About the Author
Robert O’Neill was born and raised in Butte, Montana, and lived there for nineteen years until he joined the Navy in 1996. Deploying as a SEAL more than a dozen times, O’Neill participated in more than four-hundred combat missions across four different theaters of war. During his remarkable career, he was decorated more than fifty-two times. Among the honors he received were two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars with Valor, a Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, three Presidential Unit Citations, and a Navy/Marine Corps Commendation with Valor.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
O’Neill helped cofound Your Grateful Nation, an organization committed to transitioning Special Operations veterans into their next successful career. You can find him at RobertJONeill.com.
The Operator CHAPTER ONE
I owe my career as a Navy SEAL to a girl. I’m not the first, and I doubt I’ll be the last.
She was younger than I was, a brunette with the face of a supermodel, great dance moves, and—key to my heart—a quick sense of humor. The first time I tried to kiss her, I closed my eyes too soon and I heard her say, “Uh, what are you doing?”
“I’m gonna kiss you.”
“Not before you ask me out, you’re not,” she said.
“Will you go out with me tomorrow then?”
“Pick me up at seven o’clock,” she said, then gave me a better kiss than I deserved and went home.
The next evening I picked her up at 7:00 sharp and, big spender that I was, drove her to Taco Bell. She ate a large order of Nachos Bellgrande and three soft Tacos Supreme.
Gorgeous girl, perfect figure, and the appetite of a lumberjack. I knew nothing about life, but I thought I was in love.
When I graduated high school in Butte, Montana—the same school my grandfather and father had graduated from—and enrolled at Montana Tech, the local college, this girl was still a junior. It’s just one of those things; you’re not going to date a high school girl when you’re in college. So I stayed away, but I couldn’t keep my mind off her. She went on doing her high school thing, dating and going to dances, which she damn well should have been doing. But I wanted it both ways, me having my fun and her staying on hold. I simmered miserably for weeks, then finally snapped when I heard she’d spent the day with some high school boy. With a couple drinks in me I went to her house to find out what was going on, and promptly made a complete ass out of myself.
Her father, a massive Italian with black hair, a burly mustache, and a square jaw, was famous around Butte for being tough. He owned a company that jacked up entire houses and moved them whole. I was certain he would have no problem moving me. But he took pity. Instead of knocking me flat, which would have been more than justified, he gently but firmly escorted me out the door.
That kindness provoked something of an out-of-body experience. After he released his iron grip from my elbow and sent me reeling into the night, I glimpsed myself as if from a distance. It wasn’t an attractive sight. I realized that if I was acting like this now, it would only get worse. I’d end up as one of those guys who hang around Butte forever, whining about the good old days.
So I knew. I had to go.
In my very limited experience, the way people got out of Butte was by joining the military. Though I’d never really considered it before, in that instant I was committed. The future, or fate, or whatever, kicked into high gear.
* * *
THESE DAYS SOME PEOPLE MIGHT call my childhood “free range.” Saturday mornings I was out the door after breakfast and back only when the streetlights amped up. Kids ran in packs in my neighborhood. We ambushed each other with toy guns and played ninja warriors, leaping off rooftops and doing a bunch of other harebrained stuff I’d kill my kids for doing. We all went to see Rambo at the Butte Plaza Mall. That was pretty cool. Everybody wanted to be that guy blowing away evildoers with his M60. But to me, it was all fantasy, no more real than the increasingly sophisticated shooter video games that competed for our attention. The actual military was never huge in my life. I was never going to be in it, so I didn’t think much about it. I just wanted to play, put on camouflage, and pretend to shoot my friends.
At first glance, Butte might not seem like an idyllic place to grow up. It’s a mining town whose best years were in the early twentieth century, when every bullet in every rifle sent Over There during World War I was made of copper—most of it mined in Butte. The population hit a peak of 100,000 in 1920 and by the time I came along had dipped by about two-thirds. The residential areas mingled with pit mines, and the entire town was built on a plateau next to the biggest pit of all, Berkeley Pit, an immense, defunct, open-pit copper mine a mile wide and a third of a mile deep. Between the time it opened in 1955 and its closure on Earth Day 1982, a billion tons of ore and waste rock had been wrenched out of its depths. When the sump pumps shut off for the last time, ground water began a slow rise, leaching acids and heavy metals from the gaping wound in the earth. The water that filled the pit was toxic enough to kill any geese that possessed the poor judgment to splash down there. Eventually, the Berkeley Pit was declared the largest Superfund toxic waste site in the country.
