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Navy SEAL killed in al-Qaida raid remembered as hero

Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens.

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By ANDY KRAVETZ | Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. | Published: January 31, 2017

PEORIA, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — The Pentagon announced late Monday afternoon that the Navy SEAL who died over the weekend while on a raid in Yemen was from Peoria.

Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, 36, a 1998 Illinois Valley Central graduate, died Saturday in the Arabian Peninsula of Yemen, of wounds sustained in a raid against al-Qaida, according to a Department of Defense news release.

Cody Jackson, a high school friend of Owens, said he was shocked to hear of his death but not surprised, as Owens wanted to be a SEAL from the time he was 15.

"Since he was a freshman in high school, this kid decided he wanted to protect his country. He never once wavered from that. He always said he wanted to serve, and as much as this hurts, he would not have wanted it any other way," Jackson said. "Everyone has dreams and not everyone knows what they want to do in high school, but he did. He wanted to be a Navy SEAL. Back then, he wasn't the most fit guy in the world but he'd get up every morning and do the Navy SEAL workout because that's what he wanted to do."

Owens, Jackson said, played football for the Grey Ghosts. He also played baseball at the school.

The Defense Department said Owens was assigned to an East Coast-based Special Warfare unit, but multiple news outlets have said Owens was assigned to SEAL Team 6, a highly classified and elite counter-terrorism unit that also is known by the term, DEVGRU.

Three other sailors, presumably with the same SEAL team, were injured. The raid left nearly 30 others dead, including an estimated 14 militants. A fourth U.S. service member was injured when a military aircraft assisting in the mission nearby had a "hard landing."

In a statement, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised Owens, saying he "gave his full measure for our nation, and in performing his duty, he upheld the noblest standard of military service."

"The United States would not long exist were it not for the selfless commitment of such warriors. I thank our gallant troops and their families for their dedication to protecting this nation, and I pass our respects to Ryan's family in this most difficult time," the secretary said.

According to Stars and Stripes and The Associated Press, the raid was in a remote part of Yemen's Shabwa region. The goal was to get information on the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been thought to have been planning attacks elsewhere in the world.

In the past, U.S. Special Operations troops have worked with allies in the region to combat al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.

"Ryan was an exceptional SEAL - an experienced warrior and a highly respected teammate who served silently, nobly and bravely through several combat deployments. His family has sacrificed much for his service. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. His death reminds us all of the constant dangers of our profession, and the very real threats to our nation. For (Naval Special Warfare), Ryan's legacy strengthens our own resolve and commitment to this crucial fight. We hope his family can find comfort in the love and support of family, friends and teammates,'" said Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski, the commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, which oversees the SEALs.

According to the U.S. Navy, Owens joined the service in August 1998 and appears to have undergone SEAL training in 2001. He was assigned to his first SEAL team in 2003 and has served since. He obtained the rank of chief petty officer in 2009 and was a highly decorated sailor, having earned two Bronze Stars with a combat "V" device, a combat action ribbon, a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal and two Joint Service Commendation Medals with a combat "V" device.

Owens' death was the first military casualty since President Donald Trump took office Jan. 20. In a statement over the weekend, the White House mourned the loss of an American GI but also said the raid had been "successful." The statement added that troops had captured intelligence that would "assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world."

Jackson said he last spoke to his friend a few years ago as Owens being in special operations didn't allow for many visits home. The call came after Owens saw someone's Facebook page that had a picture of Jackson.

"He was absolutely the same man," he said of his friend. "He had the biggest heart in the world. Thank God we have people like him. He made his decision prior to when it was cool or a big deal (to be a SEAL)."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

©2017 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)
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