Former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill has said he decided to reveal himself as the man who shot and killed Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden after sharing his story of the 2011 raid on the terrorist leader’s compound with a group of people at the 9/11 Memorial Museum earlier this year.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) was in the room with O’Neill that day.
The congresswoman, who describes O’Neill as “a friend,” told Business Insider on Thursday that the ex-SEAL was there for a ceremony marking the donation of a shirt he wore during the raid to the museum. Maloney, who said she helped arrange for O’Neill’s shirt to be exhibited at the museum, said the people in attendance included families of people who died in the September 11th attacks and “leaders” from police and fire departments.
“People were in tears and the room was not that big,” Maloney recounted. “I’d say it was 30 people … maybe 30 people. It was a selective group and I asked to have a ceremony for the donation of the shirt. And we came in and had the quiet ceremony and it meant a lot.”
O’Neill first publicly said he was the person who fired the fatal shot that killed Bin Laden in an interview with the Washington Post that was published on Thursday. However, in the wake of that story, Reuters released a report about an anonymous source “close to another SEAL team member” who disputed the claim O’Neill killed Bin Laden.
The Washington Post article was not supposed to be O’Neill’s public debut. He had been planning to reveal himself in a Fox News documentary and a story in the newspaper later this month. However, on Monday, the website SOFREP identified him. O’Neill told the Post he “spontaneously” decided to share his story at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
“The families told me it helped bring them some closure,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill’s shirt is adorned with an American flag patch. Rather than the traditional red, white, and blue, it is black in order to be camouflaged for nighttime missions.
According to Maloney, the shirt ceremony took place in a family room at the museum where the family members had “pictures of their lost loved ones.”
“I was very active on the 9/11 response. I authored a great number of bills working in a bipartisan way to make America safer after 9/11, did a lot of work with the 9/11 families that lost their loved ones, and I arranged for him to come and speak to some of them,” said Maloney. “I’d like for him to do more of that now that he came out in public. I think that he would help bring closure to many of them and, you know, that’s the reason we were over there, the reason he went on the mission was for the 9/11 families.”
Maloney told Business Insider that, in her many years working with the relatives of people who were killed in the September 11th attacks, she has never seen them react like they did after hearing O’Neill’s story.
“We were in numerous meetings, numerous press conferences. I’ve never seen an emotional response as I saw in that room,” Maloney said. “I saw men and women just break down crying. It was closure to them. It was important to them to see him, to really hear in his own words why it was important for him to go on that mission.”
Joseph Zadroga is one of the people Maloney said was in attendance at the ceremony. His son, James Zadroga, was an New York City police officer. James died of respiratory disease in 2006 and became the first officer whose death was attributed to being exposed to chemicals while working at the site of the September 11th attacks in Manhattan.
Maloney co-sponsored legislation designed to provide healthcare and monitoring for 9/11 responders in 2006. It was named the James Zadroga Act. She said, out of the family members in attendance at the ceremony, Joseph Zadroga’s reaction to O’Neill stood out for her.
“It meant the world to them. It meant the world to hear what it was like. Many people were crying,” said Maloney. “I mean, I can’t tell you what a tough guy James Zadroga’s father is. He’s a police officer, great big strong man, and he was in absolute tears.”
Maloney also stressed other residents of New York were intensely interested in the circumstances of Bin Laden’s death.
“You could hear a collective sigh of relief from all of New York when Bin Laden was killed. We are grateful to the Navy SEALs, and to the CIA, and to all the military that are part of training these incredible people,” Maloney said. “The people that I am privileged to represent, they wanted to know what happened to Bin Laden.”
Though O’Neill identified himself as the person who fired the shot that killed the Al Qaeda leader, Maloney felt he never attempted to take individual credit for the operation.
“He never talks about this incident except with we — we on the team,” said Maloney. “When he gave the shirt, he gave it in the name of the entire team. He’s really into giving credit to his distinguished allies.”
Still, Maloney said the raid ended in a direct confrontation between two men — O’Neill and Bin Laden.
“I think that the last person Bin Laden saw was looking into Robert O’Neill’s eyes, and he saw that flag on his shirt, he saw the American flag,” Maloney said. “He looked into his eyes. He’s the last person he saw. He’s an American hero.”
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