SEAL Team 6's greatest coup, of course, was the 2011 operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which Osama bin Laden was killed.
However, SEAL Team 6's integral role in the war against al Qaeda and its allies would not have been easy to predict before the 9/11 attacks.
Just recall the debacle that has come to be known as "Blackhawk Down." In Mogadishu, Somalia, in early October 1993 a daytime helicopter assault -- by pilots of the Special Operations Air Regiment and elements of SEAL Team 6, Delta Force and the 75th Rangers -- to snatch Somali clan leaders who were attacking U.S. troops stationed in Somalia turned into a fiasco in which two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down by rocket propelled grenades. Eighteen American servicemen died.
Scarred by Mogadishu, the Pentagon was resistant to using SEAL Team 6 and Delta to take on al Qaeda in Afghanistan once the terrorist group had rebased itself there in 1996.
Yet after the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was deeply frustrated that the first American boots on the ground in Afghanistan were from the CIA and not the highly trained counterterrorism units of SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force.
On October 17, 2001, ten days after the U.S. campaign against the Taliban had started, Rumsfeld wrote a secret memo to Gen. Richard Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressing his irritation: "Does the fact that the Defense Department can't do anything on the ground in Afghanistan until CIA people go in first to prepare the way suggest that the Defense Department is lacking a capability we need? Specifically, given the nature of our world, isn't it conceivable that the Department (of Defense) ought not to be in a position of near total dependence on CIA in situations such as this?"
Officials working for Rumsfeld commissioned Richard Shultz, an historian on special forces, to find out why special operations units were not deployed to hit al-Qaeda before the attacks on New York and Washington. After all, fighting terrorists was why these units were founded in the first place. Schultz concluded that in the years before 9/11 the senior officers at the Pentagon had become "Somalia-ized."
Then-special operations boss Gen. Peter Schoomaker recalled, "Special operations were never given the mission. It was very, very frustrating. It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage and nobody wants to race it because you might dent the fender."
The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon allowed Rumsfeld to push special operations to the center of the "Global War on Terrorism." And on September 6, 2003, Rumsfeld signed an order known as an "EXORD" that empowered Joint Special Operations Command to hunt al-Qaeda in as many as 15 countries.
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Military's own army
In the decade after 9/11, JSOC became a small army within the military with its own drones, its own air force (known as the Confederate Air Force) and its own intelligence operations.
The rise of JSOC was inextricably linked to the vision of Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a brilliant workaholic from a military family who was beloved by his men; during the Iraq War he who would go out with them on missions to capture/kill insurgents.
It was McChrystal who took the special operations Ferrari out of the garage and drove it to become a killing machine of unprecedented agility and ferocity.
JSOC went from mounting half a dozen operations a month in Iraq in the spring of 2004 to 300 a month by the summer of 2006.
It was McChrystal's five-year command of JSOC between 2003 and 2008 that helped turn its core components of SEAL Team 6 and Delta into what is arguably the most agile and deadly force in history.
One of the key officers under McChrystal was Bill McRaven, who took over command from McChrystal as head of JSOC when McChrystal went to take a senior job at the Pentagon.
McRaven is a strapping, dark-haired, blue-eyed Texan in his mid-50s. In conversation as he chugs a Rip It -- a heavily caffeinated beverage popular with American soldiers in Afghanistan -- he speaks in well thought-out paragraphs, but he also peppers his speech with the occasional "doggone," as well as other, more robust swear words.
A battle-hardened colleague says McRaven reminds him of the comic book superhero Captain America, while another says he "is reputed to be the smartest SEAL that ever lived. He is physically tough, compassionate and can drive a knife through your ribs in a nanosecond." Even as a three-star admiral, about once a month in Afghanistan, McRaven went out with his teams on snatch-and-grab missions.
It was McRaven who planned the bin Laden raid down to the last details. Now he commands Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which oversees special operations by the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines.
According to its mission statement, SOCOM's job is to "synchronize planning of global operations against terrorist networks".
A sign of where the Obama administration is placing its bets about what it believes to be the future of warfare is that while there are major cuts planned for all four of the armed services, SOCOM is one of the few places in the military where the force is actually growing.
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