- By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
A few days before he was named sole finalist for chancellor of the University of Texas System, Adm. William H. McRaven slipped into the gym at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida for an hour of basketball with some much younger troops.
They didn’t know he was a four-star admiral with 67,000 Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and other special operations troops under his command, and McRaven didn’t bother telling them. They were, however, impressed by his stamina when they asked his age and learned that he was 58, said Joe Maguire, a retired admiral who shared a pizza with his longtime friend the next day.
The gym scene exemplified the humility that friends, relatives and fellow officers cite as one of McRaven’s enduring qualities. They describe the leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command as humble almost to a fault, the last person to extol his considerable achievements.
He oversaw the team that captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He wrote a 613-page master’s thesis on the theory of special operations that became required reading for officers. He recovered after breaking his pelvis and back in a parachuting accident. He achieved high rank despite losing his first command. And the biggie: He directed the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed.
McRaven’s appointment to lead the 15-campus university system is all but certain to be made official by the Board of Regents later this month after a three-week waiting period required under state law.
Just how a retired military officer who spent much of his career in the covert world will adjust to the klieg lights that shine on higher education in Texas remains to be seen. McRaven has no experience as a higher education administrator, although he got a taste of it while earning a master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He helped establish and was the first graduate of the special operations/low intensity conflict curriculum.
He was unavailable to comment for this article, and a comprehensive sense of his views on higher education generally and the UT System in particular has yet to emerge. In a speech in May to veterans at Austin Community College, where his sister Nan serves on the Board of Trustees, McRaven touted the liberal arts as well as technical training, noting that his journalism degree from UT-Austin taught him to convey ideas clearly and succinctly.
“Your earning power, your understanding of the world, everything about you will change with a college degree,” he told the veterans, whom he described as “this century’s greatest generation” by virtue of having “volunteered to come into a wartime environment.”
Wade Ishimoto, a retired Army captain and Delta Force member who has known McRaven since the 1980s, predicted that McRaven would do “exceedingly well” as chancellor.
“He is quick on the uptake. He can see big issues and establish well-thought-out goals. He has testified time and time again before Congress, so he knows how to answer questions forthrightly, not to beat around the bush, and at the same time not offend people’s sensitivities,” Ishimoto said.
Interviewing McRaven at his kitchen table in Tampa, Fla., convinced Regent Steve Hicks that the UT board had found someone with management acumen, political savvy and, perhaps most important, a collaborative approach to leadership. Getting buy-in from officials in the various military branches and figuring out how to meet their needs is akin to how a chancellor works with campus presidents, Hicks said.
McRaven would join the UT System at a time of turmoil. The Board of Regents is split on various matters, one regent is facing possible impeachment, and the system is hiring an outside investigator to examine whether the Austin flagship gives too much admissions preference to candidates recommended by legislators and other influential people. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Austin President Bill Powers don’t get along, and the former will step down at the end of the year, the latter in June.
The retired admiral would be expected to calm those choppy waters, advise the regents on selecting Powers’ successor and help get two new medical schools operational in Austin and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Back to the 40 acres
The job would be something of a homecoming for McRaven and his wife, Georgeann, also a UT-Austin graduate. He attended the university on a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, and they met at an ROTC-Alpha Delta Pi mixer. McRaven spent most of his growing-up years in San Antonio.
After a promising start, McRaven’s career almost came to an abrupt conclusion in 1983 when he was serving under Richard Marcinko, the swashbuckling founder and commander of SEAL Team 6, the nickname of the same elite unit that would storm into bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, three decades later.
Marcinko encouraged his men to cross the boundaries of standard military conduct, and McRaven, uncomfortable with some of that behavior, ordered tighter discipline for his squadron. Marcinko countermanded, McRaven refused to back down, and the young lieutenant was relieved of command.
“And, obviously, when someone takes your command away from you … it can be a life-changing event,” McRaven told The Dallas Morning News in 2011. But he was assigned a platoon in another SEAL team, after which he rose steadily through command and operational roles.
McRaven saw combat as a SEAL task unit leader during the Persian Gulf War, according to a 2011 Time magazine article, but the particulars of his missions remain classified.
It was in July 2001 when McRaven, a 45-year-old captain at the time, experienced a nearly life-ending event. He got smacked by another commando’s parachute during a drill near San Diego, and his own chute opened in a way that broke his back and pelvis.
