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Lunch with Mimi: Retired SEAL Ryan McCombie on service to country and Penn State

by on September 29, 2017 10:14 AM

Retired United States Navy Captain (SEAL) Ryan J. McCombie began his career with a tour in Vietnam. Originally from Spangler, Pennsylvania, he graduated from Penn State’s Navy ROTC program in 1970. Upon graduation, he was commissioned into the Navy as an ensign.

McCombie was selected to be the first United States Military Attaché to the embassy in Brazzaville, Congo. Following that assignment, he commanded SEAL Team Two from 1985 to 1987. He was the first to serve two years with the elite French Commando Hubert and has trained with commandos from all over the world. In addition, he served as the operations officer of the highly regarded Red Cell Team.

He has held high-ranking positions with the Defense Intelligence Agency and as the senior Navy representative and faculty member at the Army War College. With more than 26 years of service to the country, he retired from the Navy in 1996 and moved his family to State College, where he became an executive with a financial firm.

He was elected to the PSU Board of Trustees in 2012 and currently resides in State College with his wife, Denise. They are the parents of three children: Ryan, Brandan, and Shannon. Sadly, they lost their son US Navy Lieutenant Brandan “Pup” McCombie in 2002 when his S-3B Viking aircraft crashed while conducting battle group training exercises with the USS Harry S. Truman off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with McCombie at Duffy’s Tavern in Boalsburg to discuss why he wanted to serve in the military and how his experience now guides him on the Board of Trustees to assist the university to continue to epitomize “success with honor.”

Mimi: Thank you very much for taking the time to join me. How do we, as good citizens and alumni of this great institution, calm the waters on the Board of Trustees? How do we switch to the really important issues about the students and the well-being of the institution? As a Navy SEAL, with a calling card that’s quite impressive, you must have some thoughts about that.

Ryan: Well, I guess I will begin with how we got to where we are, and it goes for the national government as well. Too many people in politics personalize the attacks and then defend themselves. That is when reason and the objectivity of the issue tend to get laid by the wayside as we’re defending ourselves. My first recommendation is that we have to put away personal animus regardless of what we think, and believe that everybody really wants to be a good American and good Penn State alums.

Mimi: In the end, we all serve the people, citizens, students, and parents who bring those students to us. And how do we get the focus and the animus out of the equation of our own people? It is a great institution.

Ryan: I think that the board is large…

Mimi: Too large, we made it larger. The current group did it.

Ryan: No question, it’s too large by a factor of two, at least. It’s difficult to personally get to know everybody on the board and spend time with them.

Mimi: Especially when they’re divided on things.

Ryan: Yeah, there are 38 now.

Mimi: What can our combined thinking do to get this group to do what we’re really supposed to do, and that’s to do the best we can for the institution?

Ryan: Well, it’s important that we get to know each other. Social events where people actually interact with people from the opposing view and get to know how they think and why they think that way. Not only during discussions at difficult times, but at social events and happy hour. Besides that, I think we can cut the board in half and we might be able to achieve that type of interaction much easier.

Mimi: I love this place, and I want to be a part of whatever it takes to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Ryan: This is a strong university. It has a tremendous base of support, but there are many who have told me personally they won’t come back until we deal with the Joe Paterno issue. These were huge donors. There are issues that are still unresolved. We need to actually sit down and address them.

Mimi: Do you feel that should be a public discussion?

Ryan: That’s a difficult question because there are a lot of pieces. The Paterno family has said multiple times that it can be all public. “Whatever happens, we want the truth to come out” — they’ve said that many times. They may have the most equity in that part of it. So, if they’re not protective of the discussion, why not have the discussion in public? Over the last five years, I have given an awful lot of thought to it and we have made some progress.

Mimi: Well, we should be better than that. Tell me about the reason why you missed the last trustee meeting where there was election of the new leadership.

