The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
William McRaven: Send Me
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I’m honored to be your host for another thoughtful conversation with a fascinating guest. It is not an overstatement to call our guest on The Oath this week a legend. William McRaven retired from the US Navy as a four-star admiral, as the commander of the United States special operations command and as the longest serving Navy SEAL in the history of our country. Bill McRaven was involved in planning and implementing some of the most important operations in the long and distinguished history of our military’s special forces. Those operations included the capture of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates, and the operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. But Bill’s story is not just about high-profile successes. It is also about struggle and loss, about truth and honor, and about humility and second chances. It is about a deep reverence for the country for public service, and for the men and women who serve our country, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.
Bill McRaven, welcome to The Oath.
William McRaven: Thanks, good to be here.
Rosenberg: I appreciate that you’re making some time for us.
McRaven: My pleasure.
Rosenberg: I’m going to start when you were a kid, because your very first operation ever was Operation Volcano. And I was hoping you would tell us about that.
McRaven: I was about 10 years old. My father was an Air Force officer and we were living on Medina Air Force Base, which was a little annex to the major air force base called Lackland in San Antonio, and a budding up to the base housing area was a very, very large ammunition storage depot. And of course, this is back in the 60s—
Rosenberg: And as a 10-year-old kid, of course you need to go explore that.
McRaven: Of course you do. And, of course, this was also the era of James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy, and so you know growing up I had the sense that you know everything was a little bit of a mission. A couple of buddies and I decided that what a cool mission it would be would be to scale the outer fences and to kind of break into the ammunition storage depot.
Rosenberg: Just because?
McRaven: Just because. It was a—it was a good mission. And, of course, we assumed there was something very nefarious going on behind the fences. Ten-year-olds can do that sometimes. So, we kind of patrolled from the base housing area. There was a large wooded area down through a gully. We each had our own little weapons you know. So I remember one of my buddies had a Red Ryder BB gun, which was kind of his prized possession. The other, other, fella had a Fess Parker – I think it was one of these long muskets sort of looking toy weapons. And then I had my Roy Rogers pearl handle cap gun.
McRaven: Six-shooter. You bet. We made our way to the fence line. We had this elaborate plan to scale the fences, which we did. Well I got over the first fence. My buddies decided that discretion was the better part of valor and they kind of stayed on the other side of the fence so I made my way over the first fence. Things were looking good. I got to the second fence made my way over the second fence and then all hell broke loose. The Air Police started coming after us. I scaled back over the second fence back over the first fence, but in the course of scaling over the first fence I lost my Roy Rogers pearl handled pistol. So we managed to make our way back through the gully back to the base housing and things seemed to calm down. You know nobody’s chasing us anymore and we kind of assume that we have made it past the rough part and this was on a Saturday and the day goes by and nothing happens and Sunday and nothing happens. Monday evening, my father comes home from work and he calls me into the living room and he says, “Bill, I was informed that some neighborhood kids tried to break into the ammunition storage depot.” And he looked me in the eye and he said, “Do you know anything about that?” And as I mentioned in the book, it’s the first and last time I ever lied to my father.
Rosenberg: The only time you ever lied to him.
McRaven: The only time I ever lied to him, and I remember saying, “No, sir. I don’t know anything about it.” And he said, OK. Kind of kissed me goodnight and I hugged my mom goodnight. I went and took my bath and got into bed, and as I was pulling the covers up in my bed I looked on my nightstand and there was my Roy Rogers pearl handled cap gun.
Rosenberg: Dad knew.
McRaven: Dad knew. And for the next 50 some odd years he never mentioned it once. And I, I say yeah this is great parenting, because I carried the burden of that lie with me until my father’s death. Maybe I still carry the burden of that lie. But yeah dad knew and chose not to overtly punish me with it.
Rosenberg: Operation Volcano reminded me of a wonderful Stephen King short story that was turned into a movie, Stand By Me. It evokes all of those memories.
Rosenberg: Thank you for telling us about that.
McRaven: Well I have great parents and they raised myself and my two sisters and were just magnificent role models.
Rosenberg: Talk about your mom and dad.
McRaven: My mother was an East Texas schoolteacher kind of a classic Southern lady. Very gracious, very respectful of everybody, but she was also a disciplinarian. She made sure that I got up and made my bed every morning, and she was the one that was ensuring that I did my homework and all the sort of things that strong parents do to put their kids on the right path. So my father was an Air Force fighter pilot before he joined the Air Force, however he was it was a hell of an athlete. Little All-American at Murray State and went on to play professional football as a running back—
Rosenberg: For the Cleveland Rams?
McRaven: The Cleveland Rams right. So this is back in 1930 – ‘38, ‘39 time frame.
Rosenberg: Before Cleveland went to LA, then to St. Louis and back to L.A.
McRaven: Yeah, they’ve been on the road quite a bit. So, he was a running back and Dad was pretty fast for a tailback. And in-fact he used to race – this was in Kentucky when he grew up, Murray State – he used to race thoroughbred horses in a 60-yard race.
Rosenberg: And by race them you don’t mean on their backs.
McRaven: No no. I mean man against beast.
McRaven: And Dad would generally win though. I think there, a little money changed hands back then, and Dad will have a little wager with some of the thoroughbred racers. But Dad always told me, look, in 60 yards it takes a horse a little while to kind of get up and moving. And Dad was fast so in 60 yards, he could beat ‘em. Well, the Cleveland Rams have this great publicity photo of Dad as he has joined the team, and he is on the starting blocks and you see Dad coming off the starting blocks and right next to him is this jockey on a horse and the horse is leaping forward and then of course the caption is you know kind of man against beast, our new running back, Bullet Bill McRaven, which what they used to call him. Well years later, Dad told me it was great photo, but I lost that race.
Rosenberg: It was a very different time. You write in your book that he was paid 120 dollars a game. 10 dollars for the Wheaties commercials.
McRaven: Right. I don’t remember how many games were in the season, but of course that was pretty good money back then. So 120 bucks a game, and then as he told me he made a little extra money on the side doing radio commercials for Wheaties. Ten bucks I think for a commercial. Yeah, he had come from a military family. My grandfather was a doctor during World War I and then later on in World War II. So he was just of that age and graduated from medical school in 1910 and was young enough to go over to France during World War I.
Rosenberg: Your father’s father?
