Richard Marcinko, a self-styled “rogue warrior” who in 1980 became the first commander of Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite Special Operations force whose legend he fueled as the best-selling author of books drawn from his derring-do, died Dec. 25 at his home in Warrenton, Va. He was 81.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Nancy Marcinko.

SEAL Team 6, which Cmdr. Marcinko led for three years beginning with its inception in 1980, became best known in recent years as the unit that conducted the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.

The team’s commandos are regarded as the elite of the elite – a reputation Marcinko eagerly embraced – and are entrusted with some of the most sensitive missions of the U.S. military, including counterterrorism and hostage rescue.

Marcinko was the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner and dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy the year he turned 18. He joined the SEALs – the acronym stands for Sea, Air and Land – and served two tours in Vietnam before being named commander of SEAL Team 2 from 1974 to 1976.

(At the time, the SEALs force consisted of two teams. When Marcinko was asked to create a third, he dubbed it SEAL Team 6 in a bit of wily subterfuge intended to intimidate U.S. enemies.)

Team 6 was established in the wake of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed effort in 1980 to rescue 53 American hostages in Iran. Eight service members died in an accident involving two U.S. aircraft, and the hostages remained in captivity. The incident was regarded by military observers as a disaster and deeply embarrassed President Jimmy Carter, contributing by many accounts to his reelection loss later that year to Republican Ronald Reagan.

From the outset, SEAL Team 6 was envisioned as a superior force. As the team’s leader, Marcinko “hand-selected” its original members, according to the Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla.

He cultivated an ethos captured by the title of his 1992 memoir – “Rogue Warrior” – written with John Weisman. Marcinko boasted of relishing “the wonderful lethal odor of cordite wafting over me” and of using “the four-letter vernacular with spectacular frequency.” He regarded alcohol as a tool for team-building and evinced little patience with regulations or the “small-minded naval officers” who promulgated them.

The activities of SEAL Team 6 are highly secretive. But over the years, the commandos reportedly participated in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, responded to the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro in 1985, and carried out the rescue of Richard Phillips, the captain whose container ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

Marcinko’s leadership style and bravado were said to have alienated some members of the Special Operations force. In 1983, he was moved to the Pentagon to lead a unit known as Red Cell that carried out mock terrorist attacks to reveal weaknesses in military security.

Marcinko, who retired from the Navy in 1989, alleged that his detractors within the Navy “railroaded” him out with an investigation that led to his 1990 conviction in federal court of conspiracy to defraud the government. He allegedly participated in a $113,000 kickback scheme involving a contract for the purchase of hand grenades.

After a stint in federal prison, he established himself as an author with his swashbuckling memoir. A reviewer, David Murray, wrote in the New York Times that Marcinko appeared in his autobiography “as less the genuine warrior than a comic-book superhero who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

But to military aficionados and fans of Tom Clancy-style thrillers, his accounts of his exploits provided irresistible. Continuing his partnership with Weisman, Marcinko co-wrote military page-turners featuring himself as protagonist.

He also published several nonfiction books, including “Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior: A Commando’s Guide to Success” and “The Rogue Warrior’s Strategy for Success: A Commando’s Principles of Winning.”

Richard Marcinko was born in Lansford, Pa., on Nov. 21, 1940. In his memoir, he wrote that his coal-mining forefathers “might have wanted to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but most were too poor to buy boots.”

Marcinko joined the Navy in 1958. According to a tribute posted on the Facebook page of the Navy SEAL Museum, he served with such distinction in Vietnam that “the North Vietnamese Army placed a bounty on his head, payable to anyone who could capture and kill him. Marcinko was never caught.”

His decorations, according to the museum, included a Silver Star and several awards of the Bronze Star.

In addition to his writing, Marcinko made frequent media appearances during his post-military career, commenting on defense matters, and worked as a motivational speaker. He also ran a private security firm.

His first marriage, to Kathryn Black, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 28 years, the former Nancy Phillips of Warrenton; two children from his first marriage, Richie Marcinko of Chesapeake, Va., and Kathy Ritchie of Virginia Beach; two children from his second marriage, Matthew Marcinko and Hailey Marcinko, both of Warrenton; two stepchildren he helped raise, Brandy Marcinko-Alexander and Tiffany Hinzman, both of Warrenton; a brother; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

“The SEALs who knew Dick Marcinko will remember him as imaginative and bold, a warrior at heart,” retired Navy SEAL Adm. Eric Olson, a former chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command, told the Navy Times upon Cmdr. Marcinko’s death. “He was a spirited rogue for sure, but we are better off for his unconventional service.”

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