Navy SEALs. Two words that are bound to trigger a very different response depending on the eyes reading them, or the ears hearing them.

Proud Americans will swell with pride. Navy SEALs are a construct of their homeland. Elite warfighters — the absolute best of the best — sworn to protect the Stars and Stripes and everything it stands for at all costs. They are as close to real-life superheroes as humanly possible, minus the cape and tights. Oh, but they’ve got utility belts filled with all the best goodies and gadgets.

Now, if you happen to be a terrorist or any other individual foolish enough to stand against the Navy SEALs and what they’re fighting for, you’ll undoubtedly experience cold sweats, uncontrollable shivers and shudders, and the very likely prospect of learning firsthand if God is real.

Within the brotherhood of bone frogs, there is a further classification that has achieved an almost mythical status. Of course, I’m referring to SEAL Team Six. The Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG), aka DEVGRU (for Development Group), is the team that typically gets sent on the most harrowing of missions. And considering every op for which the SEALs are deployed is a blood-curdler and a bone-rattler when SEAL Team Six gets the call, you can guaran-damn-tee some serious shit is about to go down.

Put it this way, if your kids were being bullied at school and you had to choose between sending them Godzilla or a Navy SEAL as a backup, it’s a no-brainer — send the freakin’ SEAL!

But let’s dig a little deeper, to one of the most incredible happenings in world history: Operation Neptune Spear — the raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that resulted in the death of America’s No. 1 enemy, terrorist mastermind and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Books have been written, a movie was made, and tales will be told around campfires for centuries to come. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with the American hero who punched bin Laden’s ticket — Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert J. O’Neill.

Strong, smart, affable and surprisingly humble, Rob O’Neill is a badass in every sense of the word. But talking to him, you’ll quickly forget just how hard and dangerous he truly is. For 16 years, O’Neill dedicated his life to keeping America safe, and he’s got the stories to prove it. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. O’Neill and his mates. So if you see him out on the golf course, make sure he drinks for free!

Rocke: What was the reason behind your decision to join the military? And then to take it further and become what many believe is the “ultimate soldier” or “the ultimate badass” — a US Navy SEAL?

Rob O’Neill: I was playing college basketball in Butte, Montana — which is a really great town — but it was just time to leave. I grew up hunting in the Rocky Mountains and wanted to join the Marine Corps and become a sniper. When I went to enlist, the Marine recruiter wasn’t in the office, but the Navy guy was, so I asked him where the Marine recruiter was and he said, “The Marine Corps is actually a department of the Navy, just the men’s department.” I thought it was funny, but my two Marine buddies who were with me didn’t laugh so hard. 

When I told him I wanted to be a sniper, he said look no further, there are snipers in the Navy. All you gotta do is become a Navy SEAL. Now, I had seen the movie (Navy SEALs) with Charlie Sheen and loved it, but I knew nothing about the SEALs, and I wasn’t a good swimmer. I didn’t think I’d make it through the training anyway, but I’d get to go to Coronado and live in San Diego, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

I know you can’t really talk about your missions, but can you describe the range of emotions you felt before, during and after an op?

Most of the stuff you worry about never happens. It’s OK to be afraid — fear is healthy. It gets your wits up. But panic is contagious. Don’t overwork yourself; don’t get killed because you get bored. Complacency will get you killed.

The day of the bin Laden raid, did you have any feeling that it would be a special day?

When we were told about the bin Laden raid, it was a room of 28 shooters. We all looked at it as a one-way mission, thinking we were going to die because there were so many variables, and it was such a high-value target. But even if that was the case, that’s the reason we were all there. Everybody in every branch of the military wanted that job — that op. 

But even though we thought it could very well be a one-way ticket, we weren’t going after bin Laden for the reward. We weren’t going after him for fame. We were going after him for the single mom who dropped her kids off at school on a Tuesday, and then 45 minutes later she jumped to her death out of a skyscraper because that was a better alternative than whatever the hell was going on inside that building, and her last gesture of human decency was holding her skirt down as she jumped.

Rob, the raw honesty of what you just described left me with chills, not to mention a pit in my stomach. Undoubtedly, readers will feel the same. So without trying to make light of one of America’s (if not the world’s) darkest days, let’s try to brighten the mood. How did you get into golf?

My psychiatrist told me I needed a hobby to relieve stress. Worst idea ever! I went back to her a few weeks later and said, “What the hell was that?” And she said she forgot to tell me not to keep score yet. She meant for me to just get a couple sleeves of balls and get outside and walk. But I love golf. I’m amazed how many thoughts can go through your head during your backswing. So many things can go wrong. If they sent us after bin Laden with a 6-iron, he’d still be alive!

