Moral Wounds: Military Documents Detail Elite Navy SEAL's Alleged War Crimes In Iraq

May 2, 2019

Over his 19-year career with the Navy SEALs, Special Operations Chief Edward "Eddie" Gallagher earned high honors for valor and leadership as a medic, sniper and explosives expert. But less than a year after Gallagher returned from his eighth deployment – fighting the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq – he drew a different kind of attention from the Navy: he was charged with war crimes, among them premeditated murder. Gallagher's case goes to trial in May. He and his family have denied all charges.

When New York Times national correspondent Dave Philipps began reporting on Gallagher's case, he thought he might learn that Gallagher had suffered some kind of psychotic break as the result of numerous combat deployments over the course of nearly two decades. But what Philipps has found, through interviews and hundreds of pages of internal military documents, defied expectations. Joining on the line from Colorado Springs, Colorado, Philipps told On Second Thought that Gallagher's case reveals a Navy SEAL culture "split between loyalty and justice." 


"We're seeing this fight play out of what is the duty of a SEAL," Philipps said. "Is it to obey the letter of the law or is it to stand by the other men that they went to war with?" 

Interview Highlights

On who Eddie Gallagher is

Even amongst the SEALs, who are an elite group of people, he was one of the top — 19-year career that was sprinkled with all sorts of awards for valor and good leadership. He was a medic, a sniper, an explosives expert — knew almost everything there was about being an elite warrior and for years was also an instructor at the SEALs training school which is called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. So, he was a person with a huge personality and he was a legend within the SEALs, highly respected.

On the charges Gallagher faces now

Boy, a host of charges. The big one is premeditated murder. Also, a couple of attempted murders, obstruction of justice, drug possession. There had been a couple of smaller charges for allegedly taking photos and video of one of the men that he killed. Those were dropped, but, if he's convicted just of the murder, he's facing life in prison.

On who brought the charges against Gallagher

That's what's interesting. The SEALs are a really closed group of people and we know very little about them as journalists. But the charges were brought by his own men. He was a platoon leader in charge of about 20 other SEALs and what they saw on their most recent deployment to Mosul, Iraq, where they were helping to clear ISIS fighters out of the city — you know, they said it was murder and they came home and very clearly said that to their chain of command.

On whether the commandos who brought the charges talked

No. None of them talked, which is not uncommon. Even if SEALs are not involved in a murder investigation, their culture is not one where while they're actively serving they talk about it or even admit they exist and then appeal. Add in that now their own chief is getting investigated and that makes things really sensitive.

On what Gallagher’s family told him

I was really hoping that that they would speak to me and, lucky enough that they did because I wanted to understand more about his time in the SEALs leading up to when things allegedly went wrong. You know, had he been wounded in some way? Had he been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder? Were there warning signs along the way that maybe here was a guy who, after numerous combat deployments, was wearing out? And what was interesting is his wife said, you know, emphatically, "No. You know Eddie is a total professional. He is used to this type of stuff. He thrives on it. You know he knew exactly what he's doing.” And she said, essentially, "I've never seen any signs of any sort of injury like that." And what she said really startled me. You know, I was looking for an explanation of then how this could happen. And she said it didn't happen. What happened is that “Eddie Gallagher is such a demanding boss, a man with such high standards that the men serving under him in in Iraq didn't like him, couldn't meet his standards and so they started concocting a plan to get him out. They figured if we can make allegations against him he'll be removed.” And she said that's what happened. Essentially this is all lies made up by the men who serve under him.

