MURRAY – The admiral credited with leading the mission that caught and killed the architect of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had a homecoming of sorts when he spoke at Murray State University Thursday – even though he had never been to Murray before.
Adm. William H. McRaven was this year’s speaker for the Presidential Lecture Series and spoke to a crowd at Lovett Auditorium about his life and service. According to his bio, McRaven is a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral and the former chancellor of the University of Texas system. During his time in the military, he commanded special operations forces at every level, eventually taking charge of the U.S. Special Operations Command. His career included combat during Desert Storm and both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He commanded the troops that captured Saddam Hussein and rescued Captain Richard Phillips, and he is also credited with leading the Osama bin Laden mission in 2011.
McRaven’s father, Col. Claude McRaven, was a 1939 graduate of Murray State and was inducted into the Murray State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1975. As a student here, Claude scored nine touchdowns while gaining Honorable Mention Little All-America honors, as well as selections on the All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and All-Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference teams in 1938.
“In my lifetime, I’ve never had the chance to come to Murray State before,” McRaven said in a press conference Thursday afternoon prior to that evening’s main event. “Growing up, my father used to talk about Murray State as though it were hallowed ground. He spent four years here on an athletic scholarship (not only playing) football, but I think he also played baseball, basketball and track. He kind of did all the sports back then. Then he went on the join the Army Air Corps and spent 26 years in the Air Force.
“What Dad remembered most about Murray in addition to the athletics was he had this love of education. When he retired, the first thing he did was get his master’s degree in education. He really kind of impressed upon myself and my sisters the value of an education.”
During the lecture that evening, McRaven told the audience, “I talk about my father quite a bit because I like to think what my father learned here at Murray State was so much more than just athletics. He was a remarkable athlete; he had those skills when he got here, but I will tell you what Murray State taught him was how to be a man. The lessons that he took away, he passed on to me.”
When asked in the press conference by a Murray State journalism student how McRaven kept his composure during missions as high-stakes as the bin Laden raid, he said years of preparation made it feel like any other job he knew he and his team had to complete.
“I think it has a lot to do with experience,” McRaven said. “By the time I was asked to lead the bin Laden raid, I had been in the military 32 years. I had been an experienced Special Operations officer for all of those 32 years, I had been in combat in Desert Storm and in most of Iraq and Afghanistan, so you come to situations like that (prepared). I had hand-picked the leadership and I knew they would do the right job. We had done all the planning; we had Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. So you gain a lot of confidence if you have experienced a lot of this before.
“Obviously, this was a different mission; it had a lot of political implications. Tactically, it was challenging, but frankly, not the most challenging mission that I had done before. I knew what I was getting into and I knew whatever went south on the mission, I had seen before.”
For example, when a helicopter went down outside bin Laden’s compound, he was on a headset listening to the team, so he knew it wasn’t a crash.
“I’ve lost helicopters before,” he said. “I know the difference between a hard landing and a crash and you know how to deal with that. A lot of this is experience, and experience allows you to be calm under pressure.”
On that same subject, McRaven told the lecture audience, “At the end of the day, I’m often asked about the mission, and as the face of this, I have gotten all the accolades, but let me tell you, I was one very, very small part of this. The helicopter pilots and the air crews, the SEALS and the intelligence professionals (were responsible for the mission’s success). It took hundreds and hundreds of people to pull this together, and hopefully, while it didn’t stop the War on Terrorism – we knew it wouldn’t – the fact of the matter is, there was a lot of information within the intelligence that we gathered that we think stopped subsequent attacks. Bin Laden turned out to be a lot more operationally engaged than we thought (at the time).”
When a student asked during the press conference about his opinion on the current leadership in the U.S. military, he said they are as good if not better than the leaders who have served throughout the military’s history.
“They just get better and better and better,” he said. “The people that come into the military today, of course, they’re all volunteers, so you see folks that come in with the right motivation. And I’ve always been impressed with the young men and women who came in right after 9/11. I mean, they came in, raised their hand and said, ‘I do’ and came into a military they knew was going to war. That’s quite a sacrifice.
“So you see these young folks coming in; they are highly educated, highly motivated, they become great leaders because the military teaches you how to be a great leader. I think we are as good today as we’ve ever been, so I’m not concerned about the leadership at all.”
When a student asked McRaven who had influenced him most in his career, he said that would be his wife, Georgeann.
“I don’t say that flippantly,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, I’ve had a lot of great officers I’ve worked for, but every day, you need somebody to kind of pick you up when you make those mistakes and dust you off and say it’s going to be OK, that encourages you, that gives you the right motivations to move forward in the tough times. And she has done that more than once or twice.”
The Presidential Lecture Series is supported by the Office of the President, the MSU Foundation and the Student Government Association.