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What Adm. William H. McRaven Learned About Fear And Risk During The Osama Bin Laden Raid

U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McRaven speaks to special operations commanders during a commander's call at King Auditorium on Hurlburt Field in Florida in 2012.

Adm. William H. McRaven has had more than his fair share of heart-stopping moments.

As a member and leader of the Navy SEALs for 37 years, McRaven took part in hundreds and oversaw thousands of missions that put his own life and the lives of his fellow service members in peril, including the 2011 raid that ended in the killing of Osama bin Laden.

From the agony of basic training as a SEAL to jumping out of hundreds of planes into the darkness, all of McRaven’s time spent staring down danger have given him some clarity on the nature of fear.

“If you’re not afraid, that’s not a good sign,” McRaven told the audience on Wednesday’s Walker Webcast, hosted by Willy Walker, chairman and CEO of Walker & Dunlop. “Fear focuses you. It sharpens your perceptions of everything around you. As you do events over and over again, you learn to manage it and turn it to your advantage.”

The first time he jumped out of an airplane, McRaven said, he was scared to death. After dozens of jumps, he still felt fear, but the fear focused him on making sure he did his best to lower the potential that anything could go wrong. 

One memorable jump over the Philippines, on the date of his first anniversary with his wife, Georgeann, McRaven added another coping mechanism. As he prepared to launch himself out of the plane, he started singing the Little River Band’s “Happy Anniversary” to himself. He still sings the song, which he calls silly, to himself every time he jumps to stay calm.

Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, also a former University of Texas chancellor, on the Walker Webcast.

In the years after his military service, as chancellor of the University of Texas, McRaven came to be known for his belief in the power of small rituals. In a 2014 commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin, which has since racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube, he explained how having to make his bed to perfection every morning of SEAL training instilled in him diligent habits and pride in accomplishing tasks, no matter how small. 

But McRaven’s career has been just as defined by a handful of big decisions. On the Walker Webcast, he described the last meeting that he had with then-President Barack Obama before the raid on the walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was suspected to be living.

For weeks, United States National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter and the intelligence staff in the room had been tracking a man they dubbed “the pacer” make daily walks around the compound courtyard.

“The president asked Leiter if he thought it was bin Laden, and Leiter said there was about a 40% to 60% chance it was him,” McRaven said. “Right then, I didn’t think the president would pull the trigger on it. It was a gamble, and he knew that he was betting his own political future on this, not to mention risking the lives of the SEALs and Army aviators going in.”

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on a webinar with Adm. William H. McRaven

When Obama did give the go-ahead order, it fell to McRaven to mitigate the risk to the lives of his fellow Navy SEALs. The process for that, he said, was to break down the raid into thousands of discrete steps, imagine all the ways things could possibly go wrong, and come up with thousands of contingency plans.

“People think of Navy SEALs as cavalier about the risks that we take,” McRaven said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. You always have to think through the worst-case events and make backup plans. You never want to find yourself in the middle of a worst-case scenario not having thought through it. It’s not enough to have plans B and C.”

As part of the bin Laden raid, the SEALs stationed two backup helicopters just on the Afghan side of the Pakistani border. As the raid unfolded, one helicopter clipped the retaining wall of the compound with its tail, grounding it. Without those backups, service members could have been stranded in the compound. 

“There was not a single plan that didn’t involve backup helicopters,” McRaven said. 

He said the iconic image of Obama and members of his staff watching the raid was captured soon after it became clear that one of the helicopters had become unserviceable. Throughout the raid, McRaven himself was in communication with Air Force Lt. Gen. Marshall Bradley Webb, who sits at the center of the picture.

Members of the Obama administration watch the progress of the Osama bin Laden raid from the situation room in the White House. Lt. Gen. Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, in uniform, center, was in contact with Adm. William H. McRaven throughout the raid.

It was McRaven who was tasked with identifying bin Laden’s body once the remains had been flown back to the staging ground for the raid, and reporting to Obama that the mission had been successful.

But as important and historic as the raid was, McRaven said that it was only one of 11 special operations undertaken by the SEALs that night. On a typical night, McRaven oversaw 20 to 25 operations from Afghanistan. During his time in Iraq, the number was closer to 40. 

“We worked on a two-team rotation,” McRaven said. “Every other night, this group of guys would be getting on a helicopter and going into harm’s way. You want to talk about heroism? That was on full display every single day. You can’t help but be inspired by this next generation.”

On Nov. 4, Willy will host JPMorgan's Cayman Wills and  Peter Cook of the American Bankers Association. Register here for the event.

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Walker & Dunlop. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.