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Report Criticizes SEAL Recruits With 'Unhealthy Sense Of Entitlement'


President Trump often points to retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher as the epitome of a SEAL, but to some in the tightknit SEAL community, Gallagher is the exact opposite. There are concerns that Gallagher, a convicted war criminal, is damaging efforts to reform the culture of the once-quiet professionals. This comes as a report from Special Operations Command points to other issues deep within this secretive culture. Reporter Steve Walsh KPBS in San Diego sent us this story.


EDDIE GALLAGHER: For those who have and continue to slander my name, the truth is coming.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: That's retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher speaking in a recent video posted online. Along with the video, Gallagher posted the names and photos of 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. Bradley Strawser teaches ethics to SEALs and other special operators at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

BRADLEY STRAWSER: It's gross. It's terrible. You have this guy who his own peers within the SEAL community accused him of war crimes.

WALSH: Strawser says he's concerned about the impact of a Navy SEAL not only openly challenging military leadership but almost embracing a warped image of what SEALs represent. It's a problem SEALs may have helped create. In 2005, the Pentagon asked all branches to raise the number of special operators. The lesser known SEALs turned to Hollywood to build awareness, even greenlighting the 2012 film "Act Of Valor," which featured active duty Navy SEALs.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You don't expect your family to understand what you're doing. You just hope they'll accept it.

WALSH: It was the start of creating a mystique. 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: You can argue that they courted this narrative itself, but then they lost control of the story. It's really played itself out in these cases like Gallagher.

WALSH: Gallagher and his surrogates also used conservative media to court President Trump before and after the trial. Strawser says SEALs are expertly trained and highly disciplined, but increasingly their media reputation is of a force so elite that it may be above the law. That's exactly the image that seems to have attracted Trump.

STRAWSER: No, no, no. SEALs are actually, you know, got to be these rough men, these killers that go out there and do what they got to do. I've heard it sometimes called within SEAL culture this kind of pirate culture.

WALSH: Strawser says the SEALs' 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. Dick Couch is a Vietnam-era Navy SEAL and author. Couch says training is so long and intense, it doesn't leave a lot of time to become part of the larger Navy.

DICK COUCH: So the Navy SEALs, they really don't know much about being a sailor. They know about special operations. They're never really in the Navy. And I think that 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.

WALSH: In August, the head of Naval Special Warfare, Rear Admiral 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. In the last week, there have been reports that Green may step down early and retire later this year. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.