Something has gone off track at U.S. Special Operations Command.
A SEAL and a former Green Beret are under indictment for alleged war crimes committed downrange. Two Marine Raiders and two SEALs are charged with the murder of a Green Beret while the group served in Mali in 2017. Elsewhere, operators have been investigated for, or convicted of, spousal murder, sexual assault, child rape, domestic battery and drug smuggling, or have taken their own lives.
And in the wake of the botched October 2017 Niger mission that killed four Army special operations soldiers, a two-star Air Force general, a Green Beret captain and his noncommissioned officer-in-charge face punishment. A 6,300-page investigation found that the team had been untrained and unrehearsed for the mission, and lacking proper oversight in its chain of command.
Misconduct lurks in any corner of the military, but over the past couple of years, the range and depth of charges facing members of these elite units has alarmed the congressional leadership responsible for funding their operations.
Lawmakers are concerned enough to order the Defense Department late last year to review the organization’s ethics and professionalism programs of each community that sends troops to SOCOM, among them the legendary Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Marine Raiders and Air Force pararescuemen.
“A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicate that USSOCOM faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our SOF culture,” SOCOM boss Army Gen. Tony Thomas wrote in an email to the force in December.
The Pentagon’s review went to Congress in early March, but some SOF leaders spoke out sooner. The head of Army Special Operations Command released a memo in November calling on leaders to work on their command cultures and address warning signs before they become incidents.
“It is incumbent upon our leadership down to the team-room level to intensify our emphasis on [Army special operations forces] values and character,” Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette wrote. “Service is a privilege, and this privilege is grounded in a culture of accountability and professionalism that extends far beyond program compliance.”
A week later, Thomas sent his memo to the force, calling for a 90-day review of the command’s core values and their practice.
It came the day after reports that alcohol was involved in a car accident that injured a special operations soldier and killed a French troop deployed to Niger.
And in February, Naval Special Warfare Command boss Rear Adm. Collin Green told a convention audience that he had commissioned his own 90-day review into leader development and ethics within the community.
“Overall, the report determined U.S. Special Operations Command and its components are full and active participants in the military services’ and Department of Defense’s ethics programs — meeting or exceeding standards in every area reviewed,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Candice Tresch told Military Times on March 7, after the report had been submitted.
Spokespeople for SOCOM, and each of the services’ special operations components, declined to comment on the review.
“In addition, periodic self-assessments put forward new initiatives to re-enforce ethics and professionalism programs across the force,” Tresch said. “Examples include improving and expanding values-based decision making instruction, as well as assessing the cumulative effects of 17 years of continuous combat to expand programs and practices, as required.”
While none of the crimes and allegations are unique to special operations forces, the organization’s elite status ― which has only grown due to its role in key operations of the Global War on Terror ― often comes with higher expectations.
“The report also acknowledged there are cases of misconduct and those incidents are being addressed," Tresch added. “However, the manner in which individual cases of misconduct are handled by U.S. Special Operations Command and its components are outside the scope of this review and more broadly, not discussed by Department of Defense officials as a matter of practice.”
Military Times asked experts what’s at the core of the trouble at SOCOM, and what can be done about it.
“Any time that you subject a human being ... let’s say, somebody who’s already a high achiever, greater than average intelligence, the ability to suck up more pain ― and you subject them to the kinds of environments, the things that they see, the things that they see done, the things that they necessarily have to do, over and over and over again ― you start breaking down the human component, the spirit, the soul, the mental processes, the judgment,” retired Sgt. 1st Class Greg Walker told Military Times in February.
Walker enlisted in 1975 served in the 75th Ranger Regiment and 9th Infantry Division before completing Special Forces selection in in 1980. He served as a Green Beret in Panama, El Salvador, in Kuwait during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and then again during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the intervening years, he spent 10 years as a police officer in Oregon, writing two historical non-fiction books on special operations forces. Most recently, he served as a military liaison with Cedar Hills Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
It will be up to the Pentagon to provide guidance and support for SOCOM going forward, but one national security development could make an impact, according to a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“I think the one area that probably works ― looking at the next couple years ― to SOF’s advantage, is the decision in the most recent National Defense Strategy, to focus more on state-based competitors, and put issues like terrorism essentially secondary,” said Seth Jones, a lecturer in international studies and security at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval Postgraduate School, who previously worked as liaison between the head of SOCOM and the assistant to the deputy defense secretary for special operations.
Elite troops are tired, worn out with little chance to recover, and many are on medications. Reliance on SOF troops has escalated as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have set the pace during the last 17 years.
“The problem with that is this ... special operations, whether it’s the SEALs or Special Forces or whatever, was never meant to be a constant warfighting command or capability,” Walker said. “And that is what it has evolved into for a number of reasons.”
The operational mindset is constant even though deployments might only last a few months, he said, as high-intensity deployments have given way to field training soon after coming home, in preparation for the next rotation.
“They don’t get the time to decompress, they don’t get the time to heal up from whatever injuries that are not anything that puts them in a hospital,” Walker said. “No time to wean off of medications.”
And the medications are no small issue. The cocktail of pain and sleep medications operators sometimes subsist on, alone, Walker said, can contribute to behavioral problems down the road. Where once Ambien was prescribed to help with a good rest on a long flight to the Middle East, now it can be used routinely to help an operator sleep all day in preparation for all-night missions, he said.
And when they come home, that unnatural sleep cycle can snowball into more deprivation and later, behavioral issues, “things they would never do if they weren’t fatigued, worn out,” said Walker, who took a job with the SOCOM Care Coalition, now the Warrior Care Program, as a coordinator and advocate after he retired from the Army.
While combat operations temporarily ceased in Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2014, the special operations community also saw some drop in operational tempo.
“My sense, just in general, is that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ― plus Syria and wars in other locations, including the Philippines, deployment of forces to Colombia ― have put a real strain on the force,” Jones said.
More time at home can mean more time for issues to bubble up, but also a chance to address them.
Politics have played a big role, Jones said: SOF forces have a smaller footprint, they’re known as the best of the best, and because of the classified nature of their work, leadership can avoid publicly disclosing how many personnel are deployed and what they’re doing, unlike conventional forces.
Whether misconduct is higher in special operations than it “should" be ― considering the superior discipline and good judgment expected of elite special operators ― Walker says serving in special operations now is even more high stress now than it was when he first joined the Army in 1975.
“One, you did not do multiple deployments,” Walker said of his experience. "For the most part, you did a deployment, it was six months to a year ― maybe ― you came back, you took leave, you went back into a training mode, