Bin Laden killed repeatedly in Twin Cities suburb game

Role playing in the hunt for Osama bin Laden
Role playing in the hunt for Osama bin Laden at Sealed Mindset in New Hope, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

It's been more than a year since a team of Navy SEALs raided a home in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, but the daring mission lives on, three times a week, in a building in New Hope, Minn.

Four men and two women filed into the Sealed Mindset Firearms Studio on a hot July night. Commander Larry Yatch greeted them with some startling news. The president of the United States had authorized them to capture bin Laden.

"We're going to be flying from our base in Afghanistan," Yatch said. "Obviously, this is a complete Black Op."

This isn't a real military operation. It's a high-end role-playing game. People pay $325 to re-enact the bin Laden raid. Although the mission is fake, Yatch, Sealed Mindset's president, is a real Navy SEALs vet. He opened the 10,000-square-foot studio with his wife Anne in April. So far, 137 people have signed up to pretend to kill a man wearing a white robe and a fake beard.

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The raids come at a time when millions of Americans are playing other violent games inspired in part by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most popular video games are first-person shooters, like Call of Duty. At a company in Milwaukee, people act out hostage rescues. And every day, at gun ranges around the country, people aim fire at target photos of bin Laden.

What's different about Sealed Mindset is that it's selling more than a game. Yatch said while they want people to have a good time presenting to be Seals, his real goal is to teach people skills they can use to protect themselves.

''If you spend every weekend shooting or every day at the dojo working on your martial arts, you're halfway to being safe,'' he said. ''It's the people that maybe might be a little intimidated around a gun or don't necessarily feel comfortable having to fight with someone, those are the people who we can make the biggest difference in their lives.''

Inside Sealed Mindset
Killing Osama bin Laden inside the Sealed Mindset Firearms Studio.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The company offers 73 defense classes each month and "live scenario trainings" designed to mimic actual threats. Yatch has set up fake kidnappings, fake carjackings, and even a fake shooting by a disgruntled employee.

The lobby of Sealed Mindset looks more like an expensive spa than a gun range - a spa with custom-made assault rifles mounted on the wall. There's also a babysitting room, so parents can practice their ninja moves when someone else watches the kids.

The group gathered for the July raid included a former Marine, a facial plastic surgeon, a marketing strategist, an I.T. consultant, and two guys who like to shoot guns on weekends.

The night began with training and introductions. Simi Patnaik said she and her husband, Mohit Dewan, bought tickets for the raid at a school fundraiser. ''It just sounded like a really cool event,'' she said.

Her husband, the plastic surgeon, had seen gunshot wounds on the operating table, but he had never fired a weapon. ''Brand new to this,'' he told the group.

Former Marine Jesse Olson said he got a ticket to the raid as a gift from his fiance for his 29th birthday. His fiance didn't know whether she'd like it, so she stayed home.

Yatch explained the mission. They needed to enter the compound silently and head toward bin Laden's bedroom. They should try to capture him alive, unless he starts shooting back.

''If he presents a lethal threat, take him out,'' Yatch instructed. ''I don't want to have to write a letter to any of your parents, okay?''

Larry Yatch
Larry Yatch, a former Navy SEAL, leads the role playing game at Sealed Mindset.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

If the mission goes horribly wrong, it'll be every Seal for himself, he warned. "We have to have complete deniability, so you obviously aren't a Seal if you get picked up in Pakistan."

The platoon wasn't exactly mission-ready. So Yatch led them down the hall to a small firing range to get some practice with real assault rifles. The walls of the range were covered in black rubber. Two life-sized photos of bin Laden dangled from the ceiling. The recruits lined up, two at a time, guns ready.

''Get that bin Laden,'' Yatch said.

Bullets tore apart the paper targets until only an outline of bin Laden's body remained. For the final round, Yatch ordered the shooters to aim for the face.

"Anything above the moustache to below the turban," he said.

It was a tricky assignment. Two recruits managed to pierce the terrorist's moustache. Yatch was impressed. ''A little low, but perfect shots.''

The group headed back to the classroom. It was time for the raid. Commander Yatch led them one at a time so they each had a chance to kill bin Laden.

Patnaik grabbed a paintball gun designed to look like an assault rifle. She put on her helmet, said goodbye to her husband, and with Yatch by her side, walked down the hallway, and opened the compound door.

The mission had begun.

Watch video of the players. Story continues below.

The room was big and dark. Speakers blasted in the sound of helicopters and gunfire. Peering through the darkness, Patnaik spotted bin Laden's bedroom. The door was closed. Yatch nudged her forward, faster. She approached the room, and with one hand on the gun's trigger, reached over and opened the bedroom door.

All of a sudden, there was bin Laden, ten feet away, screaming. He held a gun in each hand and immediately started firing. Patnaik panicked and started screaming, too. She managed to get off a few shots, and bin Laden slumped to the ground. His robe and turban were covered in blue splotches from Patnaik's paintball gun.

''I think we got him. Go check,'' Yatch said. ''Is that him?''

''I think so,'' Patnaik yelled back.

Yatch snapped a photo of bin Laden to send to ''headquarters'' to get a positive I.D. ''Let's get out of here before his guards show up,'' Yatch whispered.

A few seconds later, Patnaik opened the compound door and walked into the hallway. The raid was over. She was beaming.

''That was awesome,'' she said.

Meanwhile, the fake bin Laden cleaned up and prepared for the next raid.

What's it like to play bin Laden?

''It's warm,'' the man, whose real name is Beau Doboszenski, said.

The fake bin Laden has to wear rubber padding under his robe to protect himself from paintball rounds fired at close range, especially because, as he put it, ''most people tend to aim for the groin.'' He also wears a helmet under his beard and turban. He still usually ends up with a few bruises but said he doesn't mind. ''It's a lot of fun,'' he said.

One by one, each platoon member completed the mission. Some got lost on the way. Olson, the former Marine, panicked and forgot to shoot, and Yatch had to step in to fire the fatal rounds.

Back in the classroom, the platoon regrouped.

''Awesome. So first, mission debrief,'' Yatch said. "Good job everyone, good job."

The team shared their thoughts on the raid. Dewan, the plastic surgeon, went first.

He was surprised by the power of the gun and how loud it was.

''I think when it came to the mission itself, it was a little confusing,'' he said. ''You're amped up. The adrenaline's going.''

Yatch jumped in. ''That's what Clausewitz described as the fog of war, which is the fact that as you get deeper and deeper into war, and it isn't even on a battle level, it can be on a grander level, there is always going to be a fog. There's always going to be uncertainty and unclarity as to what is going on.''

Patnaik, his wife, went next.

''I had no idea how I was going to react until I got in the room,'' she said. "And to let you all know, as soon as Osama started screaming at me, I started screaming back, like aah, just, like, shooting indiscriminately, so I would not be a particularly good Seal.''

Yatch interrupted. ''You got him. He got scared,'' he said. ''In my view, that was no scream. That was a war, a beautiful war cry.''

Everyone laughed.

The experience surprised Olson, the former Marine.

''The one word that I think sums it up for me is just intense,'' he said. ''And it certainly gives me an even greater respect for the people that have to do that, especially Seals.''

Yatch downplayed the praise. ''Anyone can learn to be safe,'' Yatch told the platoon. ''Anyone can learn to defend themselves from a lethal threat.''

Patnaik and her husband asked if they could keep the paper target from the firing range at a souvenir. Yatch returned with a pile of papers riddled with bullets.

''Display it proudly,'' he said.

Patnaik grabbed the target with her best shot - a bullet right in bin Laden's forehead. ''This will be good. We can hang it up in the children's room,'' she joked.

''As long as you don't put it over the bed,'' Yatch replied, ''because I don't know what effect that would have, putting them to sleep with bin Laden.''