ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Good morning and thank you for that kind welcome. When Eric talks about SEALs marching, I oftentimes think about sailors marching. (Laughter.) None of them can do it that well. (Laughter.) But I do appreciate that you overrid his long-standing guidance – overrode it.
I, too, would just like to extend my welcome to all the distinguished guests who are here. This is a special place, and Deborah and I are delighted to be back in our home state of California on this beautiful morning here in Coronado. And we’re both deeply honored that Eric and Marilyn would have us here, with them on this most special of days.
They say it doesn’t take much time to fill up your sea locker with memories and experience and wisdom. It actually happens a lot faster than you think, but it’s a lifetime emptying it out and hard to do. And so just to be a small part of this day, just to have the opportunity to say thanks to both of you for the difference you’ve made and continue to make in the lives of so many humbles both Deborah and I, and we are grateful for it.
I’m likewise grateful to see so many of the Olson family here. First, their two children, of whom they are immeasurably proud: Dan, whose career is off to a great start back in Washington and Allie (sp), who’s enjoying life at Florida State University. It’s great to have both of you here as well. To Dan I would just say: Don’t get too liking – don’t get to a point where you’re liking D.C. too much. (Laughter.) If you ever find yourself telling people what a fine place it is to live, you’ve probably been there too long. (Laughter.) And to Allie (sp), well, I’m – just the opposite: You know, what’s the rush to get to Tallahassee? (Laughter.) Most of us do that later in life. (Laughter.)
I also want to acknowledge Eric’s mom, Ms. Dawn Lucien, who could not be with us today, but who can safely say – instilled in young Eric all the character and courage he would one day demonstrate as a Navy SEAL.
Now, as anyone who knows Eric will attest, he’s famously tight-lipped about himself, unless you’ve seen him recently on C-SPAN. (Laughter.) Thankfully, his mother is not.
And so from Dawn, we learned about how he stitched together his first wetsuit from rubber scraps, about how he hunted fish as a teenager in ice cold water using only a knife, and about how his incredible record as a wrestler in Stadium High in Tacoma. Yes, clearly Eric was headed for a terrific career in accounting. (Laughter.)
Actually Dawn said he came around to his calling rather slowly. He didn’t show any interest in special warfare until about age 4. (Laughter.) I guess it’s true what they say, the real test of any vocation is the love of all the drudgery it involves, and nobody loves drudgery more than Eric Olson. (Laughter.) The difference is that he doesn’t consider it drudgery. The guy skydives to relax.
No, Eric considers the work and the sweat, the pain and the peril of being a special warrior to be a special honor. That’s why we’re here on this day, in this place, this very site, where his formal training began some 38 years ago, as a member of BUD/S class ’76. It was here, under the – under the watchful eyes of instructors like Steve Frisk, who is with us today, I am told.
Steve, please raise your hand so we can see you. Go ahead and stand up. (Applause.) We know you did well.
It was here that Eric first proved himself, here that he learned how to lead the best of the best, here that he committed himself not only to military service, but to service of a sort and of a strain above and beyond that which is expected of others in uniform. He learned here how to fight, and then he took those lessons with him around the world: from leading a small team as they captured a hundred Iraqi troops on an oil rig in the Gulf during Desert Storm, to his extraordinary bravery running the infamous Mogadishu Mile in Somalia; from command of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in the mid-’90s to where he developed the – where he developed the tactics, techniques, and procedures, and a passion for perfection that would pay dividends many years later; to his leadership first as the deputy commander of Special Operations Command and then as commander these past four years.
Eric Olson has led this community with a steady hand, doubling its numbers while maintaining its quality and now leading a 60,000-(PERS ?), $10 billion force that is still the best return on investment in the entire armed forces. Now I mean it when say that; but I know that quote is going to get fed back in these difficult budgetary times. (Laughter, applause.)
And as Admiral McRaven is here, I would just emphasize – as I have told everybody – everything is on the table. (Laughter.) Eric often downplays all this, likening his job to that of the late George Steinbrenner, noting that when you have the best players, the best equipment, and enough money, you’re going to win a lot. But we know in the dangerous business of national security, it takes more than that. It takes leadership and character; it takes focus and devotion; it takes a big heart. And the fact is, Eric, no one I know – no officer with whom I’ve ever served – had the privilege to serve, possesses those qualities in more abundance than you.
Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, Eric Olson is all those things and much, much more. He’s the quiet man who carries his own bags, whose presence is not so much seen as felt. He is the athlete who runs four to six miles a day, often more, in rain or shine and still manages to complete a marathon in well under four hours. It takes me that long to finish the back 9 in Torrey Pines. (Laughter.) He is the community leader dedicated to his people and to their families, placing their needs and their dreams above his own, celebrating them in their success, comforting them in their grief. He is, quite simply, the best of men and the finest of naval officers.
And when the history of these wars is written, the first, last and most pivotal chapters will be about Eric and the people he has led and trained and mentored his entire adult life. From the shadows of the Hindu Kush to the streets of Baghdad, our special operators have literally changed the face of modern warfare, operating in 65 countries in some of the toughest places we know, and many more than we do not and cannot know.