McRaven: My father’s father, right. And then of course the interim period between World War I and World War II, he was still young enough to go back and served in World War II. So my father was raised in a bit of a military family. And I remember him telling me one time when I asked him, “Why did you join the military?” And he said, I remembered as a young boy watching the troop trains come through his hometown and the soldiers getting on the troop trains heading for the trenches of Europe. And that inspired him. And I think when his time to serve came, he left. He and, as he told me, he and four of the guys left the football team travelled from Cleveland all the way to the west coast. They signed up in California, and then he went off to flight training in San Antonio, Texas. And then fought for two years in the European theater flying fighter support for the cross-channel missions, and then he went down in north Africa and in Sicily and Salerno and so had a full engagement in World War II and then a little bit of time in Korea and then retired in 1967.
Rosenberg: Bill, you mentioned that your father was pretty fast.
McRaven: He was.
Rosenberg: But so were you, for at least a year. You held your high school’s record in the mile?
Rosenberg: There’s a wonderful story connected to that and a lesson you draw from it, about coach of yours named Jerry Turnbow.
McRaven: I was fast in a different way. Dad had speed. I never had great speed, but I had pretty good endurance and a little speed to go along with it. My senior year at Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, I was trying to break the school record in the mile.
Rosenberg: This is 1973.
McRaven: 1973. Thank you. I had just run my second to last race and frankly had been pretty miserable. The school record had been 4 minutes and 32 seconds – point 7, I believe. And I had just run a 4-37 mile. So I was five seconds off the school record my second to last race.
Rosenberg: Which is a lot.
McRaven: Which is a lot of time. I mean in the mile, five seconds is an eternity.
McRaven: And so I had one last race to break the school record and obviously a little bit down on myself. And the night before the race, I was at home and my father calls me and says, hey your coach is on the phone wants to talk to you. Well I had just left track practice, and I couldn’t imagine why my coach would want to talk to me. I picked up the phone, and it was not one of my track coaches, it was the assistant football coach. A coach named Jerry Turnbow. I didn’t even think Coach Turnbow knew who I was. Those of us that ran track in Texas didn’t have the sort of esteem that the football players got. Football always had the stature. The fact that this football coach was calling me, I was a little surprised. Again, I didn’t even know he really knew who I was. So he gets on the phone, he kind of has this great slow Texas drawl, and he says, “Bill this is coach Turnbow.” I said, “well coach, how are you?” He goes, “good. He said, “Bill, I understand you’re running your last race and you’re trying to break the school record in the mile.” Again, I was stunned that the coach even knew this. I said, “well yes sir.” He says, “well I’ll tell you, Bill, you can do this. You just run hard, and you can break that record.” And that inspiration—here was this great coach that was calling me at home. You know a young teenage kid an impressionable teenage kid. And the next day, I went out and broke the school record in the mile.
Rosenberg: Which lasted for all of a year.
McRaven: Yeah, it only lasted a year. And as I tell folks, nobody cared about the record probably but me. But I did care about it, because what it meant to me was I was setting a goal and I was working hard to achieve that goal, and the fact that I achieved that goal made me realize that I could set other goals, and I could go on to be a Navy SEAL. So the point of the story in the book – not everybody is going to get a chance to go on the raid to get bin Laden or to rescue Captain Phillips or to get Saddam Hussein, but everybody will have an opportunity to make a phone call to some young kid. Everybody will have a chance to inspire somebody, to motivate somebody, and you never know how that single phone call is in my case changed the trajectory of my life because once I knew I could break that school record, I assumed there wasn’t anything I could do with a lot of hard work. Coach Turnbow is still alive today. We’ve had a great relationship since I mentioned this after the bin Laden raid, and he’s doing well. He and his wife Jan live in San Antonio. Just a wonderful, wonderful person.
Rosenberg: But that lesson, that civility and kindness are never an act of weakness.
McRaven: Never, ever.
Rosenberg: And that a simple act of kindness goes so far.
McRaven: Again, you never know, and I’m sure you know Coach Turnbow back in 1973 had no idea what that phone call meant to me. And then you go 40 years later and the bin Laden raid happens, and at some point in time in an interview after the bin Laden raid, somebody was talking to me about my life and I took them back to this phone call. Of course, I had not told Coach Turnbow about this phone call. He knew nothing about the fact that over the course of the last 40 years, my military career had influenced thousands or tens of thousands of young soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. And I attribute a lot of that to that phone call.
Rosenberg: We’re not overstating it to draw a line from the phone call to your career?
McRaven: We are not. I mean again a simple act of kindness from somebody you respect, it goes a long way.
Rosenberg: When did you decide to become a SEAL, Bill?
McRaven: Well back in the early 70s, nobody knew who Navy SEALs were. Unlike today there were no movies, no books, there was one article in some magazine called Men With Green Faces, and it was about the Vietnam era SEALs. But interestingly enough I didn’t find out about that article, my sister was dating an Army Green Beret. So this was I want to say 1970, ‘71, somewhere around there. I had been at home waiting. This young Army captain came by the house. I had already seen the movie with John Wayne called The Green Berets. And I was fired up by the movie The Green Berets. And so this young captain comes to the door and my sister is not ready, so I start talking to him and he says, “so I understand you’re thinking about going into the into the Navy”. I was looking to go into the Navy ROTC program, and I said, “yes, sir.” And he said, “well then you ought to be a Navy SEAL. I worked with them in Vietnam, and the SEALs were some of the best soldiers I ever worked with.” And here was an Army Green Beret telling me to go be a Navy SEAL. I thought this was terrific. The only literature out there after he talked to me was this Men With Green Faces. So that really kind of inspired me to give a shot at being a Navy SEAL. So from ‘73 then I went off to college at the University of Texas and my whole time in the Navy ROTC that was my goal.
Rosenberg: You talk in your book a good bit about your Navy SEAL training at BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL]. By the way, your latest book Sea Stories is just a terrific read.
Rosenberg: There’s something you discuss when you talk about your training that you said applied for the rest of your life. This concept of one evolution at a time.
McRaven: When you go through SEAL training, they have these kind of names for the young trainees and they’re called tadpoles. Recognizing that as we go through SEAL training we are hoping to be Navy frogmen. So, they have for years had this. You’re going to go from a tadpole and you’re going to evolve, as tadpoles do into frogs, you’re going to evolve from a tadpole to a frogman. The events, the runs, the swims, the physical training, the calisthenics, they’re all called evolutions. You’ll learn very early on the saying, “Take it one evolution at a time.” You saw a lot of the trainees, the young students come in, and you’d start your day with two hours of calisthenics and they’d be thinking oh my gosh. Two hours calisthenics, now I’m tired and we’re gonna have a four-mile soft sand run after that. And then we’re going to have a two-mile open ocean swim after that. And then we’re going to do more calisthenics after that. Or we’re gonna have an obstacle course. And they started looking too far down the road—
Rosenberg: The horizon’s too far away.
