Rear Admiral Collin Green had a problem. Green, a Navy SEAL and commander of Naval Special Warfare, knew that his community — 3,000 active duty SEALs, their families, and the several thousand former and retired SEALs who make up their elite military tribe — was locked in a culture war over one notorious SEAL. What could he do about Eddie Gallagher?
Gallagher, a sniper and medic, was accused of stabbing an injured and unarmed ISIS detainee who may have been as young as 14 during a deployment in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017. The case had made headlines internationally, and Gallagher had won prominent support from President Donald Trump and Fox News.
During Gallagher’s court martial, witness testimony and evidence made clear that the veteran SEAL, who had eight combat deployments and was the chief of his platoon, had gone to Iraq hoping to get a “knife kill.” The main question during the military trial was whether Gallagher’s stabbing killed the detainee, who was already suffering from internal injuries from a U.S. military rocket attack when he sustained the knife wound.
In July, Gallagher was acquitted of murder, convicted of posing with the ISIS fighter’s corpse, and sentenced to a reduction in rank and time served. Trump congratulated him on Twitter.
After the verdict, senior Navy officials demanded that Green clean up the SEAL command, which had been getting bad press for the Gallagher case as well as a string of criminal allegations against other deployed SEALs, including murder, drug use, and sexual assault. An entire SEAL platoon was sent home from a deployment in Iraq for heavy drinking.
So Green issued a letter and a directive to all Navy SEALs this summer. “We have a problem,” he wrote, adding that a “portion” of SEALs were “ethically misaligned.” With that, Green took the first step to correcting a problem that had been building for years: He publicly acknowledged it. No admiral before him had had the courage to do so.
The sordid tale of Trump’s repeated Twitter interventions on Gallagher’s behalf is both an affront to the rule of law and tragically ironic. The firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer last month over the SEAL command’s efforts to pull Gallagher’s Trident pin, the symbol of the SEALs, may be the final chapter in the “Free Eddie” saga. But the Pentagon, Congress, and the American public are now catching on to the fact that the Navy SEALs’ most closely guarded secrets are not their clandestine missions and classified gear but the leadership failures and cover-ups that are endemic to their organization.
Over the last 20 years, the SEALs have moved further from accountability as a result of their battlefield exploits, which have been publicized and lionized by three successive presidents. There was no single moment when the community was cast adrift, but rather a steady string of incidents during deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. SEAL units, and especially SEAL Team 6, became the war on terror’s entire strategy instead of being deployed as an elite unit in rare and specialized cases. Especially in the aftermath of the 2011 SEAL Team 6 mission in which Osama bin Laden was killed, the men who did the killing became the shiny object civilian leaders flashed to distract us from the government’s lack of any strategy beyond waging more war and killing more people.
This was not inevitable. At the risk of oversimplifying a dynamic problem affecting a highly skilled force, the SEAL crisis breaks down into three components: leadership failure, an endless war, and the drive by both previous SEAL admirals and retired operators to profit from the SEAL brand, which has become a highly sought-after financial and cultural commodity.
First, there has been a genuine leadership failure in both the officer corps and the senior enlisted ranks, where accountability and justice have steadily eroded since the post-9/11 wars began. In an effort to be liked, respected, and admired, officers commissioned by the president to uphold good order and discipline have abdicated their responsibility to seasoned enlisted operators who have far more tactical experience on the battlefield.
That happened during Gallagher’s 2017 deployment to Mosul. SEALs in Gallagher’s platoon reported concerns about him, including allegations that he shot unarmed Iraqi civilians, to their platoon commander, Lieutenant Jacob Portier, but the reports went nowhere. Gallagher, who had been Portier’s main instructor at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs training, frequently berated the lieutenant in front of the platoon, according to a SEAL on the deployment. The SEALs were asking a young officer on his first combat deployment to stand up to his former instructor, who had an outsized reputation as a “super SEAL.”
Second, Navy SEALs make up a significant proportion of the special operations community fighting the country’s forever wars. The war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan may be nearing its end, at least for U.S. forces, but SEALs are still fighting around the world. Most enlisted SEALs spend their careers exclusively in special operations and rarely experience the military away from their insular world and its self-reinforcing values.
