William McRaven: One of the Most Famous Navy SEALs in American History

Photo Credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc. / CORBIS / Getty Images

William McRaven is one of the most famous Navy SEALs in American history. A four-star admiral, he was in command and helped organize the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He retired from his storied US military career in 2014, leaving behind an incredible legacy.

William McRaven’s upbringing

William McRaven was seemingly always destined for a career in the military. He was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his father, Claude, was stationed at Pope Army Airfield. The elder McRaven was a World War II-era Spitfire pilot who’d also briefly played in the NFL.

Close-up of William H. McRaven
William H. McRaven served as the 11th Chancellor of the University of Texas. (Photo Credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc. / CORBIS / Getty Images)

While McRaven was in elementary school, his family moved to Texas. The future admiral was a member of the track and field time while in school, as well as a member of the Navy ROTC. He graduated from college in 1977, with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism.

McRaven’s early military career

McRaven began his military career upon graduating from college and volunteered for Navy SEAL training. He was successful in his training and became a member of the elite squad after a six-month probationary period. In the early 1980s, he was sent to Dam Neck, Virginia and served under Richard Marcinko, the first commander of SEAL Team 6.

The two men didn’t get along, and McRaven was fired. Marcinko later explained, “He was a bright guy, but he didn’t like my rude and crude way. If I was a loose cannon, he was too rigid. He took the ‘special’ out of special warfare.”

William McRaven in uniform
Admiral William McRaven, Commander of the US Special Operations Command, speaks at the panel “Counterterrorism in 2025: What kind of fighting force will be required” during the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on November 16, 2013. (Photo Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images)

This setback did not hurt McRaven all that much. He continued to rise up through the ranks and served as a task unit commander during the Persian Gulf War. McRaven also continued his education, earning a Master of Arts degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1993.

Broken in half

While McRaven was well on his way to a storied military career, it almost didn’t happen. He told NPR in 2019 about a 2001 training exercise where he was nearly killed after being hit in the air by another parachutist.

“I kind of tumble through the parachute. But I’m stunned,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure what’s happened. I don’t know whether I’ve been knocked unconscious. I don’t know whether I’ve been dazed. And now I’m tumbling out of control towards the ground.”

William McRaven gesturing as if he's driving a car
William McRaven during a 2015 interview. (Photo Credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc. / CORBIS / Getty Images)

He continued: “Because I was tumbling, the pilot chute came out and wrapped around one leg, and then another part of the parachute called the riser came out and wrapped around my other leg. So now I am tangled up in my parachute, falling towards the ground. The good news is, as I fell a couple hundred feet or a thousand feet or so, the parachute finally opened. The bad news is, when a parachute opens, it blossoms.”

The accident resulted in a broken pelvis for McRaven. A few months later, 9/11 happened. At that time, he was still recovering from his injuries.

Operation Neptune Spear

In 2011, McRaven was serving in command of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and was a vice admiral in the Navy. He was called into the office of CIA Director Leon Panetta to discuss Osama bin Laden. He was told the CIA had located the compound of the terrorist leader and was tasked with developing an operation to kill him. McRaven was renowned for his ability to conduct and plan covert operations. As such, Panetta turned the entire operation over to him.

Military portrait of William McRaven
Admiral William McRaven. (Photo Credit: United States Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

McRaven’s plan was successful and bin Laden was killed by SEAL Team 6 on May 2, 2011. The Navy admiral was celebrated for the success of his plan, and was the runner-up for Time‘s Person of the Year for the operation. On September 1, 2014, McRaven formally retired from the military, after years of being a Bull Frog – the longest-serving Navy SEAL still on duty.

Following his military service, he became the Chancellor at his alma matter, the University of Texas.

Feud with Donald Trump and McRaven’s legacy

McRaven came back into the public eye in 2018, after President Donald Trump took away the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan. He wrote a letter in The Washington Post, urging Trump to take away his clearance as well. The President responded by calling McRaven a Hillary Clinton fan.

In 2019, McRaven published an op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Our Republic Is Under Attack From the President.”

William McRaven speaking with U2's Bono
William McRaven speaks with U2’s Bono. (Photo Credit: Leigh Vogel / Getty Images)

While retired, McRaven has remained busy. He has written a number of books, and occasionally appears on cable news programs. He was in the running to become Joe Biden’s Secretary of Defense, but the position was eventually given to Lloyd Austin III.