Author who detailed bin Laden raid has humble roots

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 30, 2012

VIRGINIA BEACH

There was never any indication that the guy who lived across the street was among the elite commandos who took out Osama bin Laden.

Occasionally, Patrick Tupea would pause while mowing the grass and wave to the man on the other side of Wilhelm Drive. The well-built sailor would return the gesture and continue on his way.

“At some point I learned that he was a SEAL, but that’s about it,” Tupea said from outside his home in the Victoria Park neighborhood. “I didn’t know he was like the best of the best.”

News vans descended on the sleepy neighborhood last week when it was revealed that former resident Matt Bissonnette penned “No Easy Day,” a first-person account of the raid to kill bin Laden.

Little is publicly known about the former SEAL who wrote the memoir under the pseudonym Mark Owen.

Tupea strained to recall even basic details about the man who lived in a house a few hundred feet away. The street is just a few miles southwest of Dam Neck, the beachfront Navy installation that’s home to SEAL Team 6.

“He seemed like a nice guy,” Tupea said. “That’s about all I know. He mostly kept to himself.”

Bissonnette grew up in a remote Alaskan fishing town. He studied sociology at a private evangelical Christian college in Southern California. He joined the Navy in 1999 and has participated in many of the nation’s highest profile special operations missions in recent years.

In 14 years in the Navy, Bissonnette rose to chief special warfare operator and received more than 30 medals and awards, including five Bronze Stars with Valor and a Purple Heart, according to a short biography provided by the Navy.

Bissonnette also participated in the 2009 rescue of Richard Phillips in the Indian Ocean. During that high-profile mission, SEAL snipers shot and killed three Somali pirates who were holding the captain of the Norfolk-based container ship Maersk Alabama hostage.

The warm seas of the Middle East are nothing like the waters Bissonnette frequented while he was growing up in Aniak, Alaska – a remote hamlet on the south bank of the Kuskokwim River.

A popular destination for fishing and hunting enthusiasts, the tiny bush village of about 500 people is accessible only by plane or river boat.

Lamont Albertson was mayor of Aniak when Bissonnette was coming up. He also served as principal of the town’s lone schoolhouse and runs a chartered fishing business where, as a 15-year-old, Bissonnette skippered boats that motored tourists or hauled freight through frigid waters.

“He always marched to the tune of his own drum, and I believe his parents raised him that way,” Albertson said. “He didn’t follow anyone.”

Albertson wasn’t surprised to learn that his former student and employee became a highly skilled Navy commando.

“He grew up in an extreme environment,” Albertson said late Tuesday after a long day out on the water. “I’m sure Matt was out ice fishing every spring in temperatures 15 or 20 below, just like any other young man in this town.”

Lord knows how many moose Bissonnette killed as a boy, Albertson said.

“If you want to eat red meat in this town, you go out and you shoot it. Same with fish. If you want to eat fish, you catch it. You learn to shoot. You live in the woods. That’s how we live; that’s how Matt grew up.”

Albertson’s adult son, also named Lamont, recalled Bissonnette as an “exceptional athlete” who was “basically unbeatable” during paintball games played in the woods as teenagers.

“He pretty much never lost.”

After graduating high school in 1994, Bissonnette enrolled at Biola University, a small Christian college near Los Angeles, where he studied social sciences.

One of his former professors, Dave Peters, said that he had fond memories of Bissonnette and that the two attended the same church.

“I recall he was very independent. A fearless thinker,” said Peters, who was surprised to learn of his former sociology student’s post-graduate exploits.

Five months after graduating from Biola in 1998, Bissonnette enlisted in the Navy, according to Katie Suich, a spokeswoman for the Navy Personnel Command. The following spring, he headed to basic underwater demolition/SEAL training in Coronado, Calif.

He spent four years with a SEAL team in California before transferring to a Virginia Beach-based unit in 2004. Two years later, he was assigned to a different Beach-based SEAL team, where he stayed until leaving the service in the spring, Navy records show.

According to his book, that unit was SEAL Team 6, the top-secret team tapped to carry out the bin Laden mission.

Most information about the elite unit – formally known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group – is classified, but the team’s exploits have increasingly been the focus of media attention.

Rumors have swirled about Bissonnette’s motives for releasing his book two months ahead of a presidential election. He’s registered as a Republican in Alaska.

Bissonnette hasn’t been speaking to the media. Attempts to reach him have been unsuccessful.

It’s unknown why Bissonnette left the Navy this spring. He would have been eligible for retirement in 2018.

Bissonnette sold his family’s Virginia Beach home in June for $544,000.

The new owners posted a hand-scrawled sign on the door last week asking reporters not to knock. “We do not know where the previous owners moved to,” it read.

A few houses away, children splashed through a sprinkler Tuesday. Most residents declined to talk to a reporter about Bissonnette. Others said they never met him.

Tupea, the neighbor from across the street, said there was no big sendoff when Bissonnette left town. He and his family left quietly, just months before exploding into the national spotlight.

“I have no idea where they went,” Tupea said. “Like I said, the guy kind of kept to himself.”

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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