As a result, their killing skills are finely honed, but the historically unprecedented combat exposure of the post-9/11 years has taken physical and emotional tolls that SEAL leaders are just starting to understand. Gallagher was at the center of at least three problematic incidents during his seven previous combat deployments, which, according to a retired SEAL familiar with his record, are now viewed by SEAL leaders as “red flags.”
One of those incidents involved 2010 deployment to Afghanistan during which Gallagher was accused of killing a child. Gallagher shot at a Taliban fighter who was holding a girl in his arms as a human shield, killing both the child and the militant, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Gallagher’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, told the paper that Gallagher “felt remorse,” adding: “He tried to take a head shot; it went low.” Gallagher was investigated and cleared of wrongdoing in connection with the shooting, according to the Union-Tribune.
But two SEALs with direct knowledge say that Gallagher continued to revel in the story and retell it, using it to promote his image as a tough, battle-hardened SEAL. One of those SEALs told The Intercept that when Gallagher was a BUD/S instructor, another instructor who had served with Gallagher in Afghanistan told a group of trainees about the operation in which the girl was killed. He described a Taliban fighter or other militant who used his small children, including a baby, as human shields in an effort to avoid a U.S. attack. The instructor described two SEAL snipers in his platoon setting up for a shot on a day when the target cradled a very small child against his chest. One of the snipers was a young SEAL, new to the platoon, the instructor said. The new SEAL refused to shoot the target while he held the child. But the second sniper was willing and fired through child to hit the target, killing them both. The instructor derided the young SEAL and told the class, “Thank God we had a real Team guy,” willing to shoot the child. Gallagher subsequently confirmed that he had been the shooter, telling his trainees, “I got him.”
Later, Gallagher told the story again to his new platoon in SEAL Team 7, adding that he shot the very young girl in the skull because “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” according to a SEAL who heard Gallagher tell the story. In hindsight, each “red flag” should have been an indication that Gallagher needed to be disciplined or removed from his leadership position in the platoon.
Shortly after Alpha Platoon arrived in Mosul in 2017, it became clear that Gallagher was troubled. “He’d wake us up in the middle of the night screaming from night terrors,” said the SEAL who served with Gallagher in Iraq. It was well known within the platoon that Gallagher consumed a cocktail of anabolic steroids, painkillers, and uppers during the deployment. Navy investigators later seized steroids and prescription painkiller Tramadol in a search of Gallagher’s home, as well as other evidence of drug use.
Gallagher also suffered a traumatic brain injury, or TBI — a result of being blown up during another deployment, according to a current SEAL officer familiar with Gallagher’s medical status. At his court martial, witnesses and text messages portrayed a grizzled veteran who lusted for combat. When he deployed to Iraq in 2017, he brought along a customized short blade knife made by a former SEAL teammate. And when an opportunity arose — a badly injured young ISIS fighter who had been captured by Iraqi government forces — Gallagher told his team, “Nobody touch him, he’s all mine.” Two witnesses at his court martial testified they saw Gallagher then stab the captive in the neck at least once (two other witnesses said Gallagher did not stab the militant).
Investigators obtained a text message Gallagher sent a friend after the deployment, with a picture of the dead detainee, that said, “Good story behind this. I got him with my hunting knife.”
Parlatore called the text an attempt at dark humor, the Associated Press reported.
Finally, the unwinding of the SEALs has been driven by old-fashioned brand loyalty at the expense of the health and stability of the force. That the SEALs are a commodity is evident in a network television show (“SEAL Team” on CBS), Hollywood’s highest-grossing war film (the Clint Eastwood-directed “American Sniper”), bestselling books of embellished or disputed accounts of operations (“Lone Survivor”), and even more books about so-called leadership based on SEAL creeds. Gallagher and his wife are currently searching for a ghostwriter to shop a book of their own, according to person familiar with the effort.
The fame and monetary success of a few former SEALs has helped build a public myth about the heroism, sacrifice, and overall greatness of the force, whose members often believe the distorted version of reality with greater fervor than the American public. The result, as one member of the SEAL community told me recently, was that many who want to speak out about corruption inside the SEAL ranks are admonished to keep quiet and “protect the brand.”
SEAL operators rely on their “brothers.” Over time, they’ve built a culture in which the primary goal is protecting the man standing next to them. It’s a culture that elevates loyalty to fellow SEALs over all other concerns, such as the need for justice and accountability when SEALs commit crimes.
