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Role-playing at the range, Bin Laden in their sights


LAST UPDATED: 1:33 a.m. HST, Sep 16, 2012

NEW HOPE, Minn. >> Gripping a modified AR-15 assault rifle, Nathan Schneider threw open a bedroom door and crossed the threshold, his barrel blazing as a man dressed like Osama bin Laden fell motionless on the floor.

The fake bin Laden — wearing a white robe, a head scarf and a fake wiry beard — has been pelted with paint bullets here several times a night, up to three nights a week, since the Sealed Mindset gun range began offering this role-playing experience in July.

The cost: $325 per person for two hours of Navy SEAL training and a chance to re-enact the military raid on bin Laden’s three-story compound last year in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

“It was definitely an adrenaline rush,” Schneider, a 26-year-old blender salesman for Vitamix, said after he stormed the “scenario room,” a small maze of walls inside a renovated warehouse in suburban Minneapolis.

The actual killing of bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and America’s most wanted terrorist until his death in May 2011, set off celebrations in the streets of New York and Washington. Video game developers quickly replicated the mission in first-person shooter games played at home.

The lure of that secret strike has not faded.

“No Easy Day,” a personal account of the raid by a member of the Navy SEAL team, shot to the top of the best-seller list when it went on sale Sept. 4, the same day a group gathered here to try the raid firsthand.

Like Schneider, most of the seven other paying participants at Sealed Mindset that night, all men under 45, used a Living Social coupon to save more than half the cost of the live scenario.

Since July, more than 70 people — married couples, college classmates, military history buffs — have hunted bin Laden at the gun range, with about 100 more already booked through the beginning of October.

Larry Yatch, the owner of Sealed Mindset and a former Navy SEAL member who served in Iraq, said the bin Laden experience was designed to give people a realistic glance at what it took to serve in that elite military unit and to draw new clients to the dozens of firearm and martial arts classes he offers each month.

“The way I looked at it was you can’t offend someone if you’re shooting the devil, Hitler or bin Laden,” Yatch said, arguing that if he had invented a fictional “bad guy” from the Middle East for the scenario it could have been viewed as anti-Muslim. “If someone’s offended that we’re shooting bin Laden, well, you’re probably offended that we’re shooting at all.”

Sealed Mindset has based its curriculum on real events before. In recent months, it set up fake carjackings, home burglaries and knife attacks for self-defense training that imitated tragic stories from the news. After the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., in July, the company held an “active shooter” session that included one scenario in which a masked gunman burst through the door and opened fire on a room full of people.

“Everyone is a superhero in their mind,” Yatch said. “We watch the news and think we would have done X or we would have done Y. The reality is you wouldn’t unless you were trained.”

The bin Laden experience, which is advertised as a “Navy Seal Adventure,” is another way to make that point, he said, but with an added black-ops vibe.

The night started with firearm instruction and a mock intelligence briefing — a presentation of maps and 3-D models based on public information about the raid. A yoga class was still meeting in another room nearby as the group practiced rounding a corner and firing at cardboard pictures of bin Laden in one of the facility’s two shooting galleries.

One by one, the participants later crept through a dark alcove in the scenario room and toward the terrorist’s bedroom as a soundtrack of gunfire and helicopters pounded through speakers. Some shot wide and forgot what few commands they had just learned as a screaming bin Laden fired blanks at them from a modified Glock 17 handgun before he collapsed on the ground.

Reflecting on those tense moments, Brian Cooper, 33, an administrator at a local blood bank who came for a friend’s birthday, said he could not help but think about his younger brother, who served with the Marines in Iraq.

“Knowing that he went through those rooms, with real guns and real bullets, not knowing if he’d make it home,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s just surreal.”

As Beau Doboszenski, a gun range employee still wearing the bin Laden costume, joined the final debrief that evening, someone in the group turned and apologized for shooting at him. Doboszenski laughed as he looked down at his robe. It was speckled with only a few small dots of paint.

“Sadly,” he said through the beard, “most of you missed.”

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