McRaven: The horizon was too far. Even on a daily basis. So if you started your day and said, oh my goodness. I’ve got five very difficult physical evolutions during the day for some of these students, that was very challenging. You learned to take it one evolution at a time. Do the very best you can at the event you’re doing at that time, the evolution you’re doing at that time. Do the four-mile soft sand run the best you can, and then worry about the next one when it comes along.
Rosenberg: And that’s the mental aspect.
McRaven: And that was the mental aspect of it. As life goes on obviously you have to plan your life a little bit. Of course as we all know if we’re older than about 21, you know planning your life generally doesn’t work, but you do have to have some general vector. But my point here is you know sometimes if you look too far down the road, it can scare you. If your event horizon is too far things seem challenging. But sometimes if you just take them one evolution at a time, one event at a time, those events add up and the next thing you know you’re at the finish line.
Rosenberg: And so, you graduated, became a Navy SEAL, and went on, as you talk about in your book, to live work and socialize with some of the finest people on the planet.
Rosenberg: But you write about the fact that life in the SEAL teams always seems to revolve around fate or destiny or the hand of God. Why do some men live and others die? Why were some men saved that day? And you’re referring to a particular incident. Did God have a different plan for us? What about the crew and passengers of STRAY 59? That was a plane, STRAY 59, that you almost boarded.
McRaven: So this was in Subic Bay, Philippines.
McRaven: 1981. We were conducting a training exercise. International training exercise. So we had Australians and New Zealanders and Army Green Beret and Filipinos and some other nationalities that were with us. The SEALs and done a hostage rescue training evolution that didn’t go well. But you know we kind of cleaned it up. We decided that we would finish the event out. And as part of the training exercise, the hostage, who was a Colonel Barney Brause, Marine Corps colonel.
Rosenberg: A volunteer hostage?
McRaven: A volunteer hostage right. Yeah. This was all part of the scenario. So Colonel Brause who was the head of the Marine barracks in Subic Bay at the time, wonderful Marine officer, had agreed to be the hostage. And I was kind of his handler. I was the guy who was gonna make sure that he got to where he needed to get to. Well as the hostage rescue part of the exercise goes south on us, the exercise was essentially over. The SEALs and the international special operations guys we had we’re going to patrol from the jungle where we were to the airfield, Cubi airfield, and two Combat Talon MC-130 airplanes were going to land. They were going to pick up the SEALs on one airplane, and the international guys in the airplane along with the hostage and myself and then we were gonna take off and go for about a three-hour, low level terrain following where the C-130s go up and down the mountains about 50 feet off the deck.
Rosenberg: But it had already been a long day and not very successful.
McRaven: Right. Not every training exercise goes well. So in the course of the exercises things had not gone well. I turned to the Colonel and I said, “you know there’s really nothing left for us to do now. You know we’re gonna go with these guys we’re gonna get on the airplane we’re gonna ride around for a couple hours and come down. I know it’s been a long day. You got a full day ahead of you tomorrow. Why don’t we just kind of call it a day?” And the colonel said, “no Bill, let’s go and see this on through.” I said “OK, sir.” So we go for another half an hour or so and we get to the airfield now the planes are running late by a little bit. I turn to the colonel again. I said, “hey sir, one more time see if you really want to forgo the long ride on the back of a C-130?” He kind of paused a little bit, but said “no, no, I think I’m good.” Well finally the planes land. We move from our positions. The SEALs had handed over the hostage to the international guys. The Colonel over to the international guys. So I’m with the Australians and the New Zealanders and so we move to the airplane, and as we were on the back ramp of the airplane I decided one more time to give the Colonel an opportunity to—because again, it really wasn’t much to ride around the airplane. And finally he said, “yeah I guess you’re right. Let’s let’s go ahead and call it a day.” We turned around and the guys boarded the airplanes. We headed back to our barracks, basically, you got on the jeep and went back. And then I went back to my house. Didn’t really think much of it. And an hour later that airplane STRAY 59 crashed, killing everyone on board but one person. The point of the story wasn’t about me and the Colonel. At least I hope it doesn’t come across that way.
Rosenberg: It doesn’t.
McRaven: There were probably a lot of other people that were supposed to be on that plane that night that didn’t get on that plane. We heard later that various, again, people’s lives intersected with that plane and a number of ways. But the point of the story was really you saw this a lot in your time in the SEAL teams, and I’m sure in the time and people’s times in the military where all of a sudden you know you went left instead of right in Iraq and had you gone right, there was an IED waiting to blow you up. Somebody makes a decision that changes the course of an entire platoon or a battalion. Well in this case, just the fact that we decided not to board that plane for whatever reason, you know, changed the lives of myself and Colonel Brause. Again, probably a number of other people that were supposed to be on that plane. And you ask why. I mean my point in the story also was—look, I mean, the families of that crew clearly wanted them to live. You know they would be here today were it not for this horrific accident. So it’s not right to say God had a plan for me and not for them. And so again, my only point in the chapter is you kind of wonder about these things as you go through. They were great men on that plane. To this day I think about it. But the other thing I’ve said in this is, because I saw what happens when you lose great airmen on a plane like that. Years later, fast forward 25 years, I’m now the Commander in Iraq and Afghanistan of the SEALs and the Rangers. And I will tell you every time we did a mission with a C-130 or an AC-130 I asked the hard questions. I wanted to know whether or not we were gonna be safe whether the crew was going to be safe. And I hope that the loss of those great airmen and STRAY 59 somehow changed the lives of airmen in 2001 and on.
Rosenberg: Prevented the loss?
McRaven: Prevented the loss.
Rosenberg: You write that you think about them often.
McRaven: I do.
Rosenberg: It strikes me, Bill, that we know of the successes of the men and women in the military. We know of the successes of the SEALs but underneath all of that is difficult and incredibly dangerous training. That what happened in Subic Bay happens more frequently than we’d like to imagine. And I sure like to imagine and that even in your own life and in your own experiences you’ve come close other times to dying.
Rosenberg: I read about in your book something that happened in Morro Bay California in 1995. It’s not just an interesting story, it’s an important story.
McRaven: Yes so Morro Bay, by this time I am now the commanding officer of SEAL Team Three so one of the SEAL teams on the West Coast. Another SEAL Team One, Three and Five at the time.
Rosenberg: Echo Platoon.
McRaven: This was Echo Platoon. I was doing a pre-deployment exercise. So, they were getting ready to go overseas and this was one of their final exercises. So as a commanding officer you normally went up to watch the final training exercise. As I went from San Diego off to Morro Bay California, Central California, that day, as you’re driving in Morro Bay there is this very large rock that almost looks like the Rock of Gibraltar kind of to the entrance of the bay.
Rosenberg: It’s a beautiful beach.
