All achievers

Admiral William H. McRaven, USN

Global War on Terrorism

One person affecting the life of one other person or ten other people can over time change the world.

William H. McRaven was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina. His father, a career Air Force officer, was stationed at Pope Air Force Base, now known as Pope Field, part of Fort Bragg. The family — including his two older sisters — moved to Texas while William was in elementary school and settled in San Antonio. His mother was born in Texas, and McRaven identifies strongly with the Lone Star State.

Young Bill McRaven was drawn to the sea at an early age and began scuba diving when he was 13. An enthusiastic athlete, he competed in as many sports as possible. He played football for the Theodore Roosevelt High School Rough Riders and particularly excelled at track. He has often cited his high school track coach, Jerry Turnbow, as a positive influence. Given the military background of his father and his family’s friends, a career in the military was something he had always considered. After graduating from high school in San Antonio, he entered the University of Texas, Austin on a track scholarship and joined Navy ROTC. After exploring pre-med and accounting courses, he found a congenial major in journalism. He enjoyed writing and found the training in concise communication extremely useful in his military career. He met Georgeann Brady in college. The couple married shortly after graduation and have raised three children. Their marriage has lasted through a 37-year military career requiring constant relocation and deployments around the world.

William and Georgeann McRaven enjoy a visit to the Auberge du Soleil resort in Napa Valley, California during the 2014 International Achievement Summit.
William and Georgeann McRaven enjoy a visit to Napa Valley during the 2014 International Achievement Summit.

On entering active service in the Navy, McRaven sought and achieved admission to the training program of the Sea, Air, Land Teams (SEALs), the Navy’s elite special operations force. SEALs are trained to operate in all environments (Sea, Air and Land) including the most extreme climatic conditions. The athletic McRaven took to the exacting demands of SEAL training, a process he likens to “a lifetime crammed into six months.”

After completing Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL Training, McRaven was assigned to the newly formed SEAL Team Six. The young lieutenant was given a squad to command, but soon ran afoul of the team’s controversial commander, Richard Marcinko. Their leadership styles clashed and McRaven was relieved of his first command. Faced with this setback, the young lieutenant might have sought to continue his Naval career outside of the SEAL program, but he was determined to prove himself. He was assigned to SEAL Team Four, where he was given command of an entire platoon. McRaven succeeded in his new position and began his ascent through the ranks. In the mid-1980s, the administration of President Ronald Reagan supported a major buildup of U.S. military forces, including an expansion of the SEALs and other special forces. As the special operations community grew, McRaven’s career advanced with it.

Admiral William McRaven attends the 2011 Medal of Honor ceremony for Sgt. Leroy Arthur Petry, USA, at the White House. (© Shawn Thew/EPA/Corbis)
Admiral McRaven attends the 2011 Medal of Honor ceremony for Sgt. Leroy Arthur Petry, USA, at the White House.

During the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, McRaven served as a task unit commander in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Following the war, he was task group commander in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. He would later return to the SEALs as commander of SEAL Team Three.

McRaven earned his master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He had entered as a student of the National Security Affairs program, but soon saw the need for a graduate level program in special operations limited warfare, not just for the Navy, but throughout the armed services. He helped create the school’s Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict curriculum and became the program’s first graduate. His master’s thesis, The Theory of Special Operations, was published in 1996 as Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. It has been reprinted numerous times, has been translated into several languages, and is studied around the world.

Sgt. Cory Remsburg, USA, speaks with Admiral William McRaven, during Remsburg's 2014 retirement ceremony. An Army Ranger, Remsburg was severely wounded in a 2009 firefight with enemy forces in Afghanistan. He has since become a national figure who was highlighted during President Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address. (AP Photo/Savannah Morning News, Corey Dickstein)
Sgt. Cory Remsburg, USA, speaks with Admiral William McRaven, during Remsburg’s 2014 retirement ceremony. An Army Ranger, Remsburg was severely wounded in a 2009 firefight with enemy forces in Afghanistan. He has since become a national figure who was highlighted during President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address.