The surgical repair involved a 15-inch screw extending from one side of his pelvis to the other, said Maguire, who saw the X-rays. “Welcome to the wonderful world of being a SEAL,” Maguire said. “You can’t do this for 30 years without getting a very thick medical record.”
McRaven recovered, but every stair-step was painful at first. “I still get emotional about it,” said Nan McRaven. If her brother has any lingering pain, “you would never know it.”
McRaven was still on the mend when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place. His commando days on hold, he was assigned to President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, where he helped draft the president’s strategy for combating terrorism.
“My White House colleagues who worked closely with Adm. McRaven were very impressed with him and found him to be very disciplined and focused as well as good at building consensus,” said Karen Hughes, who was a top adviser to Bush.
Fast-forward to 2011. By then McRaven was a three-star admiral in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s covert strike force. He was the quintessential warrior-diplomat, schooled in underwater demolition and myriad weapons, as well as experienced at dealing with Congress, the White House, Cabinet-level officials and the occasional Afghan village patriarch.
The Central Intelligence Agency had figured out that bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader, was holed up in Abbottabad. McRaven was charged with coming up with a plan to get him. President Barack Obama gave the green light for Operation Neptune Spear, and McRaven oversaw the mission from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
James Cartwright, a retired Marine general who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, described McRaven’s style as calm and focused.
“When he’s conducting operations, he’s got a very light touch,” Cartwright said. “He understands exactly what’s going on. He’s not a yeller. He’s not an outward worrier. He is just focused.”
Despite his achievements, or perhaps because of them, McRaven has met with some criticism. The late James Vaught, a retired general, once told him to “get the hell out of the media” to keep the enemy in the dark. And some of McRaven’s efforts to expand the role of special operations forces received push-back from traditionally powerful regional military commanders.
Scuba and 007
The seeds of a future SEAL and admiral began sprouting early in life, according to McRaven’s sisters.
“He was fearless” as a youngster, falling out of trees, poking his hand into beehives and once running through a glass door, said Marianna Jacobs, a former high school English and journalism teacher in Lakeway who is eight years older than her brother.
Nan McRaven, four years older than her brother, said his favorite movie was the James Bond spy film “Thunderball,” in which Agent 007 fought daring underwater battles. By the time McRaven was 11 or 12, he had learned to scuba dive at the YMCA in San Antonio.
“I always thought that he wanted to grow up to be 007,” Nan McRaven said, adding that, in a way, he did.
His father, Claude, was another influence. A Spitfire fighter pilot in World War II, he went on to a career in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel. He didn’t earn a college degree under the GI Bill until his late 40s, which impressed on his son the importance of higher education and of government support for that enterprise.
McRaven’s mother, Anna, required her young son to recite poetry, which infused him with a lifelong appreciation of literature, history and art.
“He is a ferocious reader,” Nan McRaven said. “He knows and understands cultures. You can ask him about Spartans and Athenians, the history of the Middle East.”
Discipline came naturally to him, and he was deeply disappointed when he missed breaking the school record for the mile at Roosevelt High School, recalled Jerry Turnbow, his track coach.
“I called him at home, told him to just run the race next time, and the record will come to you. And he did and it did,” Turnbow said.
Michael Dippo, a friend since high school, said McRaven, now square-jawed and muscular, was “a scrawny guy” growing up. “Bill was very thin, almost gawky at times. He wasn’t in ROTC in high school, so I never thought that was any part of his plan. At UT, he bulked up, he blossomed.”
Turnbow and Dippo praise McRaven for many kindnesses over the years. Like the time he sent a four-page, handwritten letter to Dippo’s father thanking him for his World War II service, which included fighting at the Battle of the Bulge and helping to liberate a concentration camp.
“My father, who passed away in January at the age of 88, was just over the moon, that someone in Bill’s position would take that time,” Dippo said.
As the longest-serving SEAL on active duty, McRaven is, until his retirement late this month, that tight-knit community’s Bull Frog, an honorific that hearkens back to early Navy recruiting campaigns glorifying the swimmers as “frogmen.”
The Bull Frog doesn’t take himself too seriously. He once said that, when traveling by plane, his sergeant major reads such high-brow material as “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse, “while I’m watching Trunk Monkey videos.”