McRaven: It is beautiful beach. The inside of the harbor there, it’s calm. It’s peaceful. But what happens is when the waves get big they get funneled into this area where the rock is and the jetty is and the beaches on the other side. And the waves that day, just as I pulled in were hitting 15, 20, 25 feet which was very large for you know the waves off the coast. Well, the next day I get up early to go watch the SEAL training, and I notice that there are two rigid hull inflatable boats, 33-foot boats that are part of the special boat unit that are getting ready appears to me to be heading out through these giant waves. So I go over to talk to the young lieutenant who’s in charge, and I said, “hey what’s going on?” He said, “well sir we’re going to get out through the waves, we need to kind of practice this.” He had a plan for getting out through the waves, and I said, “well then give me a life jacket, strap me in, and I’ll go with you.” So as we get in the boat waves normally come in three, so we hit the first wave probably a little faster than we should have. We went straight up the side of this probably 25-foot wave. And as we came down on the other side we’d been airborne for almost four seconds because we went up the side of it. You know you think of you see pictures of guys going up in jet skis and how they’re you know flying above the waves. We were doing that and a 33-foot boat.
Rosenberg: And you’re counting.
McRaven: And I am counting. So because it’s kind of a natural thing when you jump out of an airplane on a static line you tend to count one thousand, two thousand, three – and your chute is supposed to open at about four thousand.
Rosenberg: So you know how long you’re airborne.
McRaven: I know how long I’m airborne. As the boat gets airborne, literally, I’m counting and it takes us four seconds and then we hit in between the trough of the first wave and the second wave. The guy on the bow, the bowman, a young sailor he just kind of tossed off. We had some other injuries on the boat. The coxswain, the helmsman, does the right thing. He swings the bow of the boat into the next oncoming wave, and he guns it again to try to beat the oncoming wave.
Rosenberg: Because you want to hit it perpendicular.
McRaven: You got to hit it perpendicular. So, we go up that wave at you know probably 20 or so knots and now we are airborne for almost five seconds. While we come down the boat hits. You can kind of hear the whole crack. People get kind of thrown out. Couple of the guys get thrown out, and now comes the wave of the day, and it is probably a 40-foot wave. So, it is huge. Well it picks the 33-foot boat up and there was still another, and you know six feet kind of coming over the top of the bow, and it just picks us up and dumps us. As the boat flips over, I am trapped underneath the boat. You’re in a bolster seat. So I had a harness on. So I’m trapped in the harness but not only that, I’ve got shot line, this very thin nylon line that the SEALs use for their weapons and for a lot of other things. And it is wrapped around my neck, tightly around my neck, and it’s choking me. I’m trapped under the boat. The boat is tumbling underwater. I’m strapped in the bolster seat and shot line around my neck, and I’m thinking to myself, so this is how it ends. And interestingly enough, I had been in a lot of, as it just tends to happen, kind of near-death experiences in my time in the SEAL teams, and a lot of times they happen and they’re gone in a split second you go, whew, OK and you move on. Well this one was kind of the classic slow motion. I mean I am underwater. The water was, temperature was about 52 degrees. I don’t have a dry suit on or wet suit on. It’s cold. I’m losing breath. I’m starting to blackout. I’m trying to get out of this harness, I’m trying to get out of the shot line that’s beneath me. And I remember saying to myself very slowly, very clearly, I am never going to see Georgeann, Bill, John, or Kelly again. My wife and three kids. And as I’m struggling—
thinking, this is it—miraculously I am freed from the shot line and the harness on the bolster seat and I shoot to the surface. And I can‘t tell you how that happened, which is why I use the term miraculous because when I thought through it intellectually afterwards, there was just no way to untangle myself from the shot line. I was completely tangled up in the shot line and strapped to this bolster seat.
Rosenberg: So, to this day you can’t explain…
McRaven: To this day I cannot explain it, but I shoot to the surface. Well now I’m in the next series of waves. All the other guys in the boat had been tossed back towards the beach so they were safely out of the water. But I’m still in the surf zone. Looking up at the next wave coming thinking I’m not going to make it through this wave. Well out of the corner of my eye, I hear a couple of SEALs screaming at me. “”Skipper! Skipper! And I turn around and a couple of guys in a Zodiac, a very small 18-foot rubber boat with a motor on the back of it are rushing to pull me out of the surf zone. And they grab me. They can’t even pull me into the boat. They just grab me, and I hold on before the next wave comes crashing down. Had it hit us, I don’t know that any of us would have survived that wave. And those two, there were two other SEALs who rescued another guy that day, later receive the Navy Marine Corps Medal lifesaving medal, which is the highest medal you can receive in time of peace for valor.
Rosenberg: It’s a fascinating story, Bill. But I also wanted to talk about it for another reason. You write about a lieutenant named Jones who was in charge of the mission. I don’t know if that’s a pseudonym or not.
McRaven: It is a pseudonym.
Rosenberg: I assumed it was, but you write about him in the context of second chances...
McRaven: Right. The story starts off when I was commanding officer of SEAL Team Three. I had to take a number of officers to what we referred to as captain’s mast for driving under the influence. And as an officer if you get a DUI, essentially your career is over. And this was a very hard thing for me to do.
Rosenberg: And one of those young officers was a fellow named Jeremy Carter.
McRaven: Correct. Also a pseudonym. I took that young officer at the start of the chapter to captain’s mast and found him guilty of driving under the influence. So as you fast forward, and I talk about Lieutenant Jones. So Lieutenant Jones was the lieutenant in charge of the craft that day. While all of us probably could have had better decisions, after that boat flipped over Lieutenant Jones did exactly what you would expect a young naval officer to do. He pulled himself together. He did what he could to rescue the rest of the crew. He maintained his command presence. He just did a magnificent job. And so real the story really was about second chances. One, I got a second chance in life. Lieutenant Jones, because the investigation determined that yeah probably made some mistakes going into the surf zone, but we’re SEALs and we’re special warfare combat craft crewmen, and we need to test the kind of edges of the envelope. But he did the right thing after the boat flipped over. Interestingly enough probably about a month or so ago now, I get an email from Lieutenant Jones. I hadn’t seen Lieutenant Jones in 20 years. And he has read the book, and he sends me this great e-mail and says, “hey sir I had a chance to read this.” He says, “I am Lieutenant Jones,” and I recognize the name. And he said, “wanted you to know I went on to have a good career. Another couple deployments in the Navy.” And that he has gone, on and without exposing him, he’s gone on to have a good life and told me that is exactly the way I remember the events of that day, which was good because I had not had a chance to have him review the story ahead of time. But he was a great young officer probably saved a lot of lives and with his composure.
Rosenberg: But Lieutenant Carter, the one you took to officer’s mast, also got a second chance?
McRaven: So, Lieutenant Carter. I was on his promotion board a couple years later. And again, very difficult for a Navy lieutenant to make lieutenant commander after a DUI. But having had the opportunity sit on the board and realizing the value of second chances, the board, and there’s you know 13 officers on the board, when you saw the great work Lieutenant Carter had done with the exception of the DUI. We promoted him to lieutenant commander. He went on to become a Navy commander. He went on to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in Iraq in particular he received the Bronze Star for valor. And so you know that he saved the lives of probably great Iraqis and Americans alike. This idea of second chances: a second chance for me, a second chance for Lieutenant Jones, a second chance for Lieutenant Carter.
Rosenberg: I think General Colin Powell describes, as a young officer, losing his weapon and being given a second chance by his commanding officer.
McRaven: We all make mistakes, and I think you can kind of look at it certainly through my lens. And I realize you know there were a lot of great officers that took care of me that saw something in me that maybe others didn’t and said you know we need to give this young officer a second chance. And I hope it paid off for him.
Rosenberg: Following the loss of that rigid hull inflatable boat in Morro Bay, you write, “the ambulances arrived and I began notifying my bosses of the accident. With each phone call I was reminded of why I chose the military as a way of life. Every senior officer upon hearing about the loss of the pricey boat had only one question: Are you and the men okay?”
Rosenberg: And that’s what it’s all about.
McRaven: That says it all.
Rosenberg: Yes, sir. In October of 2001, you’re stationed at the White House in the Office of Combating Terrorism. There’s a somewhat interesting story. You are the man responsible for all of us removing our shoes and putting our laptops on a conveyor belt when we go through an airport?
McRaven: Well I’m quick to point out, Chuck, that I’m certain the President of the United States or Governor Ridge in his in his role as Secretary of Homeland Security made that decision. However, I may have got the ball rolling on it. So, the the way the story goes is I was in the White House at the time and if you recall there was fellow named Richard Reid the shoe bomber. He was on a plane…
Rosenberg: From Paris to Miami…
McRaven: From Paris Miami getting ready to light his shoe because there were supposedly some demolition in his shoe when he was going to light an igniter. I got the word to come down into the Situation Room as this thing is unfolding and my boss at the time, retired General Wayne Downing, was up on Air Force One with President Bush. So the White House has been in a little bit on this because you know we didn’t know were there more Richard Reids out there? Was this again an al Qaeda conspiracy to take down a whole lot of airplanes or a concerted effort on the part of al Qaeda? And you have to assume that there are.
Rosenberg: Of course you do.
McRaven: So I call the Federal Aviation Administration and got a hold of their demolition expert who just happened to be when he picks up the phone an old friend of mine named Ed Kittel, and I was looking at the schematic that I had been provided of the shoe bomb. I didn’t think it was possible that from what I saw that it could light. But in talking to Ed, I said, “what do you think?” He goes, “no I think this would’ve worked.” And so now we’ve got a problem because if in fact you could put a bomb in your shoe. This was difficult. Then all of a sudden, I started talking. I brought up the issue the laptop. I said, “well what about a battery on a laptop? Could it initiate demolition as well?” Of course if we thought through it, I don’t think we could confirm it at the time, you know, he said, “well but know in my experience I thought yeah that might happen.” So I called my boss, General Downing, up on Air Force One and communications were kind of tough. And I said, “sir, I think we need to have people take their shoes off. And oh by the way we need to have their laptops checked.” In my defense, I only thought that that would be in place for a couple of months. So I do have to apologize to all those people who are walking around barefoot in the airport.
Rosenberg: But interestingly, Bill, it was the Bojinka plot in the mid ‘90s with planes transiting the Pacific from Southeast Asia to the United States that changed the amount of liquid we’re permitted to bring on board, right?
Rosenberg: Right? We’re worried about liquid explosives and now you can’t bring—
McRaven: More than three ounces of something.
Rosenberg: Right. And so these things all have origins. They’re just not made up out of whole cloth.
McRaven: I’m often asked today, do I still think we need to take our shoes off and have our laptops checked? I would say, yeah I actually do. Having seen the threats that are out there, I still think that this is a necessary requirement.
Rosenberg: I had the privilege of working for Bob Mueller and his staff at the FBI in 2002 and 2003, and I remember we would start every single day with the threat matrix. Reading about all the ways that people wanted to do us harm. And so I know that it sometimes seems inconvenient, but it’s absolutely necessary.
McRaven: Absolutely. You know the threat gets more sophisticated, and as the threat gets more sophisticated I think we are taking appropriate security measures. And we realize that it is an inconvenience for people traveling, and I travel commercial every week. That’s why I understand these inconveniences, but I think most Americans would say. But it is worth it to keep us safe.
Rosenberg: There is an amazing story since made into a movie about the rescue of Captain Phillips. I would like you to talk about that but there is a deeper lesson there too about the need to give to the men on the ground the authority to do their jobs as they see fit. So do you mind telling us the story of Captain Phillips? And then I’d like to discuss that second part of it with you.
McRaven: Sure. I’m in Afghanistan in charge of the special operations unit that I have there and we got the word that a ship the Maersk Alabama had been seized by pirates and that the captain and four pirates had taken off in the lifeboat.
Rosenberg: April 2009…
McRaven: April 2009. So, we got alerted by the Joint Staff and we start making plans for trying to rescue Captain Phillips. Now hard to believe, but the technology even in 2009 was good enough so that from my headquarters in Afghanistan and the video capability the ships had the reconnaissance capability the ships had, I was actually in a great position to be able to command and control the operation. We had the SEALs left from the east coast parachuted into the water linked up with Navy ships on board and Captain Scott Moore, who was the commanding officer of that SEAL unit really was for me the kind of ground force commander if you will, the commander on the ship. But we had Michelle Howard who was the Navy’s Task Force commander and the CEO of the Bainbridge was there. I mean, there were some great naval officers that were helping us in the in the operation.
Rosenberg: Great assets.
McRaven: Great assets. I mean this was the what was good for me was you could very easily call upon your helicopters and ships to do your business off in this case off the coast of Somalia where the Maersk Alabama was seized. As the days go by, got Moore and Michelle Howard they were communicating on an hourly basis basically as the hostage situation is unfolding. It got to the point where one of the pirates was taken off the lifeboat but the three other pirates were still on there. They were presenting a threat to Captain Phillips at one point in time as the lifeboat was close to the Bainbridge and the SEALs took the shot.
Rosenberg: One of the pirates came aboard the USS Bainbridge, sort of abandoned his mission, and his men and Captain Phillips in the lifeboat.
