Shaban Athuman/Staff Photographer
Navy hero and his first mate make brain health their special ops
by Cheryl Hall, Business Columninst | January 20, 2018
Would you like to double your brain power?
Bill and Georgeann McRaven believe this is an attainable mission.
Is there a FitBit for the brain waiting to be developed?
The retired four-star admiral — who oversaw the special operations capture of Saddam Hussein and the Osama bin Laden raid — and his wife believe there just might be.
That’s why they’ve signed on as the national spokescouple for the BrainHealth Project, the largest-ever brain research initiative, spearheaded by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Who wouldn’t want to learn how to stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s and better cope with stress and depression?
“We’re on the cusp of a brain health revolution,” says Bill, who was chancellor of the University of Texas System after his storied 37-year Navy Special Operations career. “As you look across the health care industry, everybody recognizes that the neurosciences are the great frontier. They’re where oncology and cancer were 50 years ago.
“We believe that the Center for BrainHealth and its BrainHealth Project are going to lead the way.”
Sandi Chapman, chief director of the center and a pre-eminent crusader for brain research, says the McRavens were the hands-down choice for bringing national visibility and global connectivity to the initiative.
The McRavens are all too familiar with the ravages brought on by combat brain injuries, PTSD and depression. Georgeann’s father died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
“We are all going to live a long time because of what they’ve done with cancer and the heart,” Georgeann says. “It’s not going to be fun to live to 100 if, when you’re 80, you don’t know who you are.
“You can change your brain for the better. You don’t have to wait until you have dementia.”
Hook ’em Horns
Bill was born in Pinehurst, N.C., while his father — a Spitfire fighter pilot during World War II — was stationed at Pope Air Force Base. By the time Bill was in elementary school, his family of five (he has two older sisters) had lived in Virginia and France before landing at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where Bill graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School.
He went to UT on a track scholarship.
So why the SEALs?
“I wanted to be part of an elite military unit. I was 21 years old, looking for a challenge and wanted to be part of a team. The SEALs fit all of those.”
Bill spent his final three years in the Navy as “Bull Frog,” the name designated to the longest-serving active-duty SEAL.
Georgeann, the third of five siblings in a Catholic family, grew up in Lakewood and graduated from Ursuline Academy of Dallas. After several Navy base transfers, she finished her accounting degree as a correspondent student of Saint Leo University in Florida in 1985.
But both she and he bleed UT burnt orange.
Pulling equal rank
Georgeann and Bill have walked in lockstep since he was a senior-year Navy ROTC midshipman at the University of Texas in Austin and she was a sophomore-year volunteer for the Naval officer training program.
Their first date was on April Fools’ Day in 1977. It turned out to be anything but a joke.
“We both knew right away,” she says. “We got engaged that Christmas and married in May of ’78.”
This has been a “command team” since Bill’s first platoon command in 1983.
“In the military,” he says, “the fact of the matter is the spouse is an integral part of the command and has to help with the families, particularly when the commander is gone. Georgeann handled that remarkably well.”
Georgeann’s most challenging time — and most rewarding — was the six years when Bill spent most of his time deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan as commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces. She held down the fort for special ops families at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. News of battle losses — not necessarily from special ops units — was sadly a daily occurrence.
“You could never really forget what was going on,” she says. “You’d go somewhere else where there wasn’t a military field, and nobody was even thinking about the war. But day to day at Fort Bragg, you couldn’t forget. I realized how important it was to give people some confidence and hope.”
She particularly loved playing hostess at an annual “tailgate” party, where families of all ranks came in their favorite sports team garb and downed less-than-healthy food and beverages.
“That gave people an excuse to dress down,” Georgeann says. “They didn’t have to worry about coming to the admiral’s house looking fabulous. People would walk in and have something to instantly talk about because they’d see another Cowboys shirt or Longhorn shirt or their rival’s school.
“I didn’t want people to just have me as someone to look up to. I wanted to help them make friends.”
When Bill was promoted to four-star admiral, which came with a private jet, the McRavens traveled the world doing force and family reconnaissance in a program they developed. The soldiers from all services, primarily men, wouldn’t let on about how depressed they were. But the spouses would unload on Georgeann.
“I’d tell Bill, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ or ‘You’ve got to do that,’ because I got the other perspective,” she says. “We took care of mind, body and spirit. I loved that we could make a difference.”
Secret red phone
Bill orchestrated the raid of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan.
Georgeann had no idea what was happening.
She’d sensed that something big was afoot because Bill had been making unusual quick round trips from Jalalabad instead of his usual pattern of returning home for a week every four months.
