not put at risk and no special operations unique tactics, techniques, procedures or personalities were compromised.
I read an advance copy of Owen’s book, No Easy Day. Folks, former SEAL Team Six warrior Mark Owen, who gave his country 14 years of faithful service, does not disappoint the American people.
The manuscript was combed over by a trusted agent, a former special operations attorney who has performed similar vetting reviews for other military authors. I’m absolutely convinced and entirely confident that Owen’s book does not reveal any secret tactics, sensitive techniques or delicate procedures that would put current servicemen and women in jeopardy.
Owen isn’t the first person involved with the May 2011 raid to go public with details that some might argue should be protected. President Obama’s administration confirmed the participation of Navy SEALs on national television within a few hours of the raid. Last week, Judicial Watch published communication between CIA and film makers Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, indicating that “Boal and Bigelow would be ‘meeting individually with both [name redacted] and the translator who was on the raid…’” Admiral McRaven has sat down and discussed various aspects of the raid with journalists, too.
Just as Admiral McRaven is smart enough to know what to share and what to protect, Owen is equally careful in No Easy Day not to allow innocuous facts to be compiled to potentially compromise sensitive national security information. Instead, he captures the essence of what it is like to live your life as a protector of the freedoms all of us hold so dear. Owen said, “Look at Hollywood stars, pro athletes etc., nobody, and I repeat nobody, does what we do, for the reasons we do it. That’s the story, not Mark Owen.”
Owen credits his SEAL mates for living a code, working for relative pennies, and shunning fame and fortune. Men who are willing to go into harm’s way to potentially make the ultimate sacrifice in some far off forgotten land that most folks can’t even spell correctly. Owen is spot on when he says, “Society needs to know that there are men out there fighting for their freedoms–who don’t do it for money, don’t do it for fame, but do it for the greater good.” I shared the details of the hunt for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains in 2001 for the exact same reasons.
America, thank Mark Owen for having the courage to share the moment when his mate took the national shot that dropped the man responsible for the death of nearly 3,000 innocent people eleven years ago. Like every other operator in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that night, Mark Owen is a national hero. Owen and the rest of SEAL Team Six earned it. Owen also earned PNG status, simply because he violated the code. Had he been a “white” SEAL, a Green Beret, or a conventional soldier writing a memoir, he’d simply be a hero. But because he was in Six, a Tier One outfit, he is a hero irrevocably stained with PNG status. It couldn’t have been a surprise. He knew it going in. I’m no hero, but like me, he had a choice.
Unfortunately, PNG status might prove the least of Owen’s problems after his true name was leaked roughly twenty-four hours after public announcement of the forthcoming book. Being dubbed PNG is largely an adolescent slap at a former operator’s reputation. All Tier One operators have either a good one or bad one well before the decision to write a book is made. Some mates will stand by you, others will shun you. But compromising an operator’s true name is much more serious.
Owen has already been publically targeted on al Qaeda associated or Islamic extremist web sites. Revealing Owen’s true name not only endangers his family, but it also potentially puts the cross hairs on his SEAL mates. It didn’t take long for someone to out Owen to FOX News, and in this Internet age, would anyone be surprised if a sophisticated enemy of the United States peeled the onion to add names to their kill list? Owen chose a pseudonym because he wanted to protect others. He knew his choice put him at risk. Irresponsible disclosure of his true name helped al Qaeda more than the actual contents of the book he wrote.
I know Owen has his share of skeletons and demons, how many of us don’t? I also know my mates and I would have taken a bullet on target for him simply because we were all Tier One operators doing the dirty work we were so fortunate to be trusted by a nation to do. We were Army, him Navy–all American servicemen doing our best among America’s best to accomplish the mission and bring everyone home.
I write this now because I have a choice. Everyone I know wishes they could have stood next to Owen when he entered Bin Laden’s compound. But we didn’t have a choice. More than ten years have passed since we had our shot at Bin Laden. It’s been less than a year and a half since Owen and his Six mates raided his hideout. I can either stand idly by, in the shadows, hoping to be left alone and ignored, or I can extend a hand to a mate in need. For me, it’s an easy decision. All of you will make your own choice.