McRaven: Yeah. We had been in discussions with pirates. You know we would go over daily as the hostage incident was unfolding and we would provide them water because we’re very hot out there. And we were gathering intelligence at the same time. And at some point in time in the discussions over bridge to bridge we convinced the head pirate to come on board the Bainbridge and we would further these discussions. So he was on on the Bainbridge for the rest of the hostage situation but eventually of course the small lifeboat was running out of fuel and the pirates on board knew was running out of fuel. So we offered. They’re pirates so they weren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the tool shed, but we offered to hook up tow line for them because they did want to be drifting around so they agreed to hook up a tow line. Well part of our strategy was we hooked up the towline and then we put that small boat in the wake of the big navy ship. And being in the wake of the ship, of course, they going up and down and sideways and they started getting seasick. I mean they may be pirates who spent a lot of time on the ocean. But when you’re in a small boat going up and down and it’s 100 hundred and some odd degrees out so they’re getting pretty seasick and they called forward and said, “we’re getting really sick out here.” “Really? Well why don’t we bring you in a little closer. We’re gonna have to get you in close enough so that you’re not in the wake.” They agreed to that. So little by little we literally pulled them in on the winch brought the lifeboat into the point where you know when the opportunity presented itself we had a good shot right.
Rosenberg: This gave your snipers a shot, but here’s the remarkable thing. The lifeboat is still moving somewhat side to side and up and down.
Rosenberg: And the only shot—shots—because there are—
McRaven: Three of them.
Rosenberg: Right, because there are three pirates on the lifeboat—are through portholes.
McRaven: It is a remarkable story about how the snipers were able to get the pirates, again, simultaneously because had you just shot one of them, the chances of Captain Phillips getting shot by one of the other pirates would have been pretty high. The fact of the matter is you have got to allow the guys on the ground to make the decisions when the time comes when the opportunity presents itself. And one of the things we understand is, you know, I’m the three star admiral of time. I’m not in a position to make that call you have to have trust and confidence in your men and women to do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. Now what you do as a commander is you give them left and right boundaries, and that gets passed for me to a Captain Moore in this case, Captain Moore to the lieutenant commander on the fantail of the Bainbridge to the snipers and the spotters that are there. And you say look if you have this opportunity you make that call and I’ll be good with it. And had it not gone well, I would have still been good with it because you know the guys are going to make the best decision they can.
Rosenberg: That’s right. So you have to take full responsibility.
McRaven: You bet.
Rosenberg: Set boundaries and cede control.
McRaven: Absolutely. Now at the end of the day, it’s ultimately my responsibility. Again, had it gone wrong, I would’ve been OK—I mean you’re not okay with it—but it’s my responsibility. It’s not Captain Moore’s, it’s not the young lieutenant commander in charge. It’s not the snipers. Everybody is going to do the very best they can. When I give them the left and right boundaries that’s what I have to do as commander to shape the outcome of the mission.
Rosenberg: I’m glad you mentioned left and right boundaries because there’s another fascinating example of this, also in Somalia with an al Qaida terrorist named Nabhan.
Rosenberg: And in this case you received the boundaries from the President of the United States and you had to exceed them. You were the guy on the ground.
McRaven: Right. So Ali Saleh Nabhan was an al Qaida terrorist that was responsible for the embassy bombings in Africa East Africa.
Rosenberg: East Africa 1998.
Rosenberg: Kenya and Tanzania.
McRaven: And then an attack on a resort, an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airplane, and a whole lot of things.
Rosenberg: Bad guy. In fact, in the first season of this podcast Pat Fitzgerald, the storied federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, talks in detail about the East Africa bombing.
McRaven: So we had been chasing Saleh Nabhan really since the bombings but after 9/11 we kind of got focused more mainstream al Qaida and we go off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But all the time still kind of out of the corner I keep an eye on Nabhan. Well finally an opportunity comes up and we get a source that says they know Nabhan is moving from a small town on the beach of Somalia to another small town and every think every Tuesday or something he would travel between these two small towns along this beach road. Now we didn’t know for certain it was Nabhan, but we had reconnaissance that could see this compound. And the source had told us that he is in this blue sedan that he would go and again take this beach road every day. We would have an indication that Nabhan was in the car, but only an indication. I went and briefed the President and the National Security Council about this opportunity we would have to, as the car moved from kind of point A to point B on the beach, we would have a small airplane drop a bomb a very small surgical bomb on the car as it was moving. Car moved at about 35, 40 miles an hour along the beach road. Had to hit it on the beach road. It was in between some small villages. So what we didn’t want to do was any sort of collateral damage or injure civilians. So there was a very small window of about 15 minutes as I recall where it was green if you will along the road. That was our only opportunity to strike to ensure that we had no civilian casualties. The day of the operation I also had a couple of helicopters. And the idea was going to be we were going to drop the bomb if he was still alive or if he was dead, we would have go in by these small little bird helicopters and the guys would set down they would get Nabhan bring him back to the ship that we’d launched from off the coast. Well the day of the mission, the airplane is airborne. The helicopters launch from the destroyers that are off the coast of Somalia. We’re going to time this so that the bomb drops and after the bomb drops helicopters cross the beach and get Nabhan. As the airplane is coming into strike range they’re having trouble locking on the target from the airplane to drop this small surgical bomb. The problem was twofold. One, they had trouble aligning the small surgical bomb with the moving vehicle. This was new technology at the time and the guidance system on the bomb had to be exactly right. And as they are, as the vehicle is moving along this road we’re starting to get closer and closer to the end of the green part of the road.
Rosenberg: Your window is closing…
McRaven: My window is closing very rapidly. Of course, we’re in constant communications with the guys in the airplane and they are convinced they can lock onto the target. But now time is progressing where the window is closing. And the plane calls up says we can’t do this. So I have to make a decision. Do we let Nabhan go again? Assuming it is Nabhan, and we don’t know that for certain. But do I let him go or do I bring the helicopters in to do a gunship, the helicopters had many guns on them?
Rosenberg: Which were not the explicit orders from the President.
McRaven: I had had conversations with the President, and what they want me to do was to use the bomb. There was this kind of hangover from the Blackhawk Down incident and helicopters in Somalia were considered kind of a red line for them. But the President understood that it was an option, I think, but one that he certainly didn’t want to use because we want to be able to hit it with a bomb. But as my window was closing I had to make a command decision and the command decision was let him get away or possibly exceed a little bit of my authority and take the helicopters in to hit him. So I made the decision to let the helicopters attack the vehicle. As the helicopters were coming in, the guys in the vehicle opened up, they had AK-47s or something in the vehicle. They started shooting at the helicopters. Helicopters returned fire and killed all the guys inside. As helicopters landed we got the bodies. It didn’t take us very long to figure out in fact it was Saleh Nabhan, but I think the president is okay with my decision. This gets back to the point you made earlier is, the President was always very supportive of me, his understanding of the command relationship that he’s got to provide the broad guidance, he has got to allow the guy on the ground or the woman on the ground to make the tough decisions. That’s kind of what my responsibility is as commander. Just like I as the three-star had to rely on the guys on the back of the fantail the Bainbridge to make the right decision.