You have protected other people, trained other armies, killed or captured enemy leaders by the score, and integrated so deeply and so manifestly into the broad sweep of military operations that to plan a mission without first considering the capabilities you bring to bear is at once incomprehensible and ill-advised. We would not be where we are in these wars, we would not have seen the success we have enjoyed, nor witnessed the fraying of al-Qaida and other extremist networks without your quiet courage. In the process, you made the rest of us better.
Your focus, your ability to plan, and your personal excellence have deeply influenced those conventional forces with whom you have served. And when they return home or report to their next commands, they do so more ready and more connected to the fight. The truth is, we need this community’s leadership now more than ever. But I guess it wasn’t always seen that way.
I heard a story once from the 1980s about a young lieutenant commander who was asked if we needed a SEAL flag officer. He said, no. He said the SEALS might lose their fighting edge if they moved up the flag ranks – far better to keep them more grounded by keeping them more junior – so said lieutenant commander Eric Thor Olson – (laughter) – who would only go on to be the first three-star and then the first four-star admiral in the SEAL community. (Laughter.) I guess with predictions like that it really was a good thing he didn’t pursue a career in accounting. (Laughter.)
But being a flag officer did not change Eric. Instead, he changed what it meant to be a flag officer, setting a standard for what we look for in our special operations leaders. And we as a nation could not have asked for a better role model. Because of how Eric has led, and what all you have accomplished, our special operations forces now have a permanent seat at the table at the highest levels. And I don’t think we will ever go back, nor should we. You provide what Eric calls the yin and the yang of warfare – combing intelligence and resourcefulness to build relationships and situational awareness in-country with the lethality and courage to execute any mission in any environment.
Sadly, in a time where this contribution has been so essential, there’s also been great sacrifice. We remember with great sorrow today the 30 brave Americans killed this month in a tragic helicopter crash in Eastern Afghanistan – of whom 17, like Eric, started their journey right here – along with their Afghan brothers. They were volunteers, all. And they understood the risks. They were proud of their abilities, dedicated to their mission, and as always committed as teammates to one another. But they were also husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and best friends to people who miss them very much, to people who remain dedicated to their legacy.
I was struck the other day at Dover, as we watched the flag-draped cases come off the aircraft, by something one surviving SEAL spouse said. She said that even if her husband knew that this was to be his last mission, he would have boarded that helicopter. Now, I guess to many of you here that doesn’t seem such an odd statement. And I’ve been around you all long enough to know that such bravery is common in your ranks. But the certainty with which she said it, the stoicism and the dignity and the grace she exuded, set me back on my heels.
That you are fierce is a given. I was not prepared for the fierceness of your families. But I suppose I should have been, knowing how hard you work through the SOCOM Care Coalition and the network of partnerships you have fostered to support our wounded warriors, their families and the families of the fallen. Your strength is theirs, and their strength is yours. And one of the people who has honed that strength and harnessed it is Eric’s wife and partner of almost 30 years, Marilyn. Marilyn’s own personal involvement and time have made a huge difference, demonstrating that, like Eric, she too understands the power of good leadership.
As a member of the United Nation’s staff, and a native of New York City who first met Eric when he was serving as a U.N. military observer in Israel, she might not have known exactly what she was getting into back in 1978, but we could not have asked for a better first lady of SOCOM than Marilyn Olson. (Applause.)
So to you, Marilyn, Deborah and I are extremely grateful. Your dedication, your service and your sacrifice – as is true of all military spouses – has allowed Eric to serve his nation, and serve it exceptionally well. Yours, too, has been a life of dignity and grace. On behalf of every man and woman in uniform and their dedicated families, Deborah and I want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
As much as both Marilyn and Eric care for the special operations community, I know she is looking forward to just the two of them celebrating their 30th anniversary traveling in Central Europe – a vacation that I suspect may be long overdue. And, Eric, leave the BlackBerry here. (Laughter.) Trust me, if we need you, we’ll find you. (Laughter.)
Dan and Ally, I also want to thank you for sharing your dad with the rest of us. Knowing what your father did for a living, I’m sure, made his leaving all the tougher. But I know he is deeply proud of you, and we thank you for the love and support you have given him. I’m told Eric is looking forward to joining you on family adventures, to include more SCUBA diving or mountain climbing and, of course, more skydiving. (Laughter.) I guess nothing says Olson family togetherness quite like jumping out of an airplane. (Laughter.)
Eric, again, thank you for your service, for your friendship. Thank you for keeping faith with your people and with your country and for your extraordinary leadership. Wherever you go next, please know that you do so with our admiration and that of a grateful nation. I think the person who has known you the longest sums it up the best.
On learning of the death of Osama bin Laden, your mom said: It is fair that people should know there is an Eric T. Olson, Navy SEAL admiral, who has devoted his entire life and energy to making this a better place for all of us. Indeed, Eric, you have devoted a lifetime to saving the lives of others. You have made this world a safe – safer and better place. We are in your debt. People who don’t even know you are in your debt.
Immense is the difference you have made, immeasurable is your service and that of your family. Thank you, God bless and Godspeed to you, and God bless America. (Applause.)