On Dec. 25, 2021, Cmdr. Richard Marcinko passed away peacefully at home. He was 81 years old. Marcinko had a storied career in the Navy. Most notably, he was the founder and godfather of the Navy’s most elite special operations unit, SEAL Team Six.
His larger-than-life personality established many of the characteristics of the SEALs and today’s public perception of them as hardened warriors, quick-thinking problem solvers, and all-around heroes. He was, in some ways, a visionary. After his death, former SEALs who served under him, like Adm. William McRaven, praised him and described him as a “colorful” character. Perhaps his death was not the time to publicize that in addition to being a Vietnam war hero and the founder of what would become America’s best known and most revered military unit, Marcinko was a hardened killer, a liar, a convicted felon, a drunk, and an inveterate self-promoter.
Marcinko, known as “Demo Dick” since his days in Vietnam, introduced Team Six to the masses with his instant bestselling memoir, Rogue Warrior. The book did more than sell millions of copies: It established an archetype, a business model for SEALs to sell their self-proclaimed value to the public as unadulterated American heroes. And, as would be the case two decades later, Marcinko filled his bestseller with lies to burnish his image and tell a profitable story.
In one of Marcinko’s final interviews with investigative journalist Matthew Cole for his book Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL Team Six, on sale Tuesday, the commander spoke on the record candidly about his career and came as close as he’d ever come to publicly acknowledging that his personal flaws created a blueprint for the unit that would eventually kill Osama bin Laden. Marcinko’s complete story, his full legacy, is uncomfortable for the Navy SEAL community to address because both Marcinko’s genius and his flaws are part of the DNA of the unit he founded
Below, in an adapted excerpt from Cole’s book, is the origin story of Marcinko’s mafia-like SEAL Team Six.
In November 1979, a group of Iranian student radicals raided the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage. They ultimately released 14 of the hostages, but held the remaining 52, demanding that the United States return the country’s exiled former leader to be tried, and release the country’s frozen financial assets held in the United States.
The Iranian hostage crisis served as a forceful repudiation of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
President Jimmy Carter ordered a rescue attempt. Named Operation Eagle Claw, the plan was complicated. The Army would send in its recently created secret commando unit called 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta, colloquially known as Delta Force. To get the Delta operators into Tehran, the team would assemble in Egypt, fly on to Oman, and then fly again by plane over the Gulf of Oman and continue 700 miles into Iran’s Great Salt Desert, some 60 miles southeast of Tehran. Military planners code-named the staging location Desert One.
From Desert One, the Delta operators would fly in a small fleet of Navy helicopters, flown by Marine pilots, to a mountainside location on Tehran’s outskirts. The Delta team would rest and then travel by truck into Tehran the next night. They would storm the embassy, kill the Iranians holding the American hostages, grab the hostages, and walk them across the street to an adjacent soccer stadium. The RH‑53 helicopters would fly from the mountainside location, pick up the hostages, and transport them to an airfield 60 miles southwest, which would have been seized by Army Rangers. The hostages and their Delta rescuers would switch to C‑130 transport planes, and the entire force, minus the helicopters, would fly back to Oman.
The military prepared for five months, rehearsing and refining, hoping to get the approval to conduct the mission. Conceptually, the task was overwhelmingly not in the military’s favor. Grabbing the hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran was a difficult task; doing so inside a hostile nation with a capable defense force added a level of difficulty and challenge for which no one in the U.S. military was fully prepared.
In late April 1980, Carter ordered the mission to go ahead. On April 24, a group of military planners sat inside a charmless room on the Pentagon’s second floor, listening to a stream of radio transmissions halfway around the globe. The officers, part of the Terrorist Action Team (TAT) assembled to plan Eagle Claw, occupied a room within a room, a sensitive compartmented information facility that prevented any sound or other transmission from escaping.
Delta operators flew from Egypt to Oman, switched planes, and flew to the Iranian desert; the eight RH‑53 helicopters, painted in Iranian Air Force colors, took off from the USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman and headed north toward Desert One. At the landing zone, the cargo planes with the Delta team arrived safely. Six of the eight helicopters arrived, but two had turned back midflight with mechanical trouble. Shortly after the six helicopters landed at Desert One, one helicopter pilot reported a mechanical problem that could not be fixed quickly and deemed the helicopter unusable. That left five working helicopters.
