The UDT-SEAL Association ( recently published “From Outside the Lens, “Real Heroes” and “Fast Forward” in its magazine – The Blast.

From Outside the Lens (Looking In)

By Randy Albracht & Thomas W. Smith


Regaining Focus

Can we agree that media portrayals of Navy SEALs have grown increasingly sensationalized? Drawn into the multi-media mania, our vision temporarily blurs.  Getting lost in the glitz and glamour is the easy part.  A greater challenge lies in retraining the lens to capture the real stories which are ultimately and undeniably about people. Clearer vision and sharpened focus allow us to see the obvious. SEAL teams work because of people.  In the end, you need to have a few good people in place to support all that leadership, teamwork, training, and valor stuff that’s happening.

SEALs are called upon to excel in extraordinary ways.  Ironically, some of their simplest and even almost unremarkable words and deeds are what impress this outside observer the most. You see, in many cases, these words and deeds would in fact prove to be unremarkable – if everyone in the world did them.  But not everyone does.  That’s the catch. For some reason, some simple but respectful things are not a common part of everyday business culture and are far from being hallmarks of the greater worlds within which we live.  So this becomes our focus here today – as I endeavor to help Randy tell another story.

Closer Look

Randy Albracht
Randy Albracht

As readers may recall from the prior issue of The Blast, Randy and I penned an article that mentioned among others his teammate Ryan McCombie.  Very recently, Randy shared with me that he received an email from Ryan thanking him for the article and citing its positive impact.  “That’s what it’s all about”, says Randy, brandishing his trademark grin and jovial laugh.  “Life-long friends.  It comes full circle.”  I could see that it meant the world to Randy for him to know that he had paid fitting tribute to his teammate and had succeeded in honoring the memory of Ryan’s son Brandan.  Seeing the pride in Randy’s reaction sparks a journalistic curiosity to dig deeper.

“Well, I first met Ryan when we were both part of a Joint Special Operations training exercise conducted out of Hurlburt, FLA (USAF Base).  Must have been about 1980 or so.”, Randy says. Most joint exercises were funded primarily by the Army in those days.  The Teams didn’t have that kind of budget, minimal budget at best, and what a lot of guys today don’t realize is that back then there was this whole East Coast/West Coast thing going on between the Teams.  The Teams as a whole weren’t as unified or together like they are today.  The SEALs on each coast were separate……a definite rivalry existed.  The East Coast had their own bar, and the West Coast had keggers on the beach most every Friday afternoon. Morale was high in the Post-Nam era in the Teams in the more simple days.“

Zeroing In

scan30001“Ryan took me under his wing, and it was during a joint exercise where he mentored me, particularly on my position on the Ops Staff (J-3). I had the operator part down having been both a West Coast UDT and SEAL Platoon Commander, but this was my initial exposure to the SOF Joint world. SEALs supported the exercise from both coasts. Thrown into a new world again, but fortunate for me, I had my initial East Coast Sea Daddy looking out for me.”

Albracht continues, “Here’s a guy, more senior than I am, taking the time to reach across the aisle, so to speak, and bring me along.  He welcomes me into the East Coast SEAL scene. A gesture often taken but rarely talked about particularly in those days.  You know, as I think back, it’s all about the mentoring.  Mentoring gives you something or someone to always look up to and sets the bar higher. That’s how people and teams get better As a Junior Officer, I was fortunate to be mentored by Officers and Enlisted alike.”

“Eventually, we crossed paths again at the Army War College in Carlisle (PA) around 2005 or so.”, explains Randy.  “Ryan served as the Navy’s senior officer there, and I enrolled, maybe even as the first SEAL ever, not really sure, in the correspondence course they offered.  I know Ryan was the one who was responsible for me being enrolled.  Unfortunately, being in the Reserves, I wasn’t able to maintain what became two jobs at once.”

