Believe it or not, we are approaching the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in our country's history - the attacks on our home soil that took place on September 11, 2001.

Those attacks took the lives, officially, of 2,977. Two planes hit the tallest towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania in an attempt by the plane's passengers to retake it from the terrorists who hijacked it.

Almost ten years after the attack - and exactly 10 years ago for us in the present day - the final chapter of that terrible saga closed with the death of the attack's mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

A group of Navy SEALs, known as SEAL Team Six, raided what was believed to be bin Laden's compound in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

The next day, Tuesday, May 3, the Commonwealth Journal dedicated its entire front page to bin Laden, declaring it the "Death of a Madman" in large type across the top.

Among the localized articles discussing the death were several written by Christopher Harris (then going by the shorter "Chris Harris") showing such a monumental occasion through the eyes of Pulaskians.

A Special Breed: Two local men know what unit that took out bin Laden went throughout

The life Gene Palmer knew wasn't the same one as the men who took out Osama bin Laden.

For one thing, "I was a jungle man," he said -- a terrain totally different from the dry conditions and dangerous mountains of Pakistan. For another, he was in Special Forces -- a type of special operations, or special ops, team from the U.S. Army.

Still, Palmer, now a Pulaski County constable, has some idea of what the Navy SEALS who took out bin Laden went through.

"In Special Forces, we hated going on missions like that," said Palmer.

Shaun Campbell -- currently with Windstream Communications here in Somerset, but formerly a sniper with the Marine Force Reconnaissance Companies (the Marine's branch of special ops, a unique type of serviceman which also includes the SEALS, Special Forces, and Night Stalkers) -- can echo those thoughts. The best type of mission, he said, is a clean one.

"Everyone thinks the main goal of special ops is to go in with guns blazing," said Campbell. "Generally, if you're in special ops, you would love to make it in and out of an area without a single shot being fired."

That's especially true in a place like Pakistan, considered non-hostile to the United States. Special ops teams working in places like Afghanistan or Iraq have tended to enjoy the benefits of large number of armored and airborne firepower. In countries like Pakistan, however, which are considered to have relatively peaceful relations with the U.S., special ops teams have to go in with virtually no back-up support in small 12-man teams, noted Campbell, and they have to stay sneaky.

Worse, if something goes wrong, there's no safety net, he suggested.

"When you get into these clandestine missions that go undetected, nobody knows about them until something big like this comes up, those are the most dangerous, because the men go in unmarked," said Campbell.

"When we went into Bosnia" -- a place where landmines were a constant threat, he noted -- "once we got there in the middle of the night, we got a briefing of where we were going, just to keep any leaks from getting out.

"If the mission didn't turn out as a success, unfortunately they get written off as training accidents, if even written off that way," he continued. "(The soldiers) might just get written off the books, if everything went bad Sunday. ... These operations are either huge successes or catastrophic failures. Luckily, our troops are trained up enough that these missions are a success."

Campbell could only recall one incident where a special ops mission went "really bad, really quickly" -- the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, on which the book and movie "Black Hawk Down" were based, and when a number of American soldiers were horribly killed.

Training and preparation are vital. Palmer recalled how special ops soldiers would spend weeks in "rehearsals" for major operations -- many of which are going on every day that no one ever knows about, said Campbell.

Palmer mentioned the Son Tay prison camp in Vietnam, were Special Forces went to try to free prisoners in the 1970s.

"(U.S. forces) made a mock village model of where they were going to go and what they were going to do," said Palmer. "They flew over and took pictures of the camp and had rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. Even when you have that many rehearsals, something could still go wrong."

In the bin Laden raid, nothing went amiss; in Son Tay, it did. Palmer said that the CIA had been manipulating clouds in the area to "create a lot of rain." However, the rainfall caused the river near the camp to rise so high and so quickly that by the time Special Forces got there, no one was around -- the Vietnamese had already moved the prisoners out of the camp.

Palmer, who served from 1956 to 1984, with 14 years in Special Forces, suspects that the team that made the bin Laden raid had also spent several weeks rehearsing, likely since officials have let it be known they had intelligence on the terrorist leader's possible whereabouts since February.

"I don't care how short the mission is, you plan out everything you can," said Palmer. "I wanted to plan out every little detail that there was."

For instance: Special Forces would set up three individual rendezvous points, where soldiers could go if they got separated. Operatives slept with their head always pointed north, so that when they woke up, they'd know which direction they were headed. Weapons were always test-fired before heading out, and water and ammunition were the main things one had to carry -- food was more of an afterthought.

"You can do without food," said Palmer. "You can try to catch animals off the land. But water, you have to have, and ammo, you have to have."

Learning from past mistakes is also important. Critical errors made during the Iran hostage crisis during President Jimmy Carter's term were studied by Special Forces, noted Palmer, as well as the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentinean forces.

Cross-training is important, he added. Each individual has his own specialty, whether as an engineer (like Palmer), medic, communications, weapons, etc. Those individuals could then train the others in the unit in those areas. Each man is airborne jump qualified, and like to share their knowledge as much as they can.

"We liked going into foreign countries and teaching them," said Palmer. "We don't like the Sneaky Pete stuff. We had to do it, but not by choice."

He noted that successes in Afghanistan following 9/11 had a lot to do with the presence of Special Forces. "When they pulled out and were sent to Iraq, it left Afghanistan wide-open," said Palmer. "You can't operate in those areas with conventional military."

Palmer watched the news of bin Laden's death, "hoping it was true," but fearing that the terrorist leader may have had a "double" in places, "as a lot of people do. ... I wasn't too sure."

Added Palmer, "This (operation) might make it easier on people in the future, but I don't know. The jury's still out."

Danger remains. Following 9/11, those in the special ops community were asked to downplay that fact. Wives and family members of those in special ops units who wore jewelry or other markings displaying that fact were told to hide those insignias for their own safety, because of fear of retaliation in a potentially hostile climate.

"The women said no," said Palmer. "They said, 'We're in this just like our husbands. We're all part of the family.' They did not take off their necklaces and hide that fact."

That could become a concern again, however, and Palmer said retaliation will become a very real threat following bin Laden's death.

Campbell noted that U.S. House Speaker John Boehner recently paid a visit to Pakistan, and probably warned officials there that a raid of some sort would take place, or gauged the political temperature for such a move.

"He probably tried to feel out how they felt about it," said Campbell, "because these are really sticky situations."

Ultimately, those who carry out these covert tasks will never receive the same glory other soldiers do, said Campbell, simply because of the secretive nature of these missions. It takes a different breed to go in with no support, a very high risk of catastrophic failure, and no recognition awaiting on the homefront.

"The team went in and won this firefight and got bin Laden, and will never receive any kind of commendation for it whatsoever," said Campbell, "other than the satisfaction of knowing that it was their team that did it. Ninety percent of the (special ops) community don't do it for any kind of recognition, they just do it for service of their country."

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