But I was more focused on other features of Butte, specifically metal hoops that hung ten feet above gymnasium floors, and the deer, elk, and antelope that sprinted through the wild Rockies, which rose up like a frozen tsunami on the other side of town.
My dad, the son of a miner, was a stockbroker and my mom was a math teacher (I took her class three times—in seventh and eighth grades and again in high school). My parents divorced when I was six or seven. To me, having two parents who lived apart seemed almost natural. I don’t remember their living together. My dad was always close by and around whenever we needed him, but the usual setup was to go with him every other weekend. That was fine with my siblings and me; all of our friends were near my mom’s house and we liked to have weekends to play outside: kick the can, war, ninjas, or climbing and roof-jumping. We all played together, except the climbing and jumping. Kris, my elder sister, wanted none of that. But I could force my sister Kelley, younger than me by three years, to come along. She desperately wanted to fit in. So up we went on the roof, and off we jumped. These days I’d give my son an earful if he pulled that shit, but being a kid, I didn’t think about the risk. It was just fun. Kelley was my best friend for years; I even made her sign a contract binding her to being my teammate for two-on-two football on the church lawn. She was a damn good receiver and one hell of an athlete all through college.
My older brother, Tom, was a complete dick up until he was in high school. Then some switch flipped and he became awesome. Or maybe I just stopped being so annoying. Whatever. Some magic happened and he became the funniest person I knew, and All-State in cross-country. He taught himself guitar and his first band was called The Fake ID’s. That’s how young they were. He still plays and has his own morning show on a local radio station.
Kris was always the most levelheaded of us, but my mom will disagree. Maybe they were too much alike, and sometimes sparks flew. Kris was always tolerant of me, easy to talk to, and the best laugher I’ve ever known. She was meticulous, got straight A’s forever, and was gentle—when she wasn’t kicking my ass, which she could do up to my junior year in high school . . . possibly longer.
My mom and dad maintained a cooperative, cordial relationship throughout my childhood. If they had any big problems with each other, they never let my siblings or me see it. The split living was actually good for my parents. My mom worked at the junior high, which was next to the high school so she could get us to school and home. She loved being a mom, but she got every other weekend off to go out on the town with her crazy, fun, and hot friends Lynn and Sue. I remember them sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, sipping daiquiris and talking about what went down on Saturday night. It was too much for my tender junior high ears. I was in the next room and I had to low crawl my ass out the front door because I couldn’t take it. My first mission.
We loved hanging out with Dad on those alternate weekends. He was a total bachelor but we didn’t realize it. We should have guessed because our first stop on Friday was always to Buttreys . . . a local grocery store. We needed food because he had none! He went out for most meals. So we’d go down every aisle and grab stuff we needed, going heavy on the junk food and making sure to grab ingredients for Dad’s “Famous Breakfast.” His scrambled eggs were and still are incredible. Cheese, mayo, butter, basil, and some secret stuff. One time we forgot milk so he added Amaretto Coffee-mate. Don’t try it! We’d always end the weekend at Grampa Tom and Gramma Audrey’s. She cooked like a champ; everything you can imagine. And this is where I learned my dad’s trick: potato mountain and gravy lake!
As I was growing into adolescence, my dad and I developed an unusual father–son relationship, becoming more like best friends. It began when my mom moved us from up on the “hill”—where all my neighborhood buddies lived—to a place downtown, not far from the Berkeley Pit, where I didn’t know anybody. I was looking for something to replace all those ninja hijinks with my friends when I saw a video—Michael Jordan’s first, Come Fly with Me. I was instantly captivated. It begins with Jordan all alone, shooting baskets in a completely empty gym. His voice-over says, “I could never stop working on it. Each day I feel I have to improve.” And then of course there are endless scenes of Air Jordan, defying gravity, cutting through defenders as if they’re no more substantial than the atmosphere itself.
I was awed, inspired. I wasn’t the biggest kid, or the best-looking, or the smartest or most athletic, but something inside me connected with that obsessive drive to keep striving. Looking back, I guess I had that all along. My favorite subject was English, and my favorite book was The Old Man and the Sea. I liked the way Santiago, the old fisherman, is drawn into a titanic battle of wills with the huge fish. His hands are shredded by the fishing line, he’s so hungry he’s eating slices of raw bait, he hasn’t slept, his muscles are cramping there in his crappy little boat, but he’ll die before he quits. That attitude appealed to me.
I wasn’t going to hook any giant marlins in Butte, Montana, but I could aspire to be like Mike. There was a school right next to my new house, Greeley Elementary, with an outdoor basketball hoop. So I asked my mom to get me a basketball and she did. I would go over there every day and play by myself, hours at a time, just seeing how many free throws in a row I could make, working on my jump shot, driving left, driving right. My dad, who was about forty then, had played some at the University of Montana. He was a damn good basketball player. He found out what I was doing and he said, “Hey, do you want to start playing?”
