ALEXANDRIA – I don’t have strong opinions about fly fishing.
I know it is a rabbit-hole of a hobby: a sucking vortex of ever-more elaborate flies and frightfully expensive rods and reels, and has bound up in it about as much accepted wisdom and voodoo as in any hobby with an impassioned following. But I certainly wouldn’t know how to correct someone’s cast or tell you what flies a trout likes verses a small-mouth bass. That’s because I’m unfamiliar with the sport. And even if I saw someone doing something that I thought was wrong, I wouldn’t be comfortable correcting them because it’s just not my area of expertise.
Now, if we want to talk about backpacking, there I might be able to help you.
I want to suggest that for Big Navy – Submariners, Aviators and SWOs – special warfare is a bit like fly fishing is for me: Unfamiliar. And they might see something they think is wrong, but they are uncomfortable getting involved because it’s not an area they know a whole lot about.
I’d like to suggest that it’s time to get comfortable.
This won’t be a long conversation, but it begins with pointing out that the SEALs are a unit of about 2,500 people. That’s less than the crew of an aircraft carrier. This is not a large organization.
Now, let’s review some recent SEAL history. This is not a comprehensive list.
- April 2017: CBS New airs a blockbuster report alleging widespread drug use inside the SEALs organization. The broadcast includes remarks from a SEAL commander who says that in the six months he has been CO, five SEALs have been kicked out for drugs. Read: Navy SEAL drug use "staggering," investigation finds
- June 2017: Two SEALs on deployment in Mali break into the room of a sleeping Green Beret, Sgt. Logan Melgar and strangle him to death. The two SEALs admit to the murder but claim it was a “prank.” They intended to choke Melgar until he passed out, tie him up and sexually assault him on camera in an act of hazing. One of the SEALs was later investigated for allegedly approaching Melgar’s widow under an assumed name at a party and hitting on her. Read: Troops charged in Green Beret’s death in Mali planned to record him being sexually assaulted, Marine says
- February 2018: Navy SEAL Gregory Seerden was detained in connection with a sexual assault. When authorities searched his phone they found 78 images and four videos of Seerden sexually abusing a child. Read: Former Navy SEAL Sentenced for Sexual Exploitation of a Child
- April 2018: Six SEALs from SEAL Team 10 are kicked out for failing drug tests. An internal investigation showed a culture of covering for each other and gaming the drug testing system, which SEALs called “A joke.” Read: Internal report exposes cocaine abuse, lax testing, inside SEAL Team 10
- April 2018: A trial begins for three SEALs charged with war crimes for allegedly beating Afghan detainees in 2012, which resulted in at least one death. The SEALs maintain their innocence. Read: SEALs' War Crimes Court-Martial Starts Amid Command Influence Charges
- July 2018: The commander and top enlisted sailor of a SEAL detachment based in East Africa are sent home amid sexual misconduct allegations. Read: 2 Navy SEAL leaders relieved of duty after sexual misconduct allegations
- July 2019: SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher is found not guilty in connection with the stabbing death of an Iraqi detainee, a war crimes trial that fell to pieces after the medic treating the detainee confessed to killing the man on the witness stand: Read: SEAL war crimes suspect not guilty on murder charge
- July 2019: A SEAL platoon is sent home early from Iraq when, after one of them was accused of sexual assault, the SEALs refused to cooperate with investigators. The SEALs were found to be drinking in the war zone, which is in violation of longstanding U.S. policy. Read:US Navy Seals platoon sent home from Iraq for drinking alcohol as sexual assault allegations investigated
We started this conversation by pointing out that the SEALs are an organization that numbers fewer than the crew of an aircraft carrier. Now look at this non-comprehensive list of egregious SEAL misconduct and tell me, honestly, if all this alleged rape, alleged murder, alleged drug abuse and alleged child abuse happened on board the Harry S. Truman, do we honestly believe that the CO of the Truman would still have a job? Do we honestly believe that there would not be a heavy-handed effort from Big Navy to crack down on that command?
As a former Navy Times reporter, I can say with some authority that this would be a top priority of Fleet leaders. But so far, the SEALs have been largely allowed to police themselves. And where Big Navy has tried to send strong messages (charging SEALs with war crimes, for instance) they’ve fucked it all up. Completely.
And then there has been some of the truly weak arguments for why the SEALs are repeatedly being accused of outrageous behavior: They’re victims, we’re told. OPTEMPO is too high, they’re fraying at the edges. Maybe that’s true, but I’d want to see a study that shows that Green Berets and JTACs and Rangers are seeing problems on this scale at the same rate. I’ve not seen many examples of similar behavior in the public domain, despite similar pressures on the unit.
Now, let’s take one of the more dubious responses from Navy leadership. When asked about war crimes and drug use among SEALs, we heard from Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modley the typical excuse about how the Navy is a cross-section of society and how in a big organization you are going to see these issues. Via Military.com:
Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modly told reporters Thursday that while service leaders are concerned about recent high-profile allegations of wrongdoing in the Navy SEAL community, there's nothing that "is indicative of a cultural problem."
"We're a huge enterprise and so, as a huge enterprise, we have problems just like every other huge enterprise," he said at a Defense Writers' Group event in Washington. "So when these types of problems arise, we have very, very good processes to go through a legal adjudication of them, and I think we do that very well." …
"These obviously are high-profile because they do come from our most elite warfighting areas, but my sense is that we don't have a cultural problem there," Modly said. "Obviously, we're concerned about it -- it doesn't reflect well on the service. But these are fairly isolated incidents."
"This also could be a result of 17 years of being at war in stressful conditions," he said, a sentiment several members of Congress shared last year during a special-operations policy forum.
Read: Official Says Navy SEALs Testing Positive For Drugs And Other Infractions Are ‘Isolated Incidents’
That’s nonsense on its face. As I pointed out in the intro, this is not a large group of men. It’s a small, tight-knit, “elite” force with enough allegations of outrageous conduct in the past two years to warrant nothing less than a full-scale, independent inquiry into what’s ailing the culture.
How many more war crimes allegations is it going to take? How many more alleged rapes? How many more shocking revelations of widespread drug use inside a small organization is it going to take for the Navy to treat the SEALs like any other part of the organization?
I don’t know what’s wrong with the SEALs, I don’t have any answers. But what I do know is that leaving the SEALs to investigate themselves, as they have been doing, is foolhardy. It’s not how misconduct on this scale would be handled anywhere else in the force.
The Navy should commission an independent body to perform a complete review of the SEAL organization on the scale of the Comprehensive Review commissioned after the twin accidents of 2017. With Platoons being pulled from the war zone, we are now seeing SEAL misconduct have a direct impact on warfighting readiness.
Big Navy: You must fix the SEALs.