Montana is home to more than 91,000 veterans. The women and men who have served our country make up nearly 10 percent of our entire state population. That’s the second highest percentage in the nation.
Veterans Day is an opportunity for our country to pay special tribute to those who sacrificed for all of us. Last week provided me a particularly noteworthy reminder of Montana’s outsized role in serving our nation.
On Nov. 1, the CIA released hundreds of thousands of files recovered during the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The material, made public for the first time, provides unique insight into the terrorist organization that attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001 and the man largely responsible for orchestrating the attack.
But the material itself wasn’t what rose to the forefront of my mind; it was how two Montanans played pivotal roles in hunting al Qaeda and eventually taking down bin Laden.
Nada Bakos, née Glass, grew up in Denton, then a town of roughly 500 east of Great Falls. She was one of nine students in her high school graduating class. Bakos attended Montana State University before graduating and eventually moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the CIA. Bakos quickly rose through the agency’s ranks and landed on the front lines of America’s war on terrorism. Bakos’ primary mission was to find the so-called godfather of ISIS and the mastermind of al Qaida: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. She belonged to a “small yet dedicated sisterhood leading U.S. Special Operations Forces to the doorstep of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists,” according to a description of her forthcoming book, titled “The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS.”
Bakos and her team discovered a critical piece of information along the way by identifying bin Laden’s courier. This became a turning point for the U.S. intelligence community and it led to the discovery and eventual raid on bin Laden’s compound in May 2011.
This is when and where another Montanan stepped in.
Robert O’Neill was born and raised in Butte. After graduating from Butte Central Catholic High School, he joined the U.S. Navy. He became a member of the elite Navy SEALs and was involved in hundreds of missions, including the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, which was dramatized in the movie, “Captain Phillips.”
In May 2011, O’Neill and his fellow SEALs flew into Pakistan under the cover of night. Three years later, O’Neill publicly identified himself as the person who shot and killed bin Laden during the raid.
The historic incident was dramatized in the film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” and its main protagonist, Maya, was reportedly a composite based on several women in the CIA who had devoted several years to hunting bin Laden.
Bakos left the CIA in 2010 and her book is scheduled to be published in early 2018, pending CIA approval.
O’Neill left the U.S. Navy in 2012 and is the recipient of numerous honors, including two Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars with Valor. Earlier this year, he published his book, “The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama Bin Laden and My Years As A SEAL Team Warrior.” He co-founded Your Grateful Nation, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping special operations veterans transition from military service.
For a relatively small state like this, the stories of Bakos and O’Neill are an amazing coincidence and help illustrate the many ways Montanans serve their country.