We played at a sports club in downtown Butte. I’d still shoot by myself at the elementary school, and then he’d pick me up and we’d hit the club. I was spending four hours a day, seven days a week with a basketball in—or flying out of—my hands. When I made the school team I practiced with my teammates during the season, and when it ended, Dad’s and my private season began. Dad picked me up after school and took me to the indoor court. We’d practice two or three hours; dribbling, layup drills, one on one, wildly raucous pickup games. He tried to teach me everything he’d learned, head fakes, little tricks he’d picked up on how to beat your man.
When we were finally exhausted, my dad would say, “We can’t leave until one of us sinks twenty free throws in a row.” He would feed me—I’d get pissed if he made me move my feet even an inch off the line—and I’d shoot till I missed. Then he’d take over. The first time it took about twenty minutes for one of us to make twenty in a row. Then we went out for a steak dinner to celebrate. The next day my dad said, “We can leave when one of us gets twenty, but we need twenty-five for the steak.” Once we hit twenty-five, it went up to thirty, then thirty-five, forty. We got to where we had to make seventy free throws in a row for a dinner, and we almost always did it. I think my dad’s record was ninety in a row. Mine is still 105. We were making a lot of free throws.
When I was twelve, my dad got divorced from his second wife, and my uncle Jack, his brother, persuaded him to give hunting a try on weekends to get his mind off failed marriages. There was no question I’d come with him. We went driving up the mountain in Jack’s Nissan. We didn’t know what we were doing at first. There are vast plains up there with magnificent animals sprinting all over at warp speed—antelope are pretty much the fastest animal in North America. Guys in trucks and four-wheelers chase them and people shoot in every direction. If I were to see it today from the perspective of a range officer at Naval Special Warfare Development Group, I’d recognize how insanely unsafe it is. But it was thrilling, and eventually we got good at it, climbing on foot to a place no trucks could go, a place where we knew the animals would retreat at the end of the night. You take up a position out of the wind and let them come to you, take them by surprise. The animals expect to be chased, not ambushed.
My first kill was a mule deer, a big buck. I remember driving up these terrible dirt roads in the dark, climbing the edge of a valley as far as we could, then walking steeply uphill as the sun rose. After about an hour, we hit the summit, which descended into a hay-colored bowl. That’s where we hoped to run into the deer. There weren’t any. We hung out for a while and the disappointment of not finding anything to shoot at faded. It was late fall, chilly but not bone-numbing, patches of snow here and there, and I thought: Not bad to be sitting up on this mountaintop at the break of day, just me and my dad, as if this amazing place had been waiting for us to arrive.
Eventually we got hungry. As we were walking back down the hill for lunch, a doe and a buck burst out of the trees into a clearing a hundred yards to our right. We were shuffling along, making a sound the buck didn’t recognize. He froze right in the middle of the clearing. My dad was in front of me, right in the line of fire. He dropped to the ground and said, “Take it!” I was fortunate I didn’t have time to think about it. I knew I needed to take the shot now or he was gone. The adrenaline took over. Still standing, I raised my .300 Winchester Magnum to my shoulder and barely glimpsed the buck in my scope before I pulled the trigger. My father had told me to aim for his chest, right behind his shoulder. You want to try to hit him in the lungs for a quick kill. I missed high, a lucky shot. The bullet severed his spine. That worked. The buck dropped right where he stood. We approached carefully. These big bucks can play dead. You don’t want them to hop up and trample you. I stuck out my foot and gave him a nudge. The flesh of his haunch quivered, but otherwise he stayed put. I took another step toward his big antlered head, and raised the muzzle of my rifle—the same kind of rifle I’d eventually use as a SEAL sniper—to his big staring eyeball. Dead all right.
It was a bit surreal for me. He looked the same as he had just a moment ago when he was alive: pretty colors and noble antlers. But he was dead, and I’d killed him. I felt a tug of remorse. He was a beautiful animal, gone now thanks to me. But I was also proud. This was Montana. Deer were for shooting. Everybody did it. Now I was part of the club.
In the hunting seasons that followed, any residual remorse fell away. Soon it was a competition at junior high every Monday. “So and so got a buck.” The real prize was the bull elk. It always seemed that someone’s mythical uncle, or a miraculous shot from someone’s dad, had brought down a “six point” elk. (We score different out West—you count one side of the antl...
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