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Navy SEAL on Trial: War Criminal or Patriot?

The 18-year-old war on terror comes home as Eddie Gallagher faces charges of killing civilians and trying to cover it up.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Mosul in northern Iraq, there’s a shallow grave holding the body of a young ISIS fighter. The unidentified teenager, thought to be 15 years old, died on May 3, 2017, while being treated for his wounds by U.S. combat medics working with SEAL Team 7’s Alpha Platoon, one of the U.S. Navy’s elite special warfare units. There is probably nothing remarkable about the grave. Undoubtedly it remains unmarked and unvisited—like the hundreds and possibly thousands that fill Mosul’s fields.

But about a year after the teenager’s death, agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) raided the Point Loma, California, home of Navy Special Operations Chief (“SOC”) Edward “Eddie” Gallagher. On September 11, Gallagher was arrested at Camp Pendleton for murder. In addition, he was cited for attempting to kill unarmed civilians, abusing controlled substances, and obstructing justice by threatening potential witnesses, even some of his own platoon members.

Gallagher’s arrest sent shockwaves through San Diego’s special warfare community, roiled the upper echelons of the U.S. Navy, spread its tentacles into the Pentagon, reached into the tightly knit network of families, friends, and supporters of Gallagher’s SEAL team platoon—and pitted those who had served with Gallagher against each other in an increasingly public, ugly, and divisive melee. Several of Gallagher’s most vocal supporters told The American Conservative that the NCIS team that raided his home was “a modern-day Gestapo.” They also described the Navy’s decision to prosecute him as “giving aid and comfort to terrorists” and accused senior military officers of “sitting on their asses in Baghdad while guys like Eddie do all the fighting.”

“The Navy ambushed this guy,” retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel David “Bull” Gurfein said. “What they haven’t told you is that Eddie joined the military to save lives, not take them. He was a corpsman, for God’s sake. And the Iraqis loved the guy.”

Gurfein’s group, United American Patriots, has raised $77,000 in support of Gallagher (the fundraising effort has now been turned over to the Navy SEAL Fund)—and Gurfein himself has been one of the leading voices calling for Gallagher’s release. Included in Gallagher’s network of supporters are the families and friends of his platoon members (one of them describes Gallagher’s arrest as “an absolute travesty”), as well as his wife, Andrea, who recently appeared on Fox News to plead her husband’s case.

“We have been tortured endlessly, shamed, embarrassed,” she told Fox. “Enough is enough.”

Recently, the Gallagher case made national headlines when President Donald Trump ordered that his confinement at San Diego’s Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar be made less restrictive. This was the result of requests from Gallagher supporters (including Congressmen Duncan Hunter, Dan Crenshaw, and Ralph Norman) that Gallagher not be imprisoned in a facility that houses “rapists” and “pedophiles.” It is the first time a president has intervened in such a case since 1971, when Richard Nixon ordered that Army Lieutenant William Calley, who led his men on a killing spree in South Vietnam, be released from a military stockade.

The case against Gallagher, a 19-year Navy veteran (14 of them as a SEAL) and father of three, is straightforward and summarized in a three-page charge sheet that details the case against him. While deployed with his unit in Mosul on May 3, a wounded enemy fighter was brought in for treatment. When he was told that the teenager was with ISIS, Gallagher turned to his platoon. “Nobody touch him,” he allegedly instructed. “He’s mine.” At that point, Gallagher took out his knife, stooped over the injured fighter, cut into his pants in an apparent attempt to treat him—then stabbed him in his lower neck and chest, leaving his fellow platoon members stunned. Gallagher then (allegedly) posed for pictures while holding up the corpse’s head and conducted a macabre reenlistment ceremony over him.

Later, according to prosecutors, Gallagher texted a photo of himself next to the corpse to a fellow SEAL with the message: “I got him with my hunting knife.”

Gallagher’s platoon members have told Navy investigators that Gallagher’s actions both before and after the May 3 incident had convinced them that their chief had “gone off the rails,” a senior Navy officer involved in the case said. Several told Navy investigators that Gallagher shot Iraqi civilians with his sniper rifle, bragged about his “kills” (while pledging that he would beat super-sniper Chris Kyle’s “body count”), and, when told that he would be reported for what he’d done, intimidated his accusers and set members of his platoon against them.

The Navy’s case is sobering. During a two-day preliminary hearing held last November, military prosecutors and NCIS investigators presented evidence against Gallagher that included a helmet-cam video of the wounded ISIS fighter, footage of Gallagher’s “reenlistment ceremony,” photographs of Gallagher holding the knife over the corpse, pictures of SEALs posing with the body, and 1,000 pages of documents, interviews, and backup evidence. (The case has been the subject of a series of detailed investigative pieces written by Carl Prine that have appeared in the Navy Times.)

The Navy’s lead prosecutor has laid out a damning case against Gallagher. “SEAL Team Platoon Alpha signed up to protect America,” Commander Christopher Czaplak told the court, but Gallagher “handed ISIS propaganda manna from heaven.”   

This isn’t the first time that the military has held its elite Special Forces warriors accountable. In July 1969, the U.S. brought charges against legendary Green Beret commander Colonel Robert Rheault and six of his subordinate officers for the murder of a Vietnamese double agent (the case was subsequently documented in the book A Murder In Wartime). Then, as now, the Special Forces community was roiled by the incident. Supporters of Rheault accused senior Army officers of conducting an anti-Special Forces crusade out of envy. No such whispers are heard now. Instead a nationally known lawyer with 40 years of expertise in the field of military law who has closely followed the Gallagher case slammed the Special Forces for being “out of control” in Iraq. “There isn’t anything elite about this elite,” he said in a telephone interview. “Have you seen this stuff? These guys are running around with Tomahawks in their belts. It’s just crazy. They need to be reined in.”

The Gallagher case is complicated by a number of other seemingly ancillary but crucial issues. At the time of the May 3 incident, Gallagher was on his eighth deployment in a combat zone, and at the time of his arrest, he was being treated for a traumatic brain injury at Camp Pendleton. “There’s no such thing as too many deployments,” Dr. Asad Masri, a psychologist who’s treated the psychological maladies associated with combat, told TAC. “Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur on the first deployment, or the last, or at any point in between. But eight is a lot. As for TBI, well, we all know that it can affect judgment.”

That may well have been the case with Gallagher, though his defense lawyer, Philip Stackhouse, says that his client’s case is based on his innocence. “We’re not mounting an insanity defense,” he told TAC. “Chief Gallagher is innocent of these charges and we’re fully prepared to show that in court.”

The Pentagon’s senior leadership has prepared itself specifically for these kinds of cases. In July 2012, then-defense secretary Leon Panetta directed the Defense Legal Policy Board to “review and assess the application of military justice in combat zones” in cases where service members were accused of crimes against civilians. Panetta’s directive was spurred by concerns that increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq were undermining the war on terror. His message was unmistakable: the U.S. would prosecute war crimes, despite the difficulty in determining friend from foe in an insurgency.

Panetta’s directive reflected a widespread fear among both military and civilian defense officials that, in what was then the 11th year of the war on terror, things were not going as planned; that there was a danger the U.S. would repeat the mistakes of an earlier era, when who we killed wasn’t as important as how many were killed; that we were ennobling the enemy.

That the military’s senior leadership is willing to prosecute Gallagher is a testament to this concern, as evidenced by prosecutor Czaplak’s eloquent courtroom summation back in November: “Ask yourself this: does the public still have faith in the Navy SEALs after SOC Gallagher decided to kill civilians so he could beat Chris Kyle’s body count? Does the public still hold the United States Navy in high esteem after SOC Gallagher tried to kill a little girl on a bridge? Does the public still believe we are the good guys because SOC Gallagher decided to act like the monster the terrorists accuse us of being?”

From now until the end of May, when Gallagher’s court martial is convened at Naval Base San Diego, the public will no doubt hear arguments from Gallagher supporters that we have heard many times before: that American drones kill civilians every day, that the battlefield is a merciless place, that those who have brought these charges have never heard a shot fired in anger, that patriotism demands we support those who fight.

That’s all true, but it’s also irrelevant. The most important question to be decided in May and the weeks that follow is whether, on a spring day two years ago, one of America’s men in uniform murdered a 15-year-old boy.

In this, the 18th year of the war on terror, we can be disgusted, enraged, stunned, shocked, or horrified by all this. But the one thing we can’t be is surprised.

Mark Perry is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and the author of The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.



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