Uncovering a Military Culture Split Between Loyalty and Justice

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The biggest story in a war crimes case isn’t always the crime itself. Sometimes what the crime reveals about the culture and inner workings of a military unit is the real headline. And I had an inkling that was the case when I heard that Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher — a Navy SEAL platoon leader who had served 20 years, had done eight deployments and had a chest full of medals — had been arrested and charged with murdering civilians in Iraq.

Immediately I knew this was not a typical case. If the past is any guide, illegal killings in war are generally a young man’s crime, motivated by emotion and inexperience. And, as dark as it sounds, they are relatively simple to cover up in a war zone, so long as everyone who needs to sign off on what happened is on board. So why had a popular chief who was almost eligible for retirement been turned in by several men in his own platoon for stabbing a captive teenager to death and gunning down civilians, including a young girl, with a sniper rifle?

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.”

SEALs described Chief Gallagher to investigators as a “legend” and a “golden boy” who could do little wrong in the eyes of superiors. The men responsible for investigating him were also close comrades who had deployed with him. When the platoon made accusations, the leadership transferred the chief to a less important job, then downgraded what was going to be a Silver Star for heroism to a Bronze Star. But they did not initiate an investigation that would have opened their cloistered SEAL team to the larger Navy.

Chief Gallagher goes to trial in May. With scant physical evidence and witnesses under enormous pressure, the outcome is anything but clear. Whatever the verdict, the report suggests there is a bigger story to tell about the clash of two cultures in SEAL teams: one that prizes brotherhood and silence, and one that wants accountability.

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Dave Philipps covers veterans and the military, and is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Since joining the Times in 2014, he has covered the military community from the ground up. @David_Philipps Facebook

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