SAN DIEGO — The highly secretive Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden will likely be honored in the only way such a covert group can be: in private with nobody but themselves and their commanders in the know.
Quietly recognizing heroic actions for clandestine operations is not new in the military. Some service members wear war decorations but refuse to talk about how they earned them. Others stash away their medals, either because they’ve been ordered to hide them or they have chosen to for their own security.
And there are those heroes who have never lived to see a medal, their families sworn to secrecy until they were honored posthumously. For the elite few who dropped from the sky into the walled compound in Pakistan, they must carry on without breathing a word about their participation in Sunday’s spectacular raid that eliminated the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
It is a secret that surely must burn in their souls, but military officials say they have no doubt it will be kept. The stakes are too high.
The Navy still hasn’t confirmed its SEALs carried out the much-lauded, 40-minute operation. But privately, Rear Adm. Edward Winters, at Naval Special Warfare Command in California, sent an email congratulating his forces and reminding them to keep quiet because “the fight is not over.”
Winters is the chief of the elite SEAL unit officially known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or “DEVGRU,” which is made up of only a few hundred personnel based in Dam Neck, Va. They call themselves “the quiet professionals.”
Team members’ names won’t be released for their personal safety, said Naval Petty Officer 2nd Class John Scorza, a spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command.
“I can understand the conundrum that commanders are in about how much can you tell,” said defense analyst Paul Giarra, a retired U.S. naval officer. “Because it’s news that’s good for morale and it also makes it clear to al-Qaida that they’re losing. That’s important. They need to know they’re losing.”
Revealing too much, on the other hand, can give the upper hand to groups like al-Qaida, Giarra said.
Gauging how much to tell is a growing challenge as military special operation groups increasingly work side by side with the intelligence community, like the SEALs and CIA did Sunday. There are benefits to touting such fantastic successes, something the U.S. government has long seized upon: President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Marines photographed raising the flag on Iwo Jima to come home and be identified so they could use interest in the picture to raise billions of dollars in war bonds.
President Barack Obama’s ratings went up after the announcement of bin Laden’s death, as did donations for the Virginia-based Navy SEAL Foundation, which helps the families of SEALs.
Other details of the raid that emerged Tuesday — including that Navy SEALs handcuffed those they encountered in the compound with plastic zip ties and pressed on in pursuit of their target, code-named Geronimo — could boost the public image of a force, whose raids have not always gone as planned. In a 2008 raid, the intended targets at a compound in Pakistan fled and instead a number of civilians were killed.
Sunday’s raid was nearly textbook perfect, and officials say its participants will likely receive some of the military’s highest medals. As military personnel, they are not eligible for the $25 million reward that was offered for hunting down bin Laden.
First, the Navy would have to confirm who did what exactly, and then a letter outlining their achievements would be written. Usually, the immediate commanding officer presents the honor. The entire process could take months, and would be meticulously carried out to ensure the names of those involved are not revealed, officials say.
In other cases, the government has chosen not to honor service members of covert operations until the mission has been declassified.
Last year, Obama posthumously recognized Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. “Dick” Etchberger for his courage under fire in 1968 during a mission on a remote Laotian mountain that was kept secret for decades because the U.S. wasn’t supposed to have troops in the officially neutral Southeast Asian country. Etchberger was awarded the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, after the government declassified his mission.
Sunday’s raid was one of a countless number that U.S. special operation forces have carried out in their pursuit of terrorists from Africa to the Middle East. While the SEALs were applauded for bin Laden’s death, they’ve also been told their mission is not over.
The SEALs involved in Sunday’s mission were back in the U.S. at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington for debriefing on the raid, lawmakers said after meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Craig Sawyer, a former Navy SEAL, speculated the team will likely be invited to the White House to meet the president and attend a private, small ceremony acknowledging their grand achievement.
“The operators of their unit and they themselves will know about it, but nobody else will,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the business.”
Many Americans, like Omar Quintero, a San Diego contractor, said it’s a shame the nation cannot give them the thanks they deserve.
“It would be very exciting to see who they are,” the 34-year-old father of two said. “Then we could treat them like celebrities. The guy who killed him (bin Laden) would be like our Superman.”