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Gen. Joseph Votel takes over U.S. Special Operations Command during ceremony in Tampa

Army Gen. Joseph Votel III, 56, left, and Adm. William McRaven, 58, whom Votel is replacing, acknowledge the change of leadership for the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base at Thursday’s ceremony in Tampa.
Published Aug. 29, 2014

TAMPA — A general who is rarely quoted in the media and has risen to the highest ranks of the military faster than almost any recent commander is the new chief of the nation's secretive commando forces.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel III, 56, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an Army Ranger, took the helm Thursday of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base during a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center.

Amid the traditional pomp and shine of a military change of command, Votel accepted the SOCom guidon from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as a crowd of military personnel, political leaders and guests looked on.

Votel replaces Adm. William McRaven, 58, SOCom's commander for the last three years.

The passing of the colors is a military tradition as old as Rome and is a choreographed event that symbolizes the unbroken succession of command.

The ceremony held special significance as the end of the career of the man who helped plan the 2011 Navy SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden. The mission first brought McRaven into the national spotlight.

McRaven, a former Navy SEAL who grew up in Texas and earned a journalism degree at the University of Texas, is retiring from the military to become the next chancellor of the UT system at a salary of $1.2 million annually. He earned about $190,000 base salary at SOCom.

"A full account of Adm. McRaven's career is yet to be written. When it is, however, it will have to be heavily redacted," joked Hagel, referring to the secrecy that is part of SOCom's DNA.

Votel most recently served as chief of Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. It's the job McRaven held before he moved to SOCom.

"Bill, I'm not afraid to admit that I am again a bit awed to follow you in command," Votel said. "The command is at its absolute zenith. And it is indeed a golden age for special operations. And you are the officer most responsible for this."

Votel becomes the four-star general heading a command with 67,000 personnel deployed in more than 90 nations. His rise has been especially quick: Votel spent three years as a three-star general that the Washington Post reported was "a relatively short time for any senior officer."

In 2001, Votel was a colonel who led the 75th Ranger Regiment that parachuted into Afghanistan to set up the first U.S. base there. Two years later, he headed a task force that looked for ways to deal with improvised explosive devices.

Votel later was deputy commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. This is Votel's second stint at SOCom, having previously served as its chief of staff.

He takes over a command that is still expanding even as the rest of the military contracts.

During McRaven's tenure, the command grew by 8,000 personnel. McRaven moved the command to be more agile and flexible and to better network with both U.S. and foreign military forces.

The combat known by soldiers in Korea or World War II with static front lines and a uniformed enemy has been supplanted by networks of terrorists who operate in the shadows.

SOCom's commandos, with their unique capabilities and training, are seen by military leaders as the nation's best defense in a world where future combat is likely to be waged on an unconventional battlefield.

Votel told Congress after President Barack Obama nominated him to becomes SOCom's 10th commander that he worried special forces were "fraying" from the endless pace of combat overseas.

"I do think there are some things that we ask our special operators to do … the secrecy with which they operate, that do not allow them the normal opportunities to talk about things afterward," Votel has said. "So I think we do have to address that aspect of it when it comes to our special operations forces and families."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com.

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