Rosenberg: Which is why I like those two stories together. The president was Barack Obama, right? And your direct boss was Admiral Mullen?
Rosenberg: And there’s a wonderful passage in your book where you speak with him shortly after the operation. You write that he had a wry grin on his face and you quote him as saying I specifically recall you telling the President that you weren’t going to use the little birds for direct action, and you agree that’s what you had said, and then you write, “he gave me a fatherly look. A bit of sternness and a bit of pride.” You quote him, “OK William we’ll let this one go,’ he said, his left hand trying to cover the smile on his face, ‘Roger, sir,’ I smiled back.”
McRaven: Yeah. Admiral Mullen was the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was absolutely magnificent not only in my time as the commander of my three-star unit, but I mean he was always there always supporter of Special Operations always supportive of me. And of course, he was a key figure in the bin Laden raid. He was actually was a key figure in every major mission we conducted. And Admiral Mullen, as well as anybody, understood that every once in a while you’ve got to give a commander the latitude to make the hard decisions.
Rosenberg: You write eloquently about the allure of war. But you also write eloquently about the cost of war. And I wanted to talk to you about that second thing. So many times in your life and your career you made visits to soldiers, airmen, sailors who were injured in the line of duty, sometimes horrifically in Landstuhl Air Force Base, Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. You write in particular about a young man named Brendan Morocco, an Army sergeant, 25th Infantry Division. Can you talk about him? And I’m only choosing him as emblematic of so many others…
McRaven: And he was emblematic of frankly all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and civilians that I had a chance to visit in the hospital when I was the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command so I’d come off the battlefield and I’m a four-star and every couple months I would go up to Walter Reed to visit our guys that were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was up at Walter Reed one day and visited my guys, and as I’ve told folks that I knew how to deal with my guys. You know that these were guys were pretty seriously injured. They had lost legs or blast or they were severely burned or blast victims, but I knew what unit they were from a lot of times I knew their commanding officer, I could harass them in kind of a funny way we could have a dialogue and that was good. So I visit my guys and while I was up there my sergeant major who was the kind of point of contact of at Walter Reed says, “hey, sir, says we got another young man, not a special operations guys, with the 25th Infantry Division. You know, would you mind stopping by and saying hi to him?” I said, “no, I, absolutely. I’d love to.” He said, “but I need to forewarn you. He’s a quadruple amputee. He had been in Iraq. The vehicle he was in was hit by an explosively formed projectile which is like a shaped charge went into the vehicle killed most guys in the vehicle and left him as a quadruple amputee.” We go up to where the kids with prosthetics are kind of working out, and I’m up on the second deck and I see him leaning against a railing up there, and of course because he has no legs he doesn’t stand but about three feet high. So I go over and I kneel down and think he’s trying to figure out who I am. I’ve got this Navy uniform on with four stars, but I’m talking with him.
And candidly, it’s, I’m not sure exactly what to say. I mean here he is a young man. He’s lost both his legs and one arm completely I think and partially the other arm. I’m kind of talking to him, he must have seen you know something in my eyes something – pity or just this sense that this poor kid was going to have to grapple with us the rest of his life. And he turns to me and he says, “hey sir, I’m 24 years old. I’m gonna be just fine.” And I didn’t know what to say. And whenever I have bad days, I think back on Brendan Morocco and I think my goodness you know here he was a quadruple amputee. And he inspired me with those words, and I would like to think that my opportunity to inspire others, because he inspired me. And this is what every kid I met in the hospital, every young man or woman that was injured. The first thing they always said was, I want to get back to my unit. And Brendan Morocco talked to me about that he said. I asked him, I said, “what can I do for you?” He said hey sir, “my unit will be coming back to Hawaii. I want to be there when they get back.” We got a hold of the division commander and sure enough, Sergeant Morocco was there to greet his unit when they arrived back in Hawaii. He went on to have a double arm transplant to this day is out doing kind of inspirational speaking and I will tell you he is emblematic of so many young men and women I saw. But he may be a bit of a special case because rarely I had I seen anybody that injured with that much sense of self and ability to inspire the people around him.
Rosenberg: You wrote Bill, sir, quoting Morocco, “touching me with what remained of his right arm. ‘I’m 24 years old. I have my whole life in front of me. I’m going to be just fine.’” And then you write, “I never forgot those words and when life got a little difficult for me, I remember that moment again and again I repeated those words over and over: I’m going to be just fine.” Remarkable. Thank you for talking about Sergeant Morocco. I take your point that he is indeed emblematic of so many of our young men and women who have served and who have suffered terrific loss. I’m afraid everybody asks you about Neptune Spear. The raid to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in April of 2011. And so I don’t want to go into great detail about that. I know you’ve talked about it many times. What I find so fascinating in that story is that in many ways it was like every other mission that your teams had done in terms of the planning the training and the execution course it was much higher profile. But can you talk about that a little bit?
McRaven: Every time we’re doing a complex mission, the guys understand that that they are going to have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse that they’re going to have to work out plan a plan B plan C and Plan D. In the case of Neptune Spear—.
Rosenberg: How did it get the name by the way?
McRaven: When we were planning on it of course, because the number of folks involved in the planning was so small initially, the President had put me in charge of it from the special operations standpoint. And I was thinking about what are we going to call this thing. And as I was sitting in my office at Fort Bragg I had this little figurine about a 10-inch tall figurine that I had bought in Venice and the figurine had the God of the sea, Poseidon, riding on this kind of seahorse with wings and Poseidon has this long trident spear in his hand. And so I looked at it and I thought, Oh that’s great. I mean it’s sea god riding the horse is emblematic of the SEALs on our helicopters. So I thought I’d call it Poseidon’s Spear and I thought well no that doesn’t work because people of my vintage remember the Poseidon Adventure and if the mission went wrong it would be called The Poseidon Adventure. So I took a little literary license and I called it Neptune Spear and I think that correctly captured not only the SEALs role but because Neptune was riding on this glamorized seahorse it really was about the 160 Special Operations Aviation Regiment the great night stalkers who took us in. So that’s how we got the name Neptune Spear.
Rosenberg: How much training and planning would be required for a mission like this?
