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Retiring top Navy SEAL: ‘We are in the golden age of Special Operations’

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Adm. William McRaven, the longtime and retiring commander of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, said Thursday that the United States is in “the golden age of Special Operations,” citing his troops’ work around the globe not only in fighting “barbaric” militant groups but in stabilizing conflict areas and teaching human rights.

It’s “a time when our unique talents as special operators are in the greatest demand. A time when the nation recognizes the strategic value of our services. A time when all that we train for, all that we work for, all that our predecessors planned for has come together,” McRaven said.

The admiral’s comments came as he stepped down and was replaced by Army Gen. Joseph Votel after serving as SOCOM chief for more than three years.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, thrust Special Operations troops into the spotlight, the admiral said. They made a difference in Iraq, but their actions have been even more pronounced in Afghanistan, where they pursued al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and have helped train local police who defend their own villages and districts from insurgents, he said.

McRaven, 58, will retire from the military after 37 years and take over as chancellor of the University of Texas system later this year.

As SOCOM’s top commander, he not only oversaw operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the expansion of Special Operations troops across the globe, as the United States pivoted to chasing militants in other countries and engaging with friendly militaries to build relationships that can be used in times of crisis.

Before taking over SOCOM, McRaven planned the Navy SEAL raid into Pakistan that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. At the time, he was the three-star commander of Joint Special Operations Command, a component of SOCOM that oversees the military’s most elite commandos.

As observed in this profile of McRaven published this week, he is credited with establishing new task forces that helped better integrate Special Operations troops in Afghanistan, overseeing his command’s growth from about 45,600 troops to 69,700, and pressing for more money to build a better support network for them after years of difficult deployments.

He also has been blocked by Congress at times in his effort to expand Special Operations, especially when he wanted a new headquarters in Washington and regional centers across the globe that could have helped coordinate operations. Some members of Congress questioned whether the money was necessary, and neither plan has been realized.

McRaven’s replacement has also been deeply involved in Special Operations for years. Votel, who was profiled by Checkpoint in June, has led the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command since June 2011, overseeing the military’s most highly classified missions and well-trained units. As a colonel, he led the 75th Ranger Regiment — the Army’s elite light-infantry — as its members parachuted into Afghanistan on Oct. 19, 2001, to set up what would become Camp Rhino, the first U.S. base established in the country.