In addition to his command experience and academic work, McRaven compiled an impressive record of service in administrative positions, as chief of staff at Naval Special Warfare Group One, with the Chief of Naval Operations, and as assessment director at Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). McRaven’s reputation had spread beyond the Navy and throughout the special operations community. He was named deputy commanding general for operations at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

As commander of Naval Special Warfare Group One, Captain McRaven was leading a 1,000-foot freefall exercise in the summer of 2001, when an accident occurred that could easily have cost him his life. While freefalling, the man ahead of him deployed his parachute too soon, and McRaven collided with the chute as it opened. Stunned, he opened his own chute as well, but the lines wrapped his legs separately, wrenching his legs in opposite directions. Immediate surgery was able to repair his broken back and pelvis, but McRaven faced many months of sedentary recuperation. He was lying on a hospital bed in his own home on September 11, 2001 when he saw the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. With that and the attack on the Pentagon on the same day, McRaven was immediately aware that the United States was entering a new era of armed conflict and that special operations would be needed as never before.

An Afghan strike force trained by United States Special Operations completes a training session at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan. Admiral McRaven created a plan to replace thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan with small special ops teams paired with larger Afghan units to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
An Afghan strike force trained by United States Special Operations completes a training session at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan. Admiral McRaven created a plan to replace thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan with small special ops teams paired with larger Afghan units to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban. (AP Photo)

When he had recovered sufficiently to report for duty, he returned to Washington to serve as Deputy National Security Advisor and director for strategic planning in the National Security Council Staff’s Office of Combating Terrorism. The remaining ten years of his military career would focus almost entirely on counterterrorism operations and strategy. He was the principal author of the government’s 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.

May 1, 2011: In the White House Situation Room, President Barack Obama and members of his national security team monitor the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. He is joined by Vice President Joe Biden (seated, left) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (both seated, right). As they watch drone video of the compound, Admiral William McRaven gives them a live briefing by secure video link from a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (White House photo)
May 1, 2011: In the White House Situation Room, President Barack Obama and members of his national security team monitor the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. He is joined by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As they watch a drone video of the secret compound, Admiral McRaven gives them a live briefing by secure video link from a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

In 2006, he was tapped to lead the Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), based in Stuttgart, Germany. He served simultaneously as the first director of the NATO Special Operations Forces Coordination Centre, enhancing and integrating the efforts of all NATO Special Operations Forces. In 2008, now a three-star admiral, he became the 11th officer to serve as commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), with responsibility for leading coordination of techniques, equipment, exercises, training and tactics for joint operations among the special ops community. Although JSOC is based at Fort Bragg, McRaven spent much of his time in Afghanistan, where operations intensified on his watch. In the decade following the attacks on the United States, McRaven commanded hundreds of night raids on suspected terrorist targets.

2013: Admiral William McRaven, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (Sebastien Micke/Paris Match/Contour by Getty Images)
2013: Admiral William McRaven, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command, at the Pentagon.

In the first months of 2011, CIA Director Leon Panetta summoned McRaven to a meeting at CIA headquarters to describe the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan that Panetta believed might be harboring Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader who orchestrated the attacks on New York and Washington. Director Panetta asked McRaven to prepare plans for an attack on the compound. The effort was dubbed Operation Neptune Spear. President Obama promoted McRaven to four-star admiral in April and nominated him to serve as the ninth commander of the USSOC, with responsibility of the entire special operations community. While the Senate considered the appointment, McRaven quietly proceeded with plans for the operation to eliminate Bin Laden.

Academy members Admiral William McRaven, USN, General Philip Breedlove, USAF, General David Petraeus, USA.
Academy of Achievement members: Admiral William McRaven, USN, General Philip Breedlove, USAF, and General David Petraeus, USA, at the Banquet of the Golden Plate during the 2014 International Achievement Summit.

During this period the SEALs, Rangers and other special forces units under McRaven’s command at JSOC were carrying out as many as 15 missions a night in Afghanistan, but Operation Neptune Spear presented difficulties unlike any other. Bin Laden’s compound lay within the territory of Pakistan, ostensibly a U.S. partner in the war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. The target was less than a mile from Pakistan’s national military academy. A failed mission would not only permit America’s most wanted enemy to escape but ran the risk of antagonizing an essential ally. Secrecy and surprise were paramount, and President Obama concluded that the Pakistan government and military could not maintain operational security. The president and his advisors considered and rejected the options of a Drone missile strike or of bombing the compound. One had limited chances of success, the other ran the risk of damaging neighboring houses and injuring the occupants. McRaven applied the principles he had outlined in his book Spec Ops and proposed the plan that would delay any chance of discovery until the last possible moment. McRaven had the SEALs rehearse the mission at a full-scale replica of the compound at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan.

