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Critics: Trump’s Embrace Of A False Image Of Navy SEALs Sidelines Reforms

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, right, walks with his wife, A...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, right, walks with his wife, Andrea Gallagher as they arrive to military court on Naval Base San Diego, Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

President Donald Trump often points to retired Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher as the epitome of a SEAL, but there are concerns that Gallagher, a convicted war criminal, is damaging efforts to reform the culture of the once quiet professionals.

In a recent video, Gallagher posted the names and photos of the members of his platoon who testified against him at his trial. In a controversial and at times chaotic trial, Gallagher was convicted of a single war crimes charge last July.

“It’s gross. It’s terrible. You have this guy who his own peers in the SEAL community accused him of war crimes,” said Bradley Strawser, who teaches ethics to SEALs and other special operators at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

There is an impact on the force when a SEAL not only openly challenged his own military leadership but who almost embraced a warped image of what SEALs represent, he said. It’s a problem SEALs may have helped create.

Reported by Steve Walsh

In 2005, the Pentagon asked all branches to raise the numbers of special operators. The lesser-known SEALs turned to Hollywood to build awareness, even green-lighting the 2012 film “Act Of Valor,” which featured active-duty Navy SEALs.

The SEALs began creating a mystique, first as a recruiting tool, to give themselves an image separate from the Navy. Strawser and others in the SEAL community have been warning for years that the SEALs were losing control of their image, especially after the fame SEALs achieved after the raid which killed Osama Bin Laden, Strawser said.

“You can argue that they courted this and then they lost control of the story and it’s really played out in cases like Gallagher,” he said.

Gallagher and his surrogates used conservative media to court President Trump during Gallagher’s trial. SEALs are expertly trained and highly disciplined, but increasingly their media reputation is of a force so elite they may be above the law. That’s exactly that image that seems to have attracted Trump, Strawser said.

“No, no, no, SEALs have got to be these rough men,” Strawser said. “These killers who do what they’ve got to do. I’ve sometimes heard this called within SEAL culture this kind of ‘pirate culture.’”

The SEAL’s media image makes it even harder to tackle deeper issues within the force. Special Operations Command recently issued a report critical of special operations in general and the SEALs in particular. The report criticizes part of the SEALs recruiting pipeline, which brings in many people from outside the Navy. Recruits are isolated all the way from basic training. The report says it can breed a sense of entitlement.

Training is so long and intense it doesn’t leave a lot of time to become part of the larger Navy, said Dick Couch, a Vietnam-era Navy SEAL and author.

“So Navy SEALs, they don’t know much about being a sailor. They know about special operations,” he said. “They’re never really in the Navy. I think that helping them understand that you’re a United States Navy sailor first and then you can be a Navy SEAL, that has to be a part of it.”

In August, the head of Naval Special Warfare, Rear Adm. Collin Green, issued a letter saying “we have a problem” and announced his own review of the SEALs. Naval Special Warfare would not comment on the status of that report.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.


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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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