- - Monday, May 13, 2019


By Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

Grand Central, $30, 416 pages


When I was a teenage sailor serving aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, “sea stories” was a pejorative term, meaning an embellished tale of braggadocio, as in, “Oh, no, Davis is telling sea stories again!”

In the opening of William H. McRaven’s book, “Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations,” the retired four-star admiral who served as the commander of all U.S. Special Operations Forces offers a more classical definition of sea stories: “Tales of epic adventures recounted by sailors returning home from a long voyage; usually told over a bottle of rum with good friends and intentions.”

His definition of sea stories is certainly more fitting for his book, as Adm. McRaven doesn’t need to embellish his dramatic 37-year Navy SEAL career, nor does he necessarily brag, as he shares credit with his team mates and superior officers for the successes of the historical missions he recounts in the book.

Adm. McRaven commanded the special operators who captured Saddam Hussein after the war in Iraq, and he commanded the Navy SEALs who took out the Somalian pirates who boarded a commercial ship off Africa and kidnapped the ship’s captain, Richard Philips. And near the end of his most distinguished career, he commanded the Navy SEALs and other special operators who raided the compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader who planned and executed the horrific 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Adm. McRaven begins his story describing his childhood in England, where his Air Force pilot father was serving in 1960 and his later youthful adventures playing James Bond and sports in Texas. He goes on to describe his arduous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training at Coronado, California, in 1977. Graduating from the elite course, cumulating in “Hell Week,” the young officer became a Navy SEAL.

“I could never have imagined that thirty-six years after graduation I would still be a frogman, having served longer than any other SEAL on active duty,” Adm. McRaven writes.

He writes of his time in the Philippines, where his decision to end a failed exercise early and not board an Air Force MC-130 aircraft saved his life, as the plane subsequently crashed and killed 23 men. Later, he describes an amusing adventure on a minisubmarine wet submersible, called a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), which was launched from a nuclear submarine off Puerto Rico. He goes on to tell of another adventure, an eerie story in which he led a SEAL team on the hunt for a downed aircraft from 1948 in British Columbia, as well as the story of his near-fatal parachute landing.

In one chapter he writes of having to choose between being a hard disciplinarian and being compassionate while disciplining an officer for a DUI, which he knows will hurt the officer’s career. He harkens back briefly to a low time in 1983.

“Since graduating from training, I had done just about everything expected of a SEAL officer. I had served two tours with our SEAL Delivery Vehicles, commanded a SEAL platoon in South America, deployed to Desert Shield and Desert Storm as a SEAL Task Unit commander, and worked in the Pentagon, overseas in the Philippines and on various SEAL staffs,” Adm. McRaven writes.

He goes on to say that he was married with three wonderful kids, but not everything was perfect in his life. He then tells of being relieved of his command as the squadron commander of an elite East Coast SEAL.

“It was a jarring, confidence-crushing, hard-to-swallow moment, and I seriously considered leaving the Navy,” Adm. McRaven recalls.

His wife, Georgeann, reminded him that he had never quit anything in his life, so he stayed, and he was thankful that several senior officers saw potential in him.

I presume he is referring to being fired by Richard Marcinko, the founder and first commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, more commonly known as SEAL Team Six. I’d like to know more about that story, and what he thought of the larger-than-life Cmdr. Marcinko, author of “Rogue Warrior,” but for personal or security reasons, he does not tell the whole story, and he does not criticize or even mention Cmdr. Marcinko. (Unlike many memoirs, Adm. McRaven takes the high road and does not settle old scores in his book.)

The best parts of the book are his telling of the three most dramatic missions in his career — the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Capt. Philips and the killing of bin Laden.

“Sea Stories,” a well-written book that reads like a thriller, covers some of the most important historical actions taken by Navy SEALs and other special operators.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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