Declaring the killing of Osama bin Laden “a good day for America,” President Barack Obama said Monday the world was safer without the al-Qaida terrorist and mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. His administration used DNA testing to help confirm that American forces in Pakistan had in fact killed bin Laden, as U.S. officials sought to erase all doubt about the stunning news.
“This is a good day for America,” the president said to a White House audience gathered for a ceremony awarding the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, to two soldiers, T. Kaho’ohanohano and Henry Svehla, who died while trying to save the lives of their fellow soldiers during the Korean War.
“Today, we are reminded that, as a nation, there’s nothing we can’t do – when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we work together, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans. And we’ve seen that spirit – that patriotism – in the crowds that have gathered, here outside the White House, at Ground Zero in New York, and across the country — people holding candles, waving the flag, singing the National Anthem — people proud to live in the United States of America.”
Obama made the remarks before presenting the medals to the families of Korean War veterans Private First Class Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano and Private First Class Henry Svehla. “They did not grow old; these two soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice when they were just 19 and 21 years old,” Obama said.
Kaho’ohanohano was awarded the medal posthumously for his heroic actions while leading a machine-gun squad in Korea on September 1, 1951. According to an official narrative of the battle, while under heavy enemy fire Kaho’ohanohano directed his squad to take cover to a safer position and then he used ammunition and grenades to fight the enemy on his own. After he had used up all of his ammunition he engaged in hand-to-hand combat until he was killed.
Svehla is receiving the honor because of his bravery as a rifleman during a June 12, 1952, battle in Korea. According to an official record of the battle, Svehla, while coming under heavy fire, charged the enemy and threw grenades as he ran toward them, which led to many casualties. He died when he threw himself on a grenade thrown by enemy forces meant to kill his comrades.
More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded since Congress authorized them in 1861. In November Obama awarded the medal to U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first living service member from wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to receive the award.
Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and the most hunted man in the world, was found not in the remote tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border where he has long been presumed to be sheltered, but in a large compound in the city of Abbottabad, about an hour’s drive north from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
The compound, only about a third of a mile from a military academy of the Pakistani Army, is at the end of a narrow dirt road and is roughly eight times the size of other homes in the area. It has no telephone or Internet connections. When American operatives converged on the residence early on Monday morning, Bin Laden “resisted the assault force” and was shot in the head and killed near the end of an intense 40-minute gun battle, senior administration officials said.
The raid carried extraordinary risks — and not just from Bin Laden and those with him in the compound. As the sound of battle shook the night, Pakistan scrambled jets to respond to a military operation that its military had not been informed was taking place.
“They had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else,” said President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, in a briefing on Monday. “So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of the Pakistani airspace, and thankfully there was no engagement with Pakistani forces.”
Mr. Obama and his national security advisers gathered in the White House to follow the raid, which had been planned and carried out in extreme secrecy. “It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday,” Mr. Brennan said. “The minutes passed like days.”
The tensest moment for those watching, he said, was when one of two helicopters that flew the American troops into the compound broke down, stalling as it flew over the 18-foot wall of the compound and prepared to land. The team blew it up and called in one of two backups. In all, 79 commandos and a dog were involved in the raid.
President Obama considered other options that would have been less risky, like an air strike, but ultimately opted to send in commandos because, Mr. Brennan said, “it gave us the ability to minimize collateral damage” and “to ensure that we knew who it was that was on that compound.”
Even a day later, not all of the details of the operation were known; some may never be. Officials did say that Bin Laden resisted arrest, but it was not clear, Mr. Brennan said, whether he opened fire himself. [The White House via The Globe and Mail, NY Times and Bloomberg]