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Whidbey Island welcomes death of Osama bin Laden

The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of an American strike team sparked public celebration across the country Sunday and Whidbey Island was no exception.

Although thousands didn’t take to the streets, as was the case in Washington, D.C. and New York City, the news was well received. One man was seen waving a sign along Highway 20 near Safeway that said, “Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Others celebrated at local watering holes like the Oak Harbor Tavern where the bartender provided patrons with “on the house” drinks.

Still others, such as Coupeville resident John Gauntt, chose to contemplate the news in quiet reflection. The 9/11 terrorists attacks have a special significance for him because he was there, working in Manhattan when terrorists piloted two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

It’s been nearly a decade and Gauntt said what he remembers most from that day was his 10-hour effort to evacuate the city and reach his wife and children on Staten Island. But some things you never forget.

People everywhere were in a panic, he said, uncertain whether the attacks were over or just beginning. The dust in the air was so thick he and others wrapped wet clothing around their faces so they could breath. And then there was the smell.

“It was like someone put a computer on a barbecue,” he said.

Gauntt’s daily commute to work took him right by the trade center and he had planned to stop by that morning and pick up a birthday present for his wife at the mall. At the last minute, he decided to delay the trip until the end of the day due to a particularly busy schedule at work.

That was more than nine years ago. To learn suddenly that the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks is dead was a powerful moment and he spent much of Monday morning looking at Penn Cove.

“It was always that nagging feeling that’s he’s still out there,” Gauntt said. “You could never completely relax and now the guy is gone.”

President Barack Obama stunned the world Sunday night when he confirmed that bin Laden had been killed by American forces in a raid at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The leader of the al Qaeda terrorist group has evaded capture for years.

According to national news reports, the approximately two dozen raiders that participated in the attack belonged to the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six and were under the direct command of CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Whidbey News-Times reporters spent hours Monday asking Navy personnel from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station if they wished to comment on the momentous news but all declined.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and its sailors have contributed heavily to the war against terror. Since the 9/11 attacks, six NAS Whidbey Island sailors belonging to Explosive Ordnance Detachment Mobile Unit 11 have been killed in the line of duty.

They include: Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Bewley, Chief Petty Officer Gregory Billiter, Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffrey Chaney, Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis Hall, Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph McSween, and Chief Petty Officer Patrick Wade.

Several retired Navy servicemen that call Oak Harbor home said Whidbey personnel have a lot to be proud of, and even though they aren’t saying much, likely view bin Laden’s death as a major milestone in the war effort.

“I think they are overjoyed,” said Ed Hammond, who retired as a senior chief after a 28-year career in the Navy.

“It’s a major victory for them,” echoed Thomas Catoire, who spent 12 years in the Navy, many of which were at NAS Whidbey Island.

Both men said they weren’t surprised that the military finally caught up with bin Laden, that it had been only a matter of time. And although it’s a major milestone, neither has any illusions that it signifies the end of the war on terror.

Al Qaeda is still out there and Hammond and Catoire believe members will want to seek revenge for the death of their leader.

“It’s going to get worse,” Catoire said. “People will make him a martyr.”

That seems to be a common belief among the retired military community. Frank Pulu, a retired marine who now runs a Highway 20 eatery that caters to the military, said he also expected some kind of retaliation, albeit nowhere near the scale of 9/11.

But it’s not taking away from the relief of knowing that bin Laden is finally gone and of the joy he feels from seeing an expression of victory on the faces of his military patrons.

“The tension has been overwhelming and it’s been lifted,” he said.

As for Gauntt, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed him forever. Many of the “little” things in life that didn’t matter before now do, and the “big” things aren’t such a big deal. He makes it a point to never leave the house angry at his wife and tends to spend more time with his kids.

And although he doesn’t quite feel like “dancing a jig,” knowing that bin Laden is no longer at large after nearly 10 years is a semblance of closure.

“There is still more to do but at least that book is closed,” Gauntt said.

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