“His little red secret phone kept ringing in the house,” she recalls. “It was something like out of the movies. He’d go up and close the door and talk. So I knew something was going on. But I really thought they’d given up on finding Osama bin Laden.”
She was watching TV on May 2, 2011, when the network broke in to say President Barack Obama was about to make an announcement.
“I felt sick to my stomach because I was so worried that somebody had gotten hurt,” she says. “So nobody was more shocked than me when they started speculating about what the president was going to say. It was very exciting.”
In December 2011, McRaven was runner-up for Time magazine’s Person of the Year for his role in the operation.
Yes, there were remarkably high-profile moments and plenty of adrenaline rushes, but Bill points to the continuum of camaraderie and his ability to help soldiers move up the chain of command as his true measure of success — like seeing a young lieutenant become a three-star general.
“You have to teach them what right looks like,” he says. “You have to teach them the good order and discipline that’s necessary. You have to make sure they understand the business of being in the military.
“In the SEALs, they need to know how to shoot, move and communicate and how to lead. They need to understand how to deal with failure. They need to understand how to be part of a team. All these things are part and parcel to being successful.
“When you teach that, and they can, in turn, convey that to the next generation, you know you’re having an effect.”
Georgeann’s golden moment was christening the USS Ralph Johnson with the first blow of the champagne bottle to the bow of the guided missile destroyer. Her daughter had sent her videos of women who’d swung time and again and failed to make a celebratory spray.
“They were so funny, but I was scared to death that I was going to be one of them.”
Bill made oceanic waves in August with his scathing open letter to Donald Trump published in The Washington Post that chastised the president for revoking the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan.
Five months later, Bill’s sticking by his guns.
He agrees with some of the president’s positions, such as “calling China’s bluff on trade.”
“My concern is whether or not he’s upholding the dignity of the presidential office, and I think he’s fallen short there.”
Georgeann nods in agreement.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people want Bill to run for public office. But that’s not something the McRavens want to get into, quickly switching focus back to being the famous faces for brain health.
The BrainHealth Project is the largest-ever research collaboration of brain scientists and change-makers from around the world. Over the next decade, the initiative will track 120,000 participants ranging in age, social, racial and economic backgrounds looking at ways to add oomph to their cognitive ability.
“Georgeann and I are committed to helping because it’s one of the most important things we can do for the future of our country — making sure that people’s brains are active for as long as they can be,” Bill says.
Taking on a lead role that uses their global contacts in the military, medicine, government, business and technology sectors is a serious time commitment in their already jam-packed schedules.
Bill left his UT chancellor post in May, citing his ongoing — but not life-threatening — bout with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a slow-moving cancer that can be treated but has no cure.
He had treatments in December 2017 that got his numbers back on track. He’s due for his next checkup at M.D. Anderson in a couple of months.
The McRavens live in Tarrytown, a neighborhood west of downtown Austin, near the UT campus, and bordered by that all-important water feature, Lake Austin. They are the poster couple for fitness, thanks to almost daily workouts. She jumps rope and runs. He does weights and cardio.
Bill gave the UT commencement speech in 2014 that went viral with more than 10 million views and turned into a 100-page primer on life. Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life … and Maybe the World became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.
His third book, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Forces, will be released by Hachette Book Group in late May. It will trace his life and career from boyhood to his retirement in 2014, including his SEAL training, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Bin Laden raid and the Indian Ocean rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.
He’s on four nonprofit boards and one corporate board.
Georgeann is on the board of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and is the official sponsor of the USS Ralph Johnson, and is on the advisory council for American Corporate Partners.
“But when Sandi [Chapman] calls, we’re here,” he says.
“She’s hard to say no to,” says Georgeann.
Chapman couldn’t be happier with her coup.
“Everything Bill and Georgeann stand for — from education, military, innovation to futuristic thinking — meshes perfectly with what we are trying to do here,” she says. “Georgeann gets right to the heart of things with insightful clarity. Bill is motivational, inspirational and a compassionate intellect. The thing that stands out to me is that he’s such a strong man who cares so deeply about humanity. You rarely get leaders with that combination.”
William H. “Bill” McRaven
Born: Pinehurst, N.C.
Grew up: San Antonio
Education: Roosevelt High School, San Antonio, 1973; bachelor’s degree in journalism, University of Texas at Austin, 1977; master’s degree in special operations, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., 1993.
Georgeann Brady McRaven
Born and raised: Lakewood
Education: Saint Thomas Aquinas Academy, 1971; Ursuline Academy of Dallas, 1975; bachelor’s degree in accounting, Saint Leo University in Florida, 1985 (after marrying Bill and transferring from the University of Texas at Austin).
Personal: The McRavens were married at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas in 1978 and have two married sons, 39 and 36, and a daughter, 27.
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