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ByAsher Price AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Updated: 5:38 a.m. Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Published: 9:57 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, 2011
A demolition whiz, an expert parachutist and diver, a pilot of mini-submarines and, at one point, an aspiring journalist if Rambo were a Renaissance man, and a lot thinner and taller, he might look like Bill McRaven.
Long before he devised the strategy for how to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, McRaven began preparing for a career as a super-commando while he was an undergraduate at the University of Texas.
McRaven, 55 and now a vice admiral, had been something of a bin Laden hunter for at least a half-dozen years before successfully directing the attack Sunday as the leader of the Joint Special Operations Command.
McRaven, who hails from San Antonio, began preparing for his storied career with the Navy SEALs, the elite special operations forces, while still a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at UT, from which he graduated in 1977 as a journalism major.
"He had drive," said James Gruetzner, who was in the same Navy ROTC battalion as McRaven. "He went on extraordinarily long runs to stay in shape. He was very dedicated."
McRaven grew up in a military family — his father, a former football player, had served as a pilot in World War II — and early outings as a 10-year-old to scuba dive at the YMCA put him on the Navy path, said his sister Nan McRaven, an Austin public affairs consultant who serves on the board of Austin Community College.
"He became very focused on SEAL training," said Curtis Raetz, who also was in the ROTC battalion. "He was able to lap us all no matter how hard we tried."
Students aiming to become SEALs were "fanatical" about physical training, said Greg Colchin, another member of the battalion.
"People think of it as a physical thing, but it's also a mental thing," said Nan McRaven, who said her brother has loved to read ever since their mother compelled him to recite poetry as a boy. "He's focused, and he has the humility for real leadership."
Eventually he would become a qualified diver, parachutist, demolition expert and submersible pilot. He also had smarts. He earned a master's degree in national security affairs, and in 1995, he wrote "Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare Theory and Practice," in which he developed his own definition of a special operation as one "conducted by forces specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific target whose destruction, elimination, or rescue (in the case of hostages), is a political or military imperative."
Nominating McRaven for a fourth star this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Joint Special Operations Command "ruthlessly and effectively (took) the fight to American's most dangerous and vicious enemies."
At its head was McRaven, who "is reputed to be the smartest SEAL that ever lived. He is physically tough, compassionate and can drive a knife through your ribs in a nanosecond," a former commander told Newsweek in 2004.
He also has shown a capacity for contrition. In April 2010, a couple of months after a special forces team mistakenly killed an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor and three unarmed women, McRaven pleaded for forgiveness from a local patriarch, bringing with him an offering of two sheep as part of a custom to make amends.
That followed McRaven's decision to tamp down commando raids in Afghanistan to avoid civilian deaths.
Whatever successes he achieved remained outstripped by the specter of bin Laden, whose elimination, to use McRaven's own word, remained an "imperative."
As long ago as 2004, having already commanded the team that helped capture Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — soldiers based at Fort Hood also were involved — he turned his attention to capturing Public Enemy No. 1.
But he was stymied until this spring, when intelligence officers determined that bin Laden was in hiding in Pakistan.
McRaven spent weeks working with the CIA on the commando operation, The New York Times has reported, coming up with three options: a helicopter assault using American commandos, a strike with B-2 bombers that would obliterate the compound or a joint raid with Pakistani intelligence operatives who would be told about the mission hours before the launch.
The decision, to swoop in with a crew of American commandos, was in keeping with McRaven's view of special operations.
In 2001 congressional testimony on military training, McRaven described the two primary missions of Navy SEALs: "Reconnaissance and what we call direct action: raids, ambushes, swimmer sneak attacks and optical clearance for amphibious landings," he said. "Most of these missions originate from the water and require us to work in small units, behind enemy lines at night, with little or no outside support."