McRaven: Well in this case, we were limited in the amount of time we had because as we went through the kind of planning process and the deliberation process with the president the National Security Council we started that I think in late January early February. And then I had six or seven meetings in the White House where the President and his team. And each time we were looking at the various options. There was a major bombing option kind of a carpet bomb sort of approach. There was a little bit more of a strategic bombing option and then there was the raid option. But we didn’t really decide on the raid option until very late. And at one point in time, the President I had briefed the plan and I developed the plan but very simplistic kind of a framework which was really to kind of go from point A to Point B go from where we were in Afghanistan to Abbottabad, fly directly to the target and then do what we normally do on compounds where the SEALs kind of surround the compound or the fast rope in, they get the bad guy and then we get back on the helicopter and we fly out. Nothing overly complicated but at one point in time the President asked me it wa mid-April he said, “well Bill can you do this mission?” I said, “Sir I don’t know. I need to bring the SEALs in. We need to rehearse it. I need to find out whether or not my plan and my expectations can in fact meet the requirements.” So he asked me how long did I think I would need. I said, “I need about three weeks.” So he said, “OK you got three weeks.” So from early April till the end of April we pulled the SEALs together. We had a number of training evolutions on the east coast and then out on the west coast doing full dress rehearsals. That’s a little misleading in that you know I hand-picked the commander of the SEAL unit. He subsequently handpicked the men that were going to work for him and in doing so all of these guys had extensive combat experience. So the mission itself wasn’t tactically very challenging. To your point, we knew that it had kind of a high political risk but that was it something I was overly worried about. I mean, I wanted to make sure the guys got in there and got the mission done and got home safely.
Rosenberg: Which is what you care about and every mission.
McRaven: Of course it is. Absolutely. And in this case putting it in the hands of the right SEAL operators who know how to do the planning and the rehearsals really set us up for success. So we had about three weeks of extensive planning and preparation before we took off on the mission.
Rosenberg: There’s a wonderful section in your book, Bill. It takes place about an hour before your men depart on their mission. You are asked by President Obama to convey his thanks and appreciation to your men. They’re standing around a fire pit. Would you read from your book please?
McRaven: I got around the fire pit with my command sergeant major and I addressed them I said, “gentlemen first let me say that I talked to the President yesterday evening and he told me to pass on his thanks and appreciation for what you were about to do.” Most of the men were deep in thought their heads cast downward but I could tell that they were beginning to understand the magnitude of what they were about to undertake. I moved a little closer to the fire and scanned the group of men standing before me. They were rough looking, serious, professional, focused. They had their game faces on. But I knew that beneath the body armor they were like any other men. They had families, wives and kids, friends back in Virginia Beach. They were good men. Men you would want as your friends your neighbors. Men you could count on when things got bad, real bad. Men who loved each other as only those who have experienced combat together can. They didn’t know what the night would bring but they knew that they were lucky to be chosen for the mission. And that was my message. It was simple. “Gentlemen, since 9/11 each one of you has dreamed of being the man going on the mission to get bin Laden. Well this is the mission and you are the men. Let’s go get bin Laden.” There were no smiles no cheering and no contrived jubilation. It was time to get to work.
Rosenberg: Your men succeeded on that mission. They got bin Laden. They came home safely. Many of them went out on other missions but in the end you write life is relatively simple. It seems incredibly complicated but you still adhere to the notion that life is relatively simple.
McRaven: Yeah, and I can almost take it back to all of our time in SEAL training. In SEAL training we have this little rubber boat called the inflatable boat small and takes seven men to paddle the boat. And very early on in training they give you this simple mission about you know take the boat go out through the surf zone paddle down a couple miles and come in and you think OK. That simple mission statement, but you realize very quickly that unless everybody comes together, unless everybody strokes the paddle at the same time and unless everybody works together, unless you follow the commands you can’t get through it. You realize that you can’t paddle the boat by yourself. You need the help of the other man in the boat. And by life being simple, what I’ve learned is you can’t make it through life by yourself. You need friends. You need colleagues. You need the good will of strangers. And so if you want to be successful in life make as many friends as you can. Have as many colleagues as you can, because you’re going to need them. When times get tough and whether it’s a mission to get bin Laden or whether it’s dealing with cancer or whether it’s dealing with a loss of a loved one, you’re going to need these people. And that’s what makes life simple as have as many friends as possible.
Rosenberg: Indeed you’re right. Help as many people as you can make as many friends as you can work as hard as you can. And no matter what happens…
McRaven: Never quit.
Rosenberg: I have one last thing I wanted to discuss with you. It really is the very first thing that you write in your book. It’s your epigraph. I love beginnings and endings and you begin the book by quoting from Isaiah 6:8. I can read it but I would much rather that you read it.
McRaven: And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send? And who will go for me? And I said, here am I. Send me.
Rosenberg: Send me.
McRaven: Send me. It was the verse that was read every time we had a fallen soldier.
We would do a ramp ceremony.
Rosenberg: Literally the ceremony on the ramp of the plane.
McRaven: The ceremony on the ramp of the airplane. So the casket the remains of the fallen soldier would be brought on the ramp of the airplane carried by members of his unit. Then the rest of the folks would gather around and invariably the pastor or the priest or the rabbi would always quote Isaiah 6:8. And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying whom shall I send and who will go for me. And I said here am I. Send me. And it became kind of the unofficial motto of all of those that went overseas: Send me. Send me to Iraq. Send me to Afghanistan. Send me to Somalia. Send me to North Africa. Send me where the nation needs me. Just send me. I wanted to dedicate the book to all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians that said send me, and participated in this war to stop this terrible scourge of terrorism.
Rosenberg: An extraordinary life, Bill an extraordinary service to the nation is reflected in an extraordinary book. Thank you so much.
McRaven: Thank you, Chuck. I appreciate it.
Rosenberg: Real pleasure to sit down with you.
McRaven Pleasure’s mine.
Rosenberg: Thanks to Bill McRaven for joining me today. Admiral McRaven is the author of three books: Spec Ops, Make Your Bed—based on the famous speech he gave at the University of Texas—and Sea Stories, his wonderful and compelling autobiography. If you like this episode, please leave us a five-star rating on your favorite app and write a good review. And if you have any thoughtful, criticisms, feedback or questions about this episode or others, please email us at email@example.com. That’s all one word. Theoathpodcast@gmail.com. Though I cannot personally respond to every email, please note that I read each one and that I definitely appreciate it. Thank you.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by the wonderful team at FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. Barbara Raab is our senior producer and Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. Thanks to Chris Erlon at Digital Domain in Austin, Texas for hosting today’s interview and to everyone at Clean Cuts in Washington D.C. for additional reporting. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.