Col. Charlie Beckwith, the Delta commander overseeing the operation, aborted the mission. Delta operators loaded into the two C‑130 transport airplanes, which were also filled with fuel bladders. Beckwith’s order required the helicopters to refuel for the return flight. While attempting to refuel, one helicopter drifted over to the nearby C-130, clipping its fuselage, filled with fuel and half the Delta operators, in the process. The front half of the transport plane exploded as did the helicopter. The fire moved closer to the full fuel bladders, making it only a matter of time before the fuel ignited, turning the airplane into a bomb. The Delta team filed out of the plane quickly but calmly. When the plane finally exploded, five Air Force crewmen were still trapped inside. The explosion also killed three Marines in the helicopter and sent a ball of flames several miles into the night sky. The planners in the Pentagon heard part of the radio transmission go silent. When Desert One came back online, they reported at least eight dead and more men burned.
The mission’s failure severely damaged America’s reputation as the world’s most powerful military. For the military planners sitting in the Pentagon, the flaws in the plan were abundantly clear. The United States did not have a central command or enough elite counterterrorism units to conduct complex, time-sensitive operations using different branches of the military.
Among those on the edge of their seats in the Pentagon was 39-year-old Navy Cmdr. Richard “Dick” Marcinko. A tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair and dark, hooded eyes, Marcinko’s physical appearance broke with the Navy’s image of a chiseled and refined WASP naval officer; he looked more like a Marine grunt. He also defied the Navy’s expectations of an officer’s demeanor. Marcinko was a foulmouthed and aggressive SEAL who’d earned Silver and Bronze Star medals for valor in several deployments during the Vietnam War. The men in his family had been coal miners. Marcinko’s childhood was, by his own account, blue-collar and rough — and he decided not to follow his father underground but instead put out to sea.
He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. Shortly after enlisting, Marcinko, a radioman, saw The Frogmen, the 1951 film depicting UDT‑4’s heroics in World War II, and knew he needed to join the Underwater Demolition Teams. He would have to wait a few more years before he could secure orders to try out, but completed UDT training in 1961. After several years as an enlisted frogman, Marcinko passed a high school equivalency exam and was selected into the Navy’s officer-candidate school to earn his commission. Bill Hamilton, the former UDT officer who had created the Navy SEALs, described Marcinko as “rough at the edges” with “a vocabulary liberally sprinkled with ‘fucks’ and ‘assholes.’” Marcinko was the kind of man you wanted with you in a barroom brawl.” Marcinko had earned a reputation as an aggressive, caustic, and savvy bureaucratic hustler inside the Navy during Vietnam. He was known as “Demo” Dick and was well regarded if not popular among his peers.
In 1979, Marcinko was assigned to the Pentagon as a planning officer for the Joint Chiefs’ terrorism branch when the Eagle Claw planning began. He had initially proposed going into Iran with a small team of SEALs to throw bombs from an Air Force plane onto the Tehran airport, but was overruled. Marcinko would later write that not having any SEALs on the mission gnawed at his competitiveness. But having listened as transmissions from Desert One went silent, Marcinko was unequivocal in how badly the mission failed. “From the top down,” Marcinko later wrote in his memoir, “it had been one humungous goat fuck. One big waste.”
Two days after the Desert One failure, President Carter ordered the military to plan a second rescue attempt. The Pentagon used the planning to develop a new organization and structure to conduct hostage rescues and counterterrorism operations around the world. The new organization would conduct what the military called “special operations,” intended to be thorough, decisive, and over quickly. To be named the Joint Special Operations Command, this new organization would answer to the president. Marcinko was asked to help design the Navy’s contribution to the new joint command.
He saw an opportunity to create the new SEAL unit he’d been imagining. The original draft described the SEAL portion of the new joint command as an “element,” which translated to one or two platoons, or roughly 14 to 28 SEALs. Marcinko replaced the word “element” with “command” indicating the creation of an entirely new team with its own commanding officer. It would be a stand-alone national mission unit focused on maritime targets or operations, where a shoreline was used to infiltrate a land-based target. Marcinko envisioned six platoons, or an additional 84 SEALs, dedicated to counterterrorism and hostage rescue. His one-word change was as pragmatic and bureaucratic as it was tribal. He understood that as initially worded, the SEAL element would serve as an auxiliary to Delta. He wanted more. The Pentagon kept Marcinko’s word change and, to his delight, commissioned the new SEAL unit. In September 1980, Marcinko left the Iranian hostage rescue-planning mission at the Pentagon and took over his new command.
They decided to call the new unit SEAL Team Six. Although there were only two other SEAL teams at the time, the two Naval Special Warfare veterans thought “Six” might confuse the Soviets into wondering about SEAL teams three through five. The number also reflected how many SEAL platoons had already gone through counterterrorism training.
Marcinko sought men who, in his estimation, would otherwise be athletes or criminals in the civilian world. He wanted SEALs “who had combat experience,” he later said in an interview, “who had a bullet go past their head with their name on it.” Marcinko wanted men who were adept at all the traditional SEAL skills — shooting, underwater diving, skydiving, mountain climbing — but who also had or could develop tradesman-like skills; these men had to engineer solutions to any problem standing in their way to mission success, whether it required manufacturing a quieter piece of equipment or conceiving a quieter method for a building entry.
But as Marcinko recruited for his unit, another characteristic emerged. Marcinko liked to drink, and any SEAL who wanted to serve in his new, secret, and elite team would have to be able to drink as well. “I used alcohol as a tool,” Marcinko later told me. If a prospective SEAL Team Six operator couldn’t keep up with Marcinko at a bar, he was of no use to him. “We were social misfits, and I set it up like a mafioso, a band, a brotherhood.”
Ultimately, Marcinko selected men in his image. Applicants did take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a standard psychological evaluation tool that measures personality structure and psychopathologies. But the exam was used almost as a perfunctory device, and few selectees were barred from the unit because of their test results. Marcinko recruited a special-forces psychologist, Dr. Michael Whitley, who had studied the psychology of terrorism. Marcinko told me he hired Dr. Whitley for bureaucratic reasons. “I did it to cover my ass, to say all of us had been evaluated. But it was a fallacy. We were normal, according to me. If I was fucked up, then we were all fucked up.”
SEAL Team Six was, by design, to be the furthest thing from the Navy. Good order and discipline wouldn’t guarantee the successful completion of the mission. Marcinko wanted pirates, rogues, outlaws, and men who would have had a hard time staying out of legal trouble as civilians if they hadn’t been in the military. “If you want to call them sociopaths, you can. That’s how you get the enlisted in charge. They are the talent. My priorities for the unit were mission, unit, flag, family. SEAL Team Six is not really a military unit as much as it is a mafia. If there were problems at the command, I kept it in-house, like a padrone or mafioso,” Marcinko told me.
In interviews, several of Marcinko’s predecessors came to the same overall conclusion about Marcinko’s accomplishment in creating SEAL Team Six. The unit was a testimony to his force of personality — he alone had the will to bend the Navy and Naval Special Warfare to his demands in creating the team. But while the unit had talented operators, Marcinko created a culture within the unit that resembled the mafia ethos he celebrated, unaccountable to anyone but themselves, and sometimes, not even that.
This came at a cost. Team Six operators were required to carry out amoral acts while operating within a world governed by personality. A SEAL who spent more than 20 years in the teams and operated with Six throughout much of his career described the psychological tension at the command this way: “You’re asking guys to commit murder, turn around, fly home, and go back to their home life without missing a beat. That’s not normal, but that’s what we expect. Kill somebody in the morning, be home in time for dinner with the family and pretend it never happened. On some level, that takes a sociopath.”
In every way, and by design, the men attracted to the unit, and those who gained entry, were abnormal. They had to operate outside normal military levels of supervision, in high-risk environments, which required independent decision-making, while staying within the law. And yet Marcinko sought, as had his Naval Special Warfare predecessors, SEALs who knew when and how to break the rules. There was an inherent tension in creating a unit that required strict standards of conduct but was filled with outlaws and rogues.
Within six months of establishing SEAL Team Six, Cmdr. Marcinko had successfully conceived, selected, built, trained, and launched the Navy’s most secret, elite special operations unit. He wanted civilian-dressed killer SEALs, in his image, including his near-mutinous attitude, his foibles, and his fondness for gin. He got them.
Adapted from Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL Team Six by Matthew Cole, copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.