Academy member and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak discusses the civil war in Syria and the threat of ISIS with Admiral William McRaven at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in Napa Valley, California.
Academy member and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak discusses the civil war in Syria and the threat of ISIS with Admiral William McRaven at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in Napa Valley, California.

On the night of May 1, 2011, helicopters carried Seal Team Six from their base in Afghanistan into Pakistani air space. Admiral McRaven, linked by secure video from Jalalabad to the White House, briefed the president in real time as the operation progressed. Within 15 minutes of the SEALs’ arrival in Abbottabad, all resistance had been overcome and Bin Laden was dead, along with three of his companions. In the next 23 minutes, the SEALs completed a search of the premises, moved all survivors outside, destroyed one helicopter that was damaged during the landing, removed Bin Laden’s body and were on their way back to Jalalabad, two minutes ahead of schedule.

Former CIA Director David Petraeus presents Admiral William McRaven with the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco, California.
Former CIA Director General David Petraeus presents Admiral William McRaven with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco, California.

News of Bin Laden’s death was greeted with nearly universal relief and approval in the United States, and as McRaven’s role in the operation became known, the Senate moved to unanimously confirm his appointment as commander of USSOCOM. Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, USSOCOM ensures the readiness of all special forces and directs their operations worldwide. Although most of these operations, by their nature, must remain confidential, in 2010 the command reported that special forces were deployed in 75 countries. Special forces conduct counterterrorist operations, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop training, and counter-proliferation operations to arrest the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven at a 2015 press conference in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Ricardo B. Brazziell)
University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven at a 2015 press conference in Austin, Texas. (Ricardo B. Brazziell)

In 2014, Admiral McRaven announced his retirement from the United States Navy after 37 years of service. In May of that year he delivered a commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. When posted on the Internet, the address drew millions of viewers in a matter of weeks. McRaven was invited to apply for the position of chancellor of the entire University of Texas system. The Board of Regents announced his appointment in July 2014, and retired Admiral McRaven assumed his duties the following January. Today, the McRavens make their home in Austin, and the new chancellor presides over a system comprising nine university campuses and six medical centers, employing 87,000 faculty and staff, with an enrollment of 216,000 students.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2014

On May 1, 2011, President Obama and his national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room to watch a commando raid taking place half a world away. As the mission unfolded, the president was in continuous video contact with the senior military officer directing the operation from a base in Afghanistan, Admiral William McRaven.

To this task, Admiral McRaven brought three decades of experience in special operations. The first officer to graduate from the Special Operations and Limited Warfare program at the Naval Postgraduate School, he has held commands at every level of the special ops community, from leading a single SEAL platoon, to his final post as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). His experience includes commands in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, leadership of SEAL Team Three, and of NATO’s special operations command (SOCEUR). At USSOCOM, Admiral McRaven oversaw and coordinated elite forces from all branches of the nation’s military, including such storied outfits as the Navy Seals, the Army’s Green Berets and Delta Force, and the Air Force Special Tactics Squadron.

The success, that night in 2011, of the raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden without a single American casualty was due, in no small part, to the unique expertise of the man who organized and executed the plan, Admiral William McRaven. Since retiring from the United States Navy in 2014, Admiral McRaven has served as chancellor of the nine-campus University of Texas system.

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We know there are many things you can’t tell us about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, but maybe you can give us the big picture of your thoughts about it.

