Veterans say elite military force works with lethal precision

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 3, 2011

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The Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are taught to perform with lethal, coordinated precision — and to keep quiet about the details. But Navy and other military veterans who know their work were effusive yesterday in their praise of a mission that eliminated the long-sought Al Qaeda leader.

“They are dynamic guys who are highly motivated and smart as can be,’’ said Paul E. Mawn of Sudbury, a retired Navy captain who graduated from Harvard University in 1963. “As a Navy officer, it makes my heart filled with pride that these highly motivated professionals succeeded.’’

Dropped from helicopters into bin Laden’s compound deep inside Pakistan, the SEALs quickly demonstrated their mastery of the “snatch-and-grab’’ missions they train years to perfect.

“This takes an immense amount of practice and coordination,’’ said Theodore Roosevelt IV, a former Navy SEAL and great-grandson of the president of the same name. “They are very good at insertion, at getting into places where people don’t anticipate they will be.’’

Roosevelt, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and graduated from Harvard in 1965, said the SEALs of today are better trained than their counterparts during the Vietnam War, in which he served, “and I think we were pretty darn good.’’

The SEALs, whose acronym refers to their comfort on sea, air, and land, had their origins in World War II as underwater demolition teams that prepared the way for amphibious landings.

Under President John F. Kennedy, Mawn said, the SEALs were incorporated more fully into the special forces.

Today, Roosevelt said, they undergo six months of punishing training at underwater demolition school before moving on to additional instruction in a wide array of special tasks. The attrition rate is high.

“With the training they go through, very few people on this earth could muster up the determination and courage to be able to fulfill it,’’ Mawn said.

The success of the bin Laden mission, in which US forces emerged unscathed, drew praise from veterans and members of other branches of the military.

“There is a sense of accomplishment. We did it, you know?’’ said Richard Voutour, a retired Marine who served in the Gulf War and is director of veterans services in Leominster. “I think it certainly is going to hurt them and set them back, and that’s all good for us.’’

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Hall, a two-tour veteran of Iraq who commands the Army ROTC battalion based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said bin Laden’s death ends one chapter of a difficult, ongoing story.

That cautionary note was echoed by Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and retired Army colonel who lost a son, an Army lieutenant, in Iraq.

“My immediate reaction was an emotional one: It’s about time we got this done,’’ Bacevich said. “But I think shortly thereafter, trying to think about the consequences, I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that, as emotionally satisfying as that may be, this will not prove to be a defining turning point.’’

A more significant concern, Bacevich said, is the troubling state of US-Pakistan relations that the mission underscored.

“If the Pakistan government either is so incompetent that they couldn’t locate bin Laden when he was hidden in plain sight, or they chose not to, then you really have to ask what kind of collaborative relationship we can have with that government going forward,’’ Bacevich said.

Jeremiah Marcoux, a Leominster man who served two tours in Iraq with the Marines, called bin Laden’s death a welcome morale booster for the United States. “This has got to be a good thing. I mean, this is something we set out to do in 2001,’’ Marcoux said.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at