Retired Adm. William McRaven is a lot of things. He’s a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, best-selling author, and organizer of the operation that killed the world’s most wanted terrorist.
He also survived being ripped in half by a parachute.
McRaven has a long, storied history with the military. He was the son of an Air Force officer who grew up on Pope Air Force Base and joined the Navy through an ROTC program. He went right into Naval Special Warfare, serving in SEAL Team Six under its creator, Richard Marchinko – who fired McRaven for being too rigid.
But that didn’t keep McRaven from rising in the ranks of Navy special operations. He served in the first Gulf War and wrote the book on special warfare, “The Theory of Special Operations.” In 2001, he became a counterrorism advisor for the National Security Council and soon was fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. And he became the overall commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the rest is history.
But before all that, he had to recover from a terrible accident. In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, McRaven describes what should have been a “routine parachute jump.” It was part of a 10,000 freefall jump exercise in July 2001 and McRaven, then 45 years old, was supposed to save the chute for the last possible moments.
After jumping from the plane, McRaven noticed the jumper below him had pulled his chute, and it was coming at him fast.
“Well, he pulls his parachute, and I collide with his parachute – little bit like getting hit by an air bag. So I get hit,” he recalls. “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.”
Unsure of his altitude or even where he was, he still had the frame of mind to reach for his ripcord, and pulled it.
“… 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,” he said. “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.”
As McRaven tells it, the leg with his pilot chute wrapped around it and the leg with the risers, the straps used to connect the parachute and steer it, were wrapped around the other leg. When the chute blossomed the two parts went different ways – and took his legs with them.
“[They] kind of snapped me in two,” McRaven said. “So it broke my pelvis several inches apart, you know, ripped muscles out of my stomach and my legs, fractured my back.”
A couple of months later, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C., but then-Capt. McRaven had to watch the American response on television as he recovered. Ten years later, Adm. McRaven would help avenge the September 11th attacks by overseeing Operation Neptune Spear.