Trump’s intervention in Gallagher’s case interrupted a rare moment when a SEAL’s peers wanted to mete out discipline for dishonorable acts. When Gallagher was set to retire two weeks ago, Adm. Collin Green saw a chance to restore “good order and discipline” to his force. He needed to demonstrate that the SEALs were capable of calling one of their own to account.
Although Gallagher was the only member of SEAL Team 7 to be tried and convicted for posing with the dead ISIS fighter, several other SEALs also posed with the body. Green determined that those who held a position of rank or responsibility, including Gallagher, would go before a review board of senior enlisted SEALs in a Navy justice process similar to a civil trial, and be judged as to whether they deserved to keep their Tridents. If the board deemed their conduct unworthy of the SEAL identity, all would be stripped of their Tridents and removed from Naval Special Warfare. The measure would allow Green to send a message that Gallagher’s conduct was beneath the Navy SEALs.
“Collin was trying to let the senior enlisted take ownership over Eddie,” said the retired Navy SEAL familiar with plans for the review board. “All he was doing was following a standard military process until the president stopped him midstream.”
Instead of accountability, the elite military unit got the same message from Trump that their leaders had been sending for the last two decades: You’re above the law.
I have reported extensively about SEAL Team 6 and the larger SEAL community for the last five years, and my sources range from senior officers and enlisted men to young seamen just entering the unit. The SEALs include plenty of courageous, honorable officers and operators but that majority (however slim it may be) has been overpowered by a pernicious minority who cling to the “code” of the SEAL brotherhood. Members of this minority took to a private Facebook group to denounce as traitors the six young SEALs in Gallagher’s platoon who reported their chief to SEAL superiors for what they believed were war crimes. The six SEALs, who also testified against Gallagher at his court martial, did so despite being quietly counseled by their own chain of command to back off. They were warned that going up against their Navy SEAL chief would effectively end their careers.
Besides the SEALs who reported Gallagher to their chain of command, and then went further up when they were rebuffed, few involved in the case against Gallagher covered themselves in glory. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service was heavily criticized during the court martial for holding back exculpatory evidence. The lead prosecutor was removed shortly before it began for sending emails containing malware to defense attorneys and others in an effort to track leaks to the press about the case. The prosecution finally fell apart when one of the six SEAL witnesses, Corey Scott, testified that after Gallagher stabbed the prisoner, Scott himself closed a breathing tube that had been inserted in the ISIS fighter’s chest, killing him. Scott had not previously told prosecutors that he’d ended the captive’s life.
Those who have defended Gallagher have described the Navy’s transgression in charging and prosecuting him as “second-guessing our warfighters,” a hollow argument against investigating a case in which an elite Navy SEAL was credibly accused of stabbing an unarmed and dying detainee as an act of dominance. There was no heroism or glory in Gallagher’s conduct.
What the president and Gallagher’s supporters can’t see is they are failing the SEALs they so admire. Domestic violence and suicide within the force have been downplayed or covered up because they challenge the community’s self-image. Some of Gallagher’s friends are concerned that he is a suicide risk, the toll of his brain injury compounded by drinking and drugs — a self-medicating cocktail familiar to many veteran SEALs.
It is the SEALs themselves, and their families, who continue to bear the cost of America’s endless wars, as they struggle, with no preparation, for the horrors of life after years of killing.
Correction: December 5, 2019, 3:47 p.m.
An earlier version of this story failed to credit the San Diego Union-Tribune for being the first to report Gallagher’s killing of a child in Afghanistan in 2010. The story has also been updated to include a statement Gallagher’s lawyer made to the Union-Tribune about the shooting.
Correction: December 7, 2019
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Gallagher’s attorneys did not dispute that he stabbed a wounded ISIS captive in Iraq in 2017. The story has been updated to reflect that two witnesses testified that Gallagher did not stab the detainee. The story also incorrectly stated that several other members of Gallagher’s platoon posed for a trophy photo with the dead fighter and Admiral Collin Green determined that all of them should go before a review board. In fact, although several other SEALs did pose for a photo with the body, it was only Gallagher and others in positions of responsibility who Green decided should face the review board.