While adorable little girls in sparkly cheerleader outfits with moms and backpacks filled the Dallas Omni Hotel lobby and the surrounding area on Friday, March 1, for the NCA All-Star Nationals, the escalators were taking the men in business suits and well coiffed ladies to the Trinity Ballroom. They were there not just to rally funds for the Retina Foundation of the Southwest, but to see an American hero — Ret. Admiral William McRaven. And while his tales of being a Navy SEAL and dealing with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden may not have had the group signing up to enlist, they certainly earned a standing ovation.
But before he took command of the stage, Retina Foundation Executive Director Jean Buys honored three people who had been supportive of the organization and had died during the past year — Caroline Rose Hunt, Dr. William Snyder and Faye Briggs. 2019 Visionary Luncheon Co-Chairs Kristy Sands and Amy Wilson also recognized Honorary Chair Lyda Hill. To bring home what is being achieved by the Foundation, Managing and Medical Director Dr. Karl Csaky, Reed Jobst and Daniel Galles discussed the many services and developments that the Foundation was providing. For instance, more than 2,300 patients are seen free of charge each year at the Foundation.
Following a video recognizing the Visionary Award Recipient Thompson and Knight, another video showed the challenges facing eye disease.
Luncheon was then served, including Salad Nicoise and grilled Texas spiced breast of chicken.
It was now time for the Admiral to take over. In doing so, he nearly tripped, but quickly recovered, laughing “Bad knee.”
For nearly an hour, he told how his Basic SEAL training in Coronado had provided life lessons and had been a foundation for his life. Admitting that despite the beauty of Coronado to many, he can never look at the place the same as others.
Highlights of his talk included:
- Making your bed — Each morning an instructor would inspect his room with an emphasis on the bed. It had to have the pillow in the exact center under the headboard, the sheets with square corners, the blanket pulled tight enough to bounce a coin, etc. Eventually, he told one of his instructors he didn’t under the importance of the bed protocol. The answer was “It’s the little things that matter. If you can’t make your bed, how can you do the big things?” Years later when he was in Afghanistan and every day something bad seemed to happen, he realized that despite the day’s chaos, he knew he had control over his bed.
- The inflatable boat — Each crew of seven would have to take the boat from the shore to a destination in the sea. To achieve the task, it required the crew to work as one getting it into the water and paddling in unison — “Everyone had to work together to get from point A to point B.” Fast -orward 25 years: He was parachuting from a plane. The drill was to jump at 13,000 feet and once you dropped to 5,500 feet, you pulled your ripcord. When McRaven jumped he found himself falling at 125 MPH and hitting the parachute of another, who had deployed his chute too soon. Dazed at the impact, he pulled his cord only to find himself tangled up in the parachute’s lines. Landing two miles from the drop zone, he spent the next months in a wheelchair recovering. It was then that he learned how the teamwork of his wife Georgeann McRaven and others helped him get back in shape.
- Sugar Cookie — One of the punishing exercises was to run, fully clothed into the surf zone, return to the beach and roll around on the beach until the body was coated with sand. There was a lieutenant by the name of Moki Martin who would pick on McRaven, resulting in his being a Sugar Cookie often. At times there was no real reason for it, but it taught McRaven that “Life isn’t fair.” Years later, when Moki was training for a cycling competition in 1983, he collided with another cyclist and the mishap left him paralyzed. “He’s never complained. He understood the lesson of the Sugar Cookie.”
- Hell Week — Early in the six months, the candidates went through a week of misery. McRaven’s class, which had started out at 150 trainees, was down to 55. More than 100 had “rung the bell,” meaning they had called it quits. After a day of rigorous activities including six days of no sleep, the 55 found themselves lying in rows submerged in mud. To add to the situation, it was cold. At one point, some of the instructors built a fire and offered the miserable trainees that if five of them would quit, the others could leave the mud and join them for coffee. It was a tempting offer, but at the end of the row a voice was heard singing, then a second. Despite the threats from the instructors, more voices sang. Fast-forward 30 years: McRaven was at Walter Reed Hospital when he met a young soldier who had been with the 25th Infantry Division. His vehicle had been hit, killing all except the soldier. He lost both arms and legs. Touched by his story, McRaven recalled how the soldier said, “I’m 24 years old. I’m gonna be just fine.” The lesson that McRaven had learned was, “When you’re up to your neck in mud, you start to sing.”
Emcee Shelly Slater and McRaven then took their places on the living room setting on stage for a brief chat that was highlighted by:
Overseeing the assassination of Osama bin Laden — “The mission was ten years in the making. It was a big moment but it’s been hard to internalize. When you get down to get it, the mission was not a tough one. There were 11 other missions that night where guys were wounded and innocents killed.”
Saddam Hussein — When the former Iraqi dictator was captured and brought to McRaven’s headquarters, they wanted to clean him up for photos. That meant shaving the dictator’s full beard. A half hour after giving the orders, McRaven returned to see Hussein with scissors cutting his own beard. Immediately, McRaven had the scissors taken away. When one of his officers asked if they had the authority to shave Hussein, McRaven was startled at the question. After 30 days in captivity, Hussein was no longer a man with power: “Compared to Nelson Mandela, who came out of prison stronger, Hussein was a broken, old man.”