20/20 Visionscan30002

So, we see a little bit more about what’s behind the curtain in the long-standing relationships and life-long friendships that are characteristic of the Teams.  They really do come full circle, which explains the current day heartfelt reactions that are so striking.  Those engaged in post-SEAL pursuits, years and decades later, consistently refer to the members of their brotherhood as teammates.  They take the time to attend a teammate’s or colleague’s retirement ceremony or change of command, or send a congratulatory note if they can’t be there…and of course the never-failing thank you note back to the teammate who took the time to care.  Suggest all this as common courtesy in the general business world today and you would be laughed right out of the executive offices and lose preferred parking status.  That’s a shame, but it’s true.  It’s as true as its aforementioned SEAL counterpoint, which makes simple and easy all the more impressive.

Under the radar stories like these drive home with quiet emphasis that it really is not at all about the glitz, glamour, and media portrayals.  It’s about the people through whom the seemingly unremarkable becomes remarkable.  Guys like Ryan, Randy, and others.  By the way, Randy has a story has a story or two left to tell, so stay tuned.


Fast Forward to August 2012 – Leadership Perspective of a Non-SEAL

Ret. USN Captain (SEAL) Ryan J. McCombie, who plays a significant role in the story below, was recently elected to the Penn State University Board of Trustees. Yes, that Penn State Board of Trustees…as in the governing body responsible for putting the pieces back together in Happy Valley. By charter, they are the primary group charged with leading the University through the rough seas that lie ahead.

So you may ask yourself….Why would a very reputable guy like McCombie climb aboard what many would regard as a sinking ship, a ship of fools, or a ship that has run aground? Most likely, the answer in large part lies in the fact that McCombie is a former US Navy SEAL, and the following story portrays his dedication to family, fallen Teammates, and of course Penn State University.  In case you haven’t noticed, as impressive as these Navy SEAL guys are, they tend to run a little counter to the tides, often swimming upstream against the odds.

Let’s attempt to break this seemingly simplistic rationale above down just a little bit further.  First, it is likely that McCombie’s decision to step up his involvement at his alma mater to governance mode is motivated by classic and characteristic SEAL traits. Here we will somewhat generically refer to two of them as sense of mission and sense of team.  Whether these traits are inherent to the individuals who become SEALS or whether they are acquired through the near-legendary rigors of SEAL training finds us debating whether it was the chickens or the eggs which came first.

What we do know for sure is that SEALs seem to very consistently share these aforementioned traits. It becomes likely then that McCombie as PSU trustee probably has something to do with the systemic imprint of these traits within his physiological and/or acquired SEAL DNA.  Stir in a healthy dose of good old fashioned SEAL leadership, and suddenly, McCombie’s latest call to duty against all odds comes more clearly into focus.  SEALs are not at all wired to run from crisis or take the easy way out.  Characteristically, they rally in the face of challenge and quietly achieve success in their mission.

Of specific interest from a governance perspective, it has been reported that McCombie is leading an appeal of the NCAA’s sanctions levied upon Penn State and its storied previously-thought-to-be-above reproach football program.  These are sanctions that the NCAA has emphatically and repeatedly said are not subject to appeal.  Apparently McCombie and some fellow trustees are asserting that the acting University President Rodney Erickson lacked the necessary authority to accept the sanctions deal presented by the NCAA.  Shortly thereafter, reports surfaced that McCombie had agreed to “suspend” but not abandon the appeal.

On the surface it looks like McCombie may have stepped out front just a little bit too far at the wrong time and was told to get back in line.  That said, whatever is really happening behind the scenes, rest assured that McCombie’s sense of mission, sense of team, and SEAL leadership qualities have not left the building.  In other words, McCombie likely has a plan and will remain focused on what he and his current teammates see as the goal and the steps necessary to achieve it.  He will function effectively as part of the team. This is a given for a SEAL.

It will be very interesting to watch this situation continue to unfold from a governance and leadership perspective.  Especially interesting now that a former US Navy SEAL is now smack dab in the middle of righting the ship.  At its core, this remains an unimaginable leadership crisis and monumental rebuilding mission that only someone…well maybe just a Navy SEAL, such as McCombie, could think about accomplishing.

Real Heroes

 by Thomas W. Smith  &  Randy Albracht

“And we wanted to thank the … wives, mothers and spouses of those who go down range and serve our country.  We set out to make a movie but we discovered a brotherhood of men we thought only existed in mythology, but they existed in the world.” – “Act of Valor” movie directors Scott McCoy and Scott Waugh

Current SEAL Platoon

They (SEALs) not only existed in the world, but some of them starred in the movie that is about real-life US Navy SEAL jobs and real-life SEAL families.  It also seems well within character for the SEALS to have insisted that their own names be excluded from the film credits.  Also likely is that these men supported and may have influenced the inclusion (in the film) of the names of roughly 60 SEALs who have died in action in recent years.  Yes, people actually take these jobs knowing they could die at work on any given day.  Their families also understand this to be a very real possibility.

A story as told by Randy Albracht

There are really very few of these SEAL guys running around.  So it is largely through good fortune that I met Retired CAPT Randy Albracht (SEAL-BUD/S Class 81).  Randy is also a former Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) member / SEa Air Land (SEAL) team instructor, and is currently a Senior Special Operations Advisor with Wisdom Tree Technology, a Native American owned company. He remains very well-connected to his SEAL classmates and also within the special ops community. Albracht’s long-standing friendships include Medal of Honor (MoH) recipients and their families. As Albracht says, “the families, particularly the “care givers”, are the real unsung heroes.”

BUD/S Class 81 Reunion with UDT/SEAL instructors Steve Frisk and Mike Thornton (MoH). Thornton in center with SEAL Trident shirt, Albracht far left

Like the best corporations, the success of the SEALs and other special operations teams relies heavily on selection, training, and culture.  However, what definitively separates these military groups from those who work in more traditional corporate jobs are the deep bonds and an ultimate in family commitment. With SEAL-like determination, Albracht consistently advocates for the role that family plays behind the scenes.  In this way, Randy fans the flames of those who keep the home fires burning.  This story is about family.

Michael P. Murphy
Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy

Full of life, the high-potential Suffolk County, New York native and 1998 Penn State graduate with dual majors in political science and psychology, looked beyond the immediacy of law school acceptances in deciding to serve his country.  Lieutenant Murphy became a United States Navy SEAL in 2002 (BUD/S class 236).  At the age of 29, he was killed in action in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005 during Operation Red Wing.  Murphy and two other members of his four person team died that day, marking at that time the single largest SEAL loss since the Vietnam War era.  Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor in this attack, and his account is chronicled in “Lone Survivor“, a book he wrote with Patrick Robinson.

Medal of Honor

On October 22, 2007, President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Mike’s parents, Daniel and Maureen Murphy.  Click here for the official citation.

The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest decoration and may be awarded to the members of all branches of the United States Armed Forces.  To date, there have been a total of 3,475 Medals of Honor awarded to 3,456 different soldiers.  Since the World War II era, roughly 60% of the Medals have been presented posthumously.  Medal of Honor recipient Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy is one such recipient.

Bonds of Heroes

The bonds of heroism run deep as previous Medal of Honor recipients attended the Michael Murphy MoH ceremony.  The associations become quite entwined, as at one time or another Albracht has met all four MoH recipients pictured above.  While at the White House for Petty Officer (SEAL) Monsoor’s MoH ceremony, Albracht met Harvey Barnum .  Several occasions, including the Naval Special Warfare Group TWO building dedication ceremony and the Tommy Norris 9/11 Distinguished Hero Award ceremony/reception, have brought Albracht into contact with Thomas Norris (SEAL).  This was primarily because MoH Recipient Mike Thornton (SEAL), who earned his MoH for saving Thomas Norris’ life, was Albracht’s BUD/S Instructor and is a life-long friend. Albracht initially met Bob Kerry (SEAL) as then-Senator Kerry was putting on his leg to go for a run when visiting the US Navy’s stronghold Coronado (CA).   Albracht sat humbly next to Thomas Kelley at the Admiral Olson USSOCOM Commander Portrait Ceremony and then shared a bus ride with Kelley and Thornton over to the USSOCOM Change of Command where ADM (SEAL) Eric Olson was relieved in command by ADM (SEAL) Bill McRaven. Albracht has met many other heroes such as two-time Medal of Valor recipient Ron Relf (SEAL) who was a Denver police officer and is one of Albracht’s BUD/S Class 81 classmates.  With laser-like focus, Albracht cuts through it all, when he says, “One thing about heroes is that they’re always aware and thankful for their families, comrades, and other Americans who support them!…. and unfortunately and tragically…. for the fallen heroes.”

Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award Reception

Retired CAPT (SEAL) Ryan J. McCombie & PSU’s Dr. David M. Joyner

“No one among our ranks is more distinguished and more deserving of Penn State’s highest honor than Michael Murphy,” said Ret. Captain Ryan J. McCombie.  The McCombie name is important to this story and will appear again.­­­  In 2008, Penn State bestowed upon Mike Murphy its highest honor – the Distinguished Alumni Award – the first and only to be awarded posthumously out of the 220 given in the Penn State award’s history.  Murphy is also the only Penn State alumnus to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.   Fittingly, the University and its ROTC program held a reception to honor Lieutenant Murphy and his family.  This relatively small but important event was attended by Albracht, Maureen Murphy, the McCombies, and other University dignitaries.

Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award Reception group photo, Albracht is at far right

Albracht says, “This event did not receive a lot of wide-spread publicity at the time, but the story that surrounds it is very important…..especially looking back now in the midst of the current scandal and JoePa’s ouster.  The issues surrounding the scandal are indeed very serious and carry with them a truly unfortunate set of circumstances and understandably negative publicity.  That’s why I think it’s so important to talk now about how Dr. Dave Joyner, the rest of the board of trustees, and the University’s administration really got this one right.  Working together with the military community, all the right things happened to honor Mike and his family at this event.”

Thomas “Brandan” McCombie

Brandan McCombie Gravesite in Boalsburg, PA (Centre County)

Family connections continue to run deep in this story as the McCombie and Murphy families have endured similar losses.  Captain Ryan J McCombie (whose remarks at Penn State are quoted above)  and his family lost their son Brandan, who died in action at the age of 25. Lt j.g. Thomas “Brandan” McCombie was one of three crew members who died in action as their Navy SB-3 Viking aircraft crashed on a training mission near the Puerto Rican island of Vieques on September 10, 2002.  Hailing from State College, PA, Brandan, like Mike Murphy, was a 1998 Penn State graduate.  While at Penn State, McCombie majored in finance, carried a minor in military history, and was a member of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) program.  According to friends and family, Brandan had always wanted to be a pilot.  “It’s been his dream ever since he was a little boy to fly,”….. He was always looking skyward.”, said Brandan’s sister Shannon in an interview with the Penn State Daily Collegian. She also said her brother had an amazing ability to make friends, and that his friendships extended far beyond the reach of State College.  “He never met a stranger,” she said, adding that her brother had friendships that extended across the world.  Another friend of Brandan’s, Kim Merriman added that, “He was so proud of his family….wanted to make his father, a Navy SEAL, proud.  His dad was his hero, his idol.”   She went on to say that McCombie was the only person she knew who was determined enough to accomplish every goal he set out for himself.  “His drive was amazing,” she said.

The Moms

“Seeing the the families there that night…especially the two Moms- Maureen Murphy and Denise McCombie, really drives this story home”, says Albracht.  “Way beyond just the event itself, the strong connections in that room that night, and now the scholarship in Mike’s honor, it’s about the utlimate sacrifice that Mike Murphy, Brandan McCombie, and their families, especially the Moms have made. It really exemplifies the epitome of commitment to one’s country and why those who serve continue to serve.”

Maureen Murphy, Carolyn Joyner, Maureen’s cousin, and Denise McCombie at PSU Distinguished Alumni Award Reception

Real Heroes
Yes, this story has been all about family.  However, it also shines the spotlight on the shared associations of several extraordinary people who have exhibited exemplary commitment as individuals and as members of their larger organizations and communities.  Some will continue to do so, while others have been forced to leave this work to those who survive them.  It is truly impossible for most of us to fully understand the work that the military and special operations forces do on our behalf.  Sure, we understand it in concept, but that’s really about it.  We know that there are good guys and bad guys.  In fact, we often struggle to tell them apart.  We know that wars are now fought on increasingly shadowy battlefields.  We are well-aware  of a few recent and highly-publicized US Navy SEAL success stories.  By necessity, we lack details.  Many find ways to rationalize the tragic events of greater human struggle as part of their own coping mechanisms.  Still others will tell the stories of the heroes who emerge.  Theirs are stories worth telling.

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