Ryan: Well, it is the first meeting I have missed in five years, so it was not done lightly. I hold that responsibility very high and schedule my life around it. The Navy SEALs commemorated and established a monument on 38th Street in Virginia Beach on the boardwalk in memory of all the SEALs who have been killed in service to our country since Vietnam. Former SEAL Captain Rick Woolard got sand from the beaches from around the world that frogmen had fought on since WWII. There was sand from Iwo Jima, Guam, Okinawa, Morocco, Tunisia, north of France, Normandy, and southern France. After Vietnam, I went to France for two years and went through all the French training and became the 558th Navy SEAL of France. They invited me to spread the sand from the beaches of southern France. So, I felt that was a reason that I had to miss the board meeting. I took my daughter and granddaughter to escort me, and we had a marvelous reunion with a bunch of old SEALs from the Vietnam era and forward.

Mimi: Well that’s an experience of a lifetime, and I forgive you for missing a very important meeting.

Ryan: Thank you. I did call in my vote. I did leave the ceremonies and make a call.

Mimi: With a vision for the future, do you think the new leadership will help us develop a catalyst for peace and harmony?

Ryan: One can hope. I would hope so. It’ll take work on both sides to do that.

Mimi: What do you see as the most important issue today for the board to be deliberating?

Ryan: Well, if you talk about the administration of the university, the most important one would be tuition. Our university is a great opportunity for first-time college students to go. I’m an example. For the healing, I still maintain that a review and acceptance or denial of the Freeh report, not the recommendations, is needed. Many were good and most of them implemented, nobody has an issue with that. Some of the verbiage, what was said and implied, inside the rhetoric of the Freeh report I find offensive and intrusive. One of the biggest issues is to be resolved from that period of time. Once that is, the other things all fall into place.

Mimi: At some point, it is time to move on. Some things just have to be said and move on.

Ryan: We can continue doing right for the university and resolve this. I think that if it was my parents, if it was your parents, I wouldn’t move on. I think justice, fairness, and legality is important. I spent most of my life in third-world countries where there was no justice or fairness, and there was no rule of law. I don’t want to come back to Centre County and watch that kind of thing happen again.

Mimi: I hope that people that read this appreciate that this is an honest exchange of inner feelings.

Ryan: And it is. We’re actually disagreeing, at times.

Mimi: Right. It’s all part of the problem. If we can talk about it, we may indeed get to the door.

Ryan: I think that’s absolutely true, Mimi. We have to sit at the table and talk. Once that discussion that’s never been had is over, we could probably move on.

Mimi: Set aside the bitterness, the hurt, and come to a resolution. Tell me how you and other members of your family made you interested in the military as a young person.

Ryan: My uncle Eddie was killed in WWII in Sicily. He was a navigator. My father was a Merchant Marine during WWII. He did the North Atlantic runs to supply Russia and Europe. I read an article about the commandos of the wetlands in the Reader’s Digest and I read about the newly formed organization called the Navy SEALs. Somewhere in the last year in high school or first year in college, I decided I wanted to be a Navy frogman. I was just determined to be a Navy frogman and never dreamed that I’d stay for a career.

Mimi: How did your mother feel about that?

Ryan: She had five boys, all within seven years. She got married at 32, had five boys by the time she was 39, and my dad died when we were teenagers. So, she raised us five boys. My older brother had gone off in Vietnam, and my dad died while he was in Vietnam of a heart attack at 50 years old. She wasn’t real big on all that, because obviously as soon as I joined the SEALs, I went to Vietnam. She worried, I’m sure. She had four other boys to worry about.

Mimi: Well, I am such a pacifist, by nature. I was 11 years old when the telegram arrived and I still can’t stop myself from crying when I speak of it. When the telegram arrived advising that my brother, First Lieutenant Calvin S. Unger was killed over Germany after completion of the mission, my whole life changed. The environment in which I lived, the way I thought about things. Thank God, I never had a son because I don’t know what I’d do if a son wanted to go into the service.