Keys to success — Integrity

William McRaven: What I’m always happy to tell folks is the phenomenal work of the CIA. Our part of the mission was really pretty straightforward.  I mean, it’s kind of viewed as the sexy piece. We flew from Afghanistan into Pakistan and got Bin Laden and came back. And there was an attractiveness to that aspect of it. But that was a pretty straightforward mission for us. In fact, I would tell you that it was — I mean, it had a political aspect of it and an angst aspect of it that was higher than the rest of the missions we do — but from a standpoint of a pure military operation it was pretty straightforward. What I have said before is the credit really belongs to the CIA, who in fact located Bin Laden, and the President and his National Security team, who made the decision; the President, who made the decision to go after Bin Laden when our intelligence really at best had us at about 50/50.  So the President made a decision to risk American lives and frankly to risk his political fortune, I think, to do the right thing for America. And I’m always very appreciative that he did that. And I think those are the big takeaways that the American public ought to have is that the President and his National Security team did the right thing. The CIA — the best intelligence organization in the world — along with the National Security Agency, which was part of their ability to figure out where Bin Laden was, those were the real stars of this mission. I’m very proud of what my guys did, but that’s the sort of things we do pretty much every day.

May 1, 2011: In the White House Situation Room, President Barack Obama and members of his national security team monitor the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. He is joined by Vice President Joe Biden (seated, left) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (both seated, right). As they watch drone video of the compound, Admiral William McRaven gives them a live briefing by secure video link from a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (White House photo)
May 1, 2011: In the White House Situation Room, President Barack Obama and members of his national security team monitor the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. He is joined by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As they watch a drone video of the secret compound, Admiral McRaven gives them a live briefing by secure video link from a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Looking at some of the tenets you outlined in your book The Theory of Special Operations, a lot of it applies to Operation Neptune Spear, as the Bin Laden operation was called.

William McRaven: Absolutely. I went right back to the book, because we had such tight security.

Keys to success — Vision

I had to do the planning for the mission. And I looked at being creative in a number of different fashions, and I won’t go into detail on those, but suffice to say I looked at a lot of ways to get to the target. But at the end of the day, I looked at the point of vulnerability, and I realized that if we did, if we attempted to do some of those other approaches, we were potentially going to be vulnerable hours out. Now we may not have been, but the potential for the Pakistanis to identify us hours away from the target was there. With the helicopters, I knew we could get in and we would probably only be vulnerable about two minutes out, and I felt that was good enough. So I absolutely looked at the point of vulnerability, relative superiority, keeping the plan simple. I mean, we kept the plan as simple as we could. Get onto some helicopters, go to the target, take care of the objective, get back on the helicopters and come back home. Now we came back short of one helicopter, but we had a backup plan for that. So it absolutely followed the model, and I made sure that I went back and looked at my own research.

A lot of people may not realize that there were more than a dozen other operations going on simultaneously. That is just incredible.

William McRaven: This is kind of what we did in Afghanistan. We normally had anywhere from ten to 15 missions a night in Afghanistan where you had Army Rangers or Navy SEALs or other Army Special Operations forces out conducting raids on Taliban targets with the same approach.  Helicopters going from a forward operating base to an objective, taking care of business on the target, getting back on the helicopters and coming back. So one, we didn’t want to change what we were doing for fear that people would know. So when we got to Afghanistan, my force had no clue that I had a separate force that was preparing to go conduct the raid, because we didn’t stop them from anything else that was going on that night.

Because it was important that they not know the details.

William McRaven: Absolutely.

Not just the American public and the enemy.

William McRaven: We were trying to keep it as close to hold as possible, and fortunately we were successful in doing that.

You were taking risks, but they were educated risks.

Keys to success — Preparation

William McRaven: We had, again, done the planning. I knew where all the risks were, and we had planned around those risks to mitigate the risks. So understanding that we wanted to fly in undetected, we knew what the Pakistanis had in the way of defenses. We understood what the compound looked like in Abbottabad.  So we knew all of that information. We had very good intelligence that, again, the CIA and NSA provided us. And so with that good intelligence you were able to figure out where the difficulties in the mission were going to lie, and then take the opportunity to, again, buy down that risk to the point where, when I had the opportunity to brief the President, I was very confident that we could do the mission the way we had outlined it.

He took risks too, political risks.

William McRaven: Absolutely, he did. He took tremendous risk. I am very proud of what my guys did, but the real risk and the burden was borne almost solely by the President.

In May 2011, President Barack Obama meets with Admiral William McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Just days earlier, Admiral McRaven led operational control of Navy SEAL Team Six's successful mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist leader. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
In May 2011, President Barack Obama meets with Admiral William McRaven, Commander of Joint Special Operations Command, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Just days earlier, Admiral McRaven led operational control of Navy SEAL Team Six’s successful mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist leader.