Are there any similarities between golf and your “day job” — especially when you’re on an op?

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. I have a shirt that says “Front toward enemy” which is exactly what it says on a Claymore mine. The lesson is: Keep it simple, stupid. But I still think if I swing harder it’s gonna go 300. Not the case!

What gets your heart pumping faster: a HALO jump into “enemy territory” where well-armed Tangos are waiting for you, or staring across 170 yards of water at a par-3 island green?

The par-3 for sure! I’m still working on trying to hit an iron off a tee.

If you could put together the ultimate foursome, what three people would you pick? 

John Daly, Rickie Fowler, Kid Rock.

Strangest item in your golf bag?

Because I’m trying not to make it too obvious, the bottle of half-green Gatorade that’s also half-vodka. But I just got a Challenge Coin from a dude who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, so I’ll carry that for good luck.

Best and worst experience on a golf course?

The Bone Frog Open. It was established in 2019 to honor fallen Navy SEALs by my good friend, Darren “McB” McBurnett. He’s got a great book, too: Uncommon Grit: A Photographic Journey Through Navy SEAL Training. If you don’t follow McTeams on Instagram, you’re missing out. Anyway, Daly was at that event, and he got a hole in one — barefoot, no less. The week before, at my event with Greg Norman — Heroes on the Green — Daly hit a golf ball out of someone’s mouth. The guy didn’t know what he was getting into and Daly didn’t warn him. Just … bang!

As for the worst, just a day when nothing works and you throw your club or snap it over your knee, and then an experienced golfer will come up and say something like, “You realize nobody cares how you play. Golfers only care about how they play. Tomorrow they’re not gonna remember any of the shitty shots you hit, just their own.” So the lesson is to not take it so seriously and enjoy it.

There are rumors that members of the Special Ops community have created their own golf courses while deployed, including using explosives to mark out-of-bounds areas. Any truth to that?

It wouldn’t surprise me, but I have no knowledge of it. If they did, it would probably just be something inert or a blue practice frag grenade. I’ve had people leave those under my gear, including a booby-trap in my own cage that I didn’t see for a year.

Most unusual place you’ve teed it up?

An aircraft carrier going through the Suez Canal. They can’t do flight ops, so we were hitting off the flight deck during the “Steel Beach Picnic.” But that was long before I started playing golf. Put it this way, I didn’t hit any into Israel!

For all the gun enthusiasts and endless caliber lethality debaters: 9mm or .45 ACP?

.45 for sure — nothing lower than a .40 — but have it right next to your 12 gauge pump shotgun. Anybody breaks in with an AR, I’m gonna have myself a free AR!

Please talk about your foundation — Special Operators Transition Foundation. How’d it come about? What’s the mission statement?

It began life as YOUR GRATEFUL NATION. The skills I acquired in the military — how to lead, working as a team, understanding how to be lead, how to solve a problem — these are skills that are in high demand for businesses of all types. Those same businesses might not be satisfied with the “product” coming out of colleges and universities, but they can be taught. 

Keep in mind these aren’t security-type jobs but managerial and executive-level positions. And every time we’ve put someone in, the CEO or the CFO has said, “This is the best employee they’ve ever had.” It started out as “let’s help the veterans get jobs” and now it’s “let’s help the economy” because we’re going to make the economy better with these people.

Any other foundations, charities and causes of special importance to you?

I support anyone that I can. I don’t believe in competing foundations for veterans. Anything that helps vets — wounded or aging — I’m on board with. Homes For Heroes, Folds of Honor … anything like that I support.

Is there anything specific our government can do better to care for its veterans?

The healthcare system for the vets is mired in bureaucracy. This needs to be addressed. However, the caregivers — the nurses and the doctors — are outstanding. The problem is getting to them, cutting through the red tape.

And finally, you’re out on a golf course and suddenly you’re besieged by zombies, coming at you from all directions. If you can use only one golf club to get yourself to safety, what’s your choice?

A putter. One of those big claw types. The heavier, the better!

Due to Adam’s lack of a top-secret security clearance, the preceding shortened interview took place via Zoom. Rob O’Neill was in an undisclosed location with easy access to good booze, great music and fantastic golf courses (aka Nashville, Tennessee).

Adam Rocke

Adam has dived for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, hunted for poachers in Africa, played poker with cartel kingpins in Juarez, scouted for UFOs in the Sonora Desert, raced in the Baja 1000 and the original Gumball Rally, swam with great white sharks sans cage, jumped out of planes sans parachute, and taken part in Sasquatch safaris, Chupacabra expeditions and many other “crypto-quests” around the world. Or so he says.