TOMS RIVER – Township resident Vito DeMaio was spellbound as he listened along with more than 100 other attendees to the stories of training, special missions and the emotional turmoil Robert O’Neill endured during his time as a Navy SEAL.
O’Neill recently visited Ocean County. He is the former SEAL Team Six leader, Naval Special Warfare Development Group and a New York Times best-selling author for his memoir “The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years As A SEAL Team Warrior.”
“I’ve seen a lot of celebrities but he is something else. He is a hero. It is an honor to be here and listen to him. This was a great experience,” DeMaio said while sitting in the audience of Mancini Hall at the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library.
The audience was filled with veterans, public officials like Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy and his officers, Ocean County Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little and many others. The event was sponsored by the Jay & Linda Grunin Foundation, the Ocean County Library and the Ocean County Library Foundation along with the law firm Berry, Sahradnik, Kotzas & Benson attorneys at law.
O’Neill is a highly decorated combat veteran. As Team Six leader with the Naval Special Warfare Development group he was deployed more than a dozen times and held combat leadership roles in more than 400 combat missions in four different theaters of war. He led the military’s most elite and was involved in one of the country’s most important campaigns.
He has been decorated more than 52 times with honors, including two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars with Valor, a Joint Service Commendation medal with Valor, three Presidential unit citations and two Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medals with Valor.
The theme of his presentation was to “never quit” and he brought that message back to attendees throughout his program as he relayed tales of his training, the impact his work had on him and members of his family and how he and his team worked together to achieve their mission goals.
In a discussion about his training, O’Neill focused on how Navy SEALS train for skydiving. “The parachutes are not round and it can be terrifying, even catastrophic. The veterans here are probably familiar with night vision goggles that are used and how you feel like you’re drunk by the time you take them off.”
O’Neill described the nine-month Navy SEAL training as being very intense. “Only half of those who take it get through it.”
“‘When we go to war we can’t micro manage you,’ we tell our trainees. We learned that the less you talk the more efficient we can communicate. Just because you are talking doesn’t mean you are communicating,” O’Neill said.
Describing ground conditions at sites in the Middle East that he visited, O’Neill said “Visiting Afghanistan is like going into a time warp. A house in Afghanistan is like half a hut in “Star Wars” and a house from “The Flintstones.” It is a two-story structure made of mud and no windows.”
O’Neill said that when assigned the mission of the raid on Bin Laden “we were convinced we were not coming home. We were not going after Bin Laden for fame or money.”
He added that it was difficult to say goodbye to his daughter who was 7 when he went and that he wrote a letter to her at 27 saying “I was sorry I missed your wedding” believing he would not return.
O’Neill joked about finding a pair of expensive sunglasses during the mission. “We all got back fine but I knew I wouldn’t be in the Navy forever.”
During one mission O’Neill spoke about a non-Navy Seal who served in communications who was needed to sky dive. “He was terrified. Now I could order him to do it but I was trying to talk him into this.” The gentle persuasion made it easier for the man to come to the conclusion that his role in the mission was needed and had expanded, O’Neill added.
He added that “when the mission is done you always clean your gear. If you take care of it, it will take care of you.”
“One of the things we learn is that you don’t fall in love with the target. You have to separate decisions and emotions. You have to prepared to fight, trust each other and never quit,” O’Neill said. He noted that there were times when if the conditions weren’t right, the mission needed to be postponed and that there would be another opportunity.
O’Neill’s program, which also included a video, was held just a few days prior to the 17th anniversary of terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, Neill said toward the conclusion of his presentation, “freedom itself was attacked.”
Freeholder Little introduced some of the Gold Star parents who came out for the program. The Gold Star designates a service member who did not come home.
“We have several Gold Star parents here today for this program and a good number of veterans in the audience. We were honored to have one of our heroes come here to Ocean County,” Little said.
The Gold Star families included Brendan Duffy who lost his son Christopher M. Duffy of the NJ Army National Guard, Christopher Cosgrove, Jr. and his wife Eileen Cosgrove, the parents of US Marine Christopher B. Cosgrove III, Eileen Daly who was present for Sgt. Ronald A Kubik, USS Army, 3 Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment, Carol and Charles Koch parents of US Marine Major Charles J. Koch.
O’Neill signed his book after taking several questions from the audience. The program was part of the library system’s annual James J. Mancini author event. Mancini was a World War II veteran who had served as freeholder for many years, and was the liaison to the library and a strong advocate for library services.