Uncovering a Military Culture Split Between Loyalty and Justice
My first hunch was that it could have been some kind of psychotic break, caused by repeated deployments. Maybe in the details I could find something telling about the professionals who shoulder our nation’s relentless wars and their lack of mental health resources. But when I interviewed the chief’s wife and brother for an earlier article about Chief Gallagher last fall, both said post-traumatic stress was not a factor. The real story, his wife said, was that a group of disgruntled junior SEALs, who could not meet her husband’s high standards, had invented stories of theft, dishonesty, poor leadership and eventually murder to oust Chief Gallagher from leadership. “What they have done is baseless and shameless,” she told me.
Of course, I wanted to interview the platoon members, but that wasn’t going to happen. SEALs may like to talk about the fact that they are SEALs when they’re at the bars around San Diego, but they don’t like to talk when a reporter comes knocking, especially after they have turned in their chief. No one would return my calls.
Then, using connections I had made during earlier coverage, I got lucky. Someone gave me more than 400 pages of confidential documents from the Navy’s criminal investigation, which included dozens of witness interview summaries and hundreds of seized text messages that offered unvarnished details of their work, and blunt, often grisly dialogue between veteran SEALs. Special operations troops like the SEALs work in distant and dangerous places behind a veil of secrecy. Reporting on special operations forces, which I’ve done repeatedly in the five years I’ve covered the military as a national correspondent, is not only difficult and time-consuming, but also often disappointing because you end up with so little. This was the mother lode.
Page after page gave accounts of indiscriminate shooting and killing. There were jarring details, like a message scrawled on the wall of a sniper nest in Mosul, Iraq, that read, “Eddie G puts the laughter in Manslaughter.” (Photos contained on a hard drive seized by the Navy show the chief aiming sniper rifles and rocket launchers from rooftops in the city.) But just as disturbing, the report showed how rank-and-file SEALs said they had repeatedly reported their concerns to their chain of command — first the platoon chief, then the troop chief — and the command had not investigated.
The report revealed that the chief had been investigated before for shooting a little girl in Afghanistan, but had been cleared of wrongdoing, and later used the killing as a parable for teaching other SEALs, telling them that in war they needed to “accept the fact there would be civilian casualties.”