The Navy SEAL Who Gave All in Yemen
After 12 deployments, Ryan Owens—who spent his adult life fighting in America’s longest war—became its first casualty under its third commander in chief.
The yearbook photo shows William Ryan Owens, catcher with the Illinois Valley Central High School's Grey Ghosts baseball team in an instant of teenage glory.
“Ryan Owens saved the game with a great catch,” the caption reads.
But even then, Owens—known to all as Ryan—had his heart and mind set on one day helping to save much more than a game as part of a team that is elite in a way not measured by money or social connections.
Even then, he would be up early in the morning to train for the time when he would have a chance to become a Navy SEAL.
“I’d still be sleeping and he’d be out running,” his high school friend Cody Jackson would recall. “It was pretty wild. It’s not every day you have a dream or a vision at that early an age.”
Another yearbook photo shows Owens in his cap and gown at his high school graduation in his Illinois hometown of Chillicothe in May of 1998, bright-eyed in the way of someone who knows exactly what he wants to do next and can’t wait to start doing it. He enlisted in the Navy that August and in 2002 he finally achieved his ambition. He was now a SEAL.
Our longest war had begun the previous September and Owens embarked on the first of his 12 deployments. He served one tour with a SEAL team based on the West Coast. He then transferred to one based on the East coast, the elite of the elite. SEAL Team 6.
In 2003, he became engaged to a woman in the intelligence community. They were married in March 2004. They had four children—a boy and three girls—as the war went on and on and he continued to deploy again and again. He still loved baseball and was a big fan of the San Francisco Giants. The former Grey Ghosts catcher met Giants catcher Buster Posey.
“He would come to spring training frequently and I had the honor of meeting him and his son in 2012," Posey later wrote on Instagram.
Around that time, Owens telephoned his pal Jackson and announced himself with his high school nickname.
“This is O-Dog,” Owens said. “What are you up to?”
“Not much,” Jackson replied. “What are you doing?”
“Living the dream,” Owens said.
Jackson had no doubt this was entirely true, even after a decade of wartime active duty, more than twice the length of America’s part of World War II. Owens was a man who was doing exactly what he had always wanted to do. He along the way received three Bronze Stars and numerous other medals.
Early Sunday, Owens headed into action yet again with SEAL Team 6. The planning for this pre-dawn mission had begun during the last days of the Obama administration and the final approval had come during the first days of the Trump administration, as it no doubt would have if Hillary Clinton had won.
The team swooped into Yemen targeting several senior members of the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose own targets had in the past included American jetliners. The group is particularly diabolical in devising bombs. The SEAL mission's added goal was “site exploitation,” collecting computers and other intelligence that might help thwart future terrorist attacks on Americans.
Even the best trained and most experienced operators can encounter the unexpected. One of the support aircraft had what was termed a “hard landing.” And a gunfight erupted where the SEALs found themselves under heavy fire from two sides.
By several reports, eight-year-old Nawar Anwar al-Awlaki was fatally wounded. She was the daughter of Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike in 2011. His teachings had since inspired a number of terrorist attacks in the United States.
But you can be sure that nobody on SEAL 6 was anything but sickened by Nawar’s death. You can be just as sure that the SEALs were heartbroken when Owens was killed.
“People always say the guy was a great guy,” said a counter-terror officer who knew him. “He really was a great guy.”
Word reached Jackson in Chillicothe via a news alert on his phone. He was waiting for his 5-year-old daughter to get out of dance class when he saw a report that a SEAL from the area had been killed.
“I said, ‘No, I hope that’s not Ryan,’” Jackson would recall.
The SEAL was then identified as 36-year-old Chief Special Operator William Ryan Owens.
“As tough as this is to say, he wouldn’t want it any other way,” Jackson later said. “He wanted to serve his country and protect the freedoms that we have. From the day I met him, that’s all he ever talked about.”
Jackson went into the building where the dance class was being held and saw another of Owens’ high school pals, who was also waiting for a kid in the class and who had also just received the terrible news. They looked at each other.
“You got to keep it together,” Jackson later said.
The kids were dancing as if the world were only a free and wonderful place. Jackson later said that this is what Owens and his fellow SEALs risked all to make possible.
“The things that people take for granted are what they’re fighting for,” Jackson told The Daily Beast.
Owens had done so for year after year even though he had four kids of his own at home. Jackson spoke of his fallen friend just as his fellow SEALs do.
“Always a great friend, always had your back willing to do anything for you, always a good guy,” Jackson said.
And much the same was said about the onetime Grey Ghosts catcher by the present-day Giants catcher.
“For me, it is easy to take for granted the life that my family and I get to live every day,” Posey posted on Instagram. “Words don't do justice for the gratitude that I have for people like Ryan that sacrifice their lives fighting against evil, so that we may live with freedom.”
Nobody would forget that an 8-year-old girl and a number of other civilian non-combatants had been reported killed during the fierce gunfight, in which women as well as men are said to have fired on the SEALs.
And nobody could regret the child’s death more than did Seal Team 6, which had added to its own risk during the 2011 raid on the Osama bin Laden’s compound when it paused to move a group of women and children out of harm’s way before detonating explosives to destroy a downed helicopter that had classified stealth technology.
Even those who despise Trump should give him credit for flying with his daughter to Dover Air Force Base on Wednesday to stand with Owens’ family as an honor guard carried his flag draped coffin from a C-17 transport plane. The same credit was due Obama when he twice stood on this same tarmac to witness this somber ritual known as a dignified transfer.
At such moments, the president is the president, no matter who that might be.