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The McRaven Legacy

“We are in the ‘Golden Age’ of Special Operations. It’s a time when our unique talents as special operators are in the greatest demand. A time when the nation recognizes the strategic value of our services. A time when all that we train for, all that we work for, all that our predecessors planned for has come together…”

– Adm. William H. McRaven, USN, SOCOM Change of Command Ceremony

This past week, Adm. William H. McRaven handed over command of U.S Special Operations Command (SOCOM), to his successor, Gen. Joseph Votel, USA. And while this ceremony marks the end of his long and distinguished military career, it is hardly the last that Americans are likely to hear from this outstanding military officer and intellectual strategist. What people are already calling “The McRaven Legacy” has more than its share of publicly recognizable achievements, and those are only the ones we know about. From the very beginning of his military career, McRaven charted his own course. Some, however, might say that greatness was destiny for McRaven, given his background.

Born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, McRaven’s father was Col. Claude “Mac” McRaven, a World War II Spitfire pilot who also played in the NFL. McRaven’s life in the U.S. military began in 1977, when he graduated with a BA in journalism from the University of Texas in Austin, and a commission as a lieutenant, junior grade, from his time spent in the ROTC program at the school. He then took the unusual career path of becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL officer, completing BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/School) in 1978. His career and life then “went dark,” as is so common for special operations forces (SOF) personnel who strive to be “quiet professionals.”

His thesis, The Theory of Special Operations, was considered so unique and informative that a local military publisher, Presidio Press, released it in 1995 as Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. The book became an instant hit among military historians and enthusiasts.

That all changed in 1993, when McRaven completed work on his masters degree at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His thesis, The Theory of Special Operations, was considered so unique and informative that a local military publisher, Presidio Press, released it in 1995 as Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. The book became an instant hit among military historians and enthusiasts. Spec Ops became a SOF community bible on planning and executing raids, something McRaven has become the acknowledged master of since its publication.

McRaven at Hurlburt

Adm. William McRaven answers a question during an all-call at the Commando Hangar on Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 31, 2012. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Gustavo Castillo

But for all the notice his book gave him, what McRaven was known for throughout his Navy career is one thing: command. McRaven commanded every single kind of unit available to someone in his career track. Including SEAL teams/platoons in Underwater Demolitions Team (UDT) 21/SEAL Team 4, squadron commander and later commander of the SEAL Special Mission Unit (SMU) at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), SEAL Team 3, Deputy Commander of Naval Special Warfare Group (NSWG) 1, Deputy Commander (Europe) and Commander of JSOC and eventually SOCOM itself in 2011. Along with this came operational assignments in Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan, Iraqi Freedom, and serving as director of Strategic Planning (for Counterterrorism) on the National Security Council staff.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing that immediately came to the attention of journalists was the extremely open and informative atmosphere that McRaven promoted during his tenure at SOCOM.

So it is no surprise that his final operation as the JSOC Commander was to plan and oversee the raid to take down Al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden. “Read in” on the intelligence which had located bin Laden in Abbattabad, Pakistan, he personally selected the personnel and aircraft that would conduct the raid, and then supervised its planning down to the last detail. And when the lead helicopter suffered a problem and crashed delivering its load of JSOC SMU SEALs, McRaven’s plan had accommodations for the contingency, and the raid continued like clockwork. Just minutes later, with all of the raid participants and bin Laden’s body aboard, the task force was headed home to their base in Afghanistan, leaving behind nothing but a few bodies, some shell casings, and the charred remains of a downed helicopter as proof they had ever been there. For McRaven, whose entire SOF career had been “all about raids,” it was the one that everyone would remember, although McRaven himself stated it was just another raid, of many.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...