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William McRaven's Memoir: 'Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations'


Admiral William McRaven should be dead by now, but he's alive, physically fit, mentally sharp and recently retired. McCraven is best known as the Navy SEAL commander who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It's one of the tales he recounts in his new memoir, titled "Sea Stories: My Life In Special Forces" (ph). Steve Inskeep asked him about a routine parachute jump in San Diego in the year 2001. Shortly after jumping out, McCraven says something was clearly wrong.

WILLIAM H MCRAVEN: And all of a sudden, I realize the guy to the left is underneath me. And he pulls. So in relative terms, I'm moving at about 120 miles an hour towards the ground, and he is, in relative terms, stopped as he pulled his parachute. Well, he pulls his parachute, and I collide with his parachute - little bit like getting hit by an air bag. So I get hit. I kind of tumble through the parachute. But I'm stunned. 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.

So I reached for my rip cord, pulled the rip cord, and the pilot chute comes out of the back of the parachute. Well, 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.

And when it did, the leg with the pilot chute went one direction, and the leg with the risers went the other direction and kind of snapped me in two. So it broke my pelvis several inches apart, you know, ripped muscles out of my stomach and my legs, fractured my back, and I landed about two miles from the drop zone. And fortunately, you know, the guys found me, took me to the hospital. And you know, after a couple days, they pinned me and plated me and got me going.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: If I don't mistake this, your boss, Admiral Eric Olson, kind of bypassed a form that would say whether you were physically fit or not. Is that right?

MCRAVEN: Yeah. I never asked him the specific details. And I think he was probably glad I didn't ask him. Suffice to say, I'm not sure whatever happened to that paperwork, but I continued on in the service, and some things are better left unasked.

INSKEEP: You refer to remembering this incident, this kindness of effectively overlooking the regulations, you think, and how you behaved later as a commander, as the wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And you write, (reading) "not a week went by without some wounded soldier pleading with me to keep them in special operations - they didn't need that second leg. They could see fine out of just one eye. They shot better with a prosthetic hand."

MCRAVEN: In Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, you saw these horrific injuries. When I went to visit guys in the hospital, they always said, I want to get back in the fight.

INSKEEP: You write that somehow your staff sometimes lost people's paperwork.

MCRAVEN: (Laughter) Again, some things are better not questioned.

INSKEEP: You're in a command position in Iraq, in a senior position in Iraq. How was it that you came to be inside Iraq, though, on the day that Saddam Hussein was captured?

MCRAVEN: I had arrived in Iraq in October of 2003, and we were hunting Saddam Hussein. We'd had a lot of leads on him, but frankly, none of the leads had panned out. And then as we start to get into the December timeframe, we had another lead. And some folks were a little dismissive. Some folks believe that maybe it was possible. But that particular day, I actually had a meeting down in Qatar. I had to fly from Baghdad down to Al Udeid. I got on the plane with my aide, Captain Hank Henry.

And as we're taking off from the C-130 and we're kind of getting out of Baghdad, all of a sudden it hits me - this is going to be the day we're getting him. There was something about the new intelligence, something about the confidence of the intelligence, something about everything. So I grabbed Hank and I said, Hank, turn the plane around; we got to get back to Baghdad.

And sure enough, by the time we got back, the great Army Special Operations unit had gotten the lead. The lead, in fact, had led them to Saddam. And you've probably seen the iconic photo of the spider hole. The one source we had that led us to Saddam kind of pointed in the general direction. The guy stomped around on the floor and found this trapdoor, if you will. They pull it up, and there's Saddam. And he raised his hands, and he says, you know, I'm Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, and I'm here to negotiate.

INSKEEP: He wasn't in a very good position to negotiate, I suppose.

MCRAVEN: Yeah, he wasn't in a real good position to negotiate.

INSKEEP: How have people in the military that you have known dealt with the reality that they put their lives on the line, in some places lost arms or legs, for this purpose that turned out to be false?

MCRAVEN: You know, I think the military guys - what I know is, you know, we go where the nation asks us to go, and we do what the nation requires us to do. And sometimes, you know, not our place to overthink it and to trust and rely on the decision-makers who were elected by the American people. But having said that, I mean, the troops are thoughtful. They are concerned about these things.

But here's what I'll tell you. Late in 2010, you know, we were getting ready to pull out of Iraq by early 2011, for the most part, and yet, my guys were still conducting operations in downtown Baghdad. And they were going out every night, you know, trying to stop suicide bombers. And at one point in time, a senior chief petty officer, Navy SEAL senior chief petty officer, he said, Admiral, I don't get it; why are we still doing this? And I thought it was a fair question, and it's a question that needed to be answered. And what I told him is, you never know how the missions you conduct are going to change the lives of the people that you save.

You know, if we go out and stop one suicide bomber from blowing up a market in Baghdad where a hundred people are killed, who are those hundred people? Will one of those hundred people be the person that cures cancer? Will they be the next president or prime minister of Iraq? Will they be, you know, somebody of importance? Will they just be a great mother or father that raises another kid who raises another kid? So, you know, there are times when you have to realize that the work you do, if it is good and honorable and it is trying to save people's lives, you have to take some comfort in the fact that that is good work.

INSKEEP: Admiral, one other thing occurs to me. We noted early on that you managed to get through a severe injury because of a commanding officer who maybe bent the rules a little bit, although you never confirmed that.

MCRAVEN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: You tell story after story after story in this book. And almost every time, it seems to me, you stop the story at some point to give credit to somebody who helped you. What are you trying to tell me there?

MCRAVEN: You know, nobody goes through life and is successful all on their own. And I certainly didn't make it to where I was as a result of my own wonderful talents. It was really about the people that were around me, the people that helped me when I stumbled, the people that picked me up and dusted me off and said, you're going to be OK; keep moving. There were a lot of people that get you to where you are.

INSKEEP: Admiral William H. McRaven is author of "Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations." Thanks so much.

MCRAVEN: My pleasure. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BEIGE FINGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.