Ryan: I understand that. Anybody who goes to war understands that it is not what it looks like in the movies and you’re lucky to survive it, but having said that, it is self-evident today that somebody has to do this kind of work. Every generation it seems to me has said this is the war to end wars, and I fought so that my children didn’t need to. That started at WWI with the war to end all wars, and it continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s obvious that the condition of humanity is not one that allows for peace across the world as much as we might like it. Man’s inhumanity to man. I don’t know how many times I had to tell widows and mothers of the passing of their son or their husband. I lost my own son, Brandan.

Mimi: Give me a few of your thoughts about my concern that we are on the edge of conflict as a nation.

Ryan: Internal or external?

Mimi: Both. We have situations that are arousing people, or so it seems to me, in unpleasant ways. As you as a guy who overcame lots of adversity and experienced things that many of us will never know or understand, what’s your take on all this?

Ryan: I wasn’t prepared for this great philosophical discussion, but I will give it a go. I think that externally we have been in constant conflict for 16 years. I think that is not ending anytime soon.

Mimi: Is it accelerating?

Ryan: No, I don’t think so. Can it accelerate? Absolutely! I mean if you look across the scope of the world and you look at North Korea, that is a very troublesome, difficult regime. Can the United States handle that? There is no question. But what is the cost in Japan and South Korea? How many million people do we sacrifice whenever they let loose a barrage of artillery that is one of the largest in the world on Seoul if somebody attacks? The problem becomes much more complicated unless you just don’t care about anybody else in the world except yourself.

Mimi: The votes aren’t in on that yet.

Ryan: Well, I won’t go there, but I think we still have some time to wait. I have a lot of faith in James Mattis. I think “Mad-Dog Mattis” is an awful name for him. Anybody with a name like Mattis has been called “Mad-Dog” in the military. It’s just the way it is. He gives me hope. I think that with John Francis Kelly, we can maybe get some rational manner in the White House now that he is chief of staff. I was disappointed because Robert Harward was supposed to be the national security advisor. He was a SEAL, and I was his mentor for years and he would have been a fabulous choice. At the time, the president wanted to have his own people there. I think that McMaster will do fine. He’s a good officer and an honest guy. I think that we need to be careful about how many more military people that we put in there.

Mimi: I was just going to raise the question, how many military white men are enough?

Ryan: In the military, race or gender is not an issue. We have learned through difficult experience that the execution of the mission is all that matters. The military mindset may be an issue. We’re a democracy. The military career develops a certain optic. We shouldn’t be restricted to seeing problems solely through that lens. I think that these guys are marvelous and will serve us well, but we all bring our past experience to a problem. We need multiple ways to look at a problem.

Mimi: Including some voices of women.

Ryan: No question. I have a daughter who is very successful, who actually served with Naval Special Warfare Development Group, a SEAL team. I know what women can do and how they do it. Whenever I was a boss, I always wanted as diverse an opinion as I could get. I used to tell people at meetings that if you all agree with me, I don’t need you here. I know what I know. I need somebody to tell me what I don’t know, or why what I think I know isn’t correct. That’s what I need, not blind agreement.

Mimi: Well, I want to thank you, most sincerely, for your willingness to have what is not an easy discussion. I try to avoid terribly controversial issues.

Ryan: Well, I thought when I came, this will be easy. All the ones that I read never did controversial subjects.

Mimi: I’ve done a couple, but not many because early in Town&Gown’s life, I tried to do a column called “Catalyst” because I am a frustrated investigative reporter, and that got me in trouble. My magazine almost met its death because I was opening discussion about controversial issues and this has never been a place that was particularly excited about doing that. I thank you very much for engaging in the kinds of things that we talked about. They impact both the president, the future of this community, and you’re quite a guy.

Ryan: Thank you Mimi, that’s very kind. You know at the end of the day, I may not be right, but I try to give my honest opinion.


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