On what the Navy’s confidential criminal investigation documents held and whether Gallagher assassinated someone without an order from higher authorities

Yeah. So, this is sort of unprecedented because within this report [are] summaries of interviews with more than a dozen SEALs. So, we were able to hear the SEALs we weren't able to speak to. What comes out is they say that he that he repeatedly showed just complete disregard for both the men in the platoon and civilians in the city. He would spray neighborhoods with heavy machine gun fire with no apparent targets. He would fire shoulder launched rockets into houses for no clear reason. And there were specific cases where they say he killed people in cold blood, specifically three instances. Two of them said he spent a lot of time in a hidden sniper nest where he would shoot targets in the city, and other snipers said that, at times, he also shot a young unarmed girl and an old man and killed them. And then the last one, the one that he faces premeditated murder charges for, is a stabbing. And that is a case where there had been a firefight. Iraqi troops brought in a ISIS fighter who was probably somewhere between 14- and 17-years-old. This fighter had been wounded in the fight but was still conscious and the SEALs started rendering medical aid to him as is expected in their rules of engagement. He is lying on the ground getting medical aid from a medic and a couple other SEALs when the SEALs say Chief Gallagher came over and stabbed this fighter in the neck and torso and killed him. And so, he's facing charges of premeditated murder for that captain's death.

On what the documents reveal about internal processes for investigating these types of allegations

I think for me as somebody who has reported on the military for years, this was the most eye-opening thing. The type of thing that normally is extremely difficult to report because these communities are so insular. So, within this trove of documents, yes, the SEALs who are interviewed all talk about how they witnessed their chief stab this ISIS captive or how they witnessed him shooting up neighborhoods and shooting at civilians, but they also talk about how they tried to report it. First, they tried to report it to their immediate officer, the guy who's just in charge of the platoon, and they were kind of brushed off. What they tell us is that they told investigators he responded, "Yeah, okay, I'll take care of it." But after months they realized that he wasn't taking care of it at all. And so, they hoped that when they got home from this deployment in late 2017 they could take it up with the next level of chain of command and there they did the same thing. They said here are the things we saw, that this guy is a real problem, we need you to do something. Same type of response — "Okay, we'll take care of it but don't report this farther up.” And they got frustrated because over months they realized that no one was taking care of anything. What they saw is that their chief seemed to be being allowed to get away with what they say was murder. And they went back repeatedly to their chain of command and were told, you know, "Hey, just don't worry about it or decompress." They were warned this could ruin your careers and take down a lot of other SEALs.

Now here's what we don't know — what we can't tell from the documents is the tenor of this. Is the leadership worried because they think this whole thing is going to blow up in the faces of young SEALs and they're trying to protect these guys, so they can go on and have a career and live their lives? Or are they trying to protect someone who is a beloved and well-known peer? That's unclear. But certainly, what the SEALs who tried to report this say to investigators is they left with the impression that they were supposed to stop talking about it.

On how the Navy SEALs’ reputation of morale has been tarnished in past years

Well there have been a handful of high profile cases where Navy SEALs are getting investigated for theft, for drug use, for illegal deaths from murder. And that has caused the leadership to publicly announce, "Hey we're going to step back and we're going to look at culture. We're going to look at training because we think there is a problem here." And what SEALs have told me is there's sort of a tension within this community.

This is a community of Navy personnel that view themselves as very much outside of the Navy. They do something different. They work by their own rules and to some extent there's a subculture in there who are called the “pirates,” who feel like they need to be a little bit above the rules because they do a dirty job that no one else can do. And there's a swagger and a respect afforded to guys who are in that subculture in the SEALs. You know they're seen as the bad boys who are going to get stuff done. And there's another side within the SEALs that says, “No, that's really dangerous. That's a slippery slope and it's not who we are. We are an organization that needs to, by the very nature of our work, follow rules very closely.” And there is a clash that I think we see playing out here. You know, people describe Eddie Gallagher to me as a bit of a pirate and obviously the man who turned him in didn't feel like he was acting as he should. Now, those men have received a lot of blowback in the SEAL community, both active duty and veterans. I think to some they're seen as traitors. And so, we're seeing this fight play out of what is the duty of a SEAL. Is it to obey the letter of the law or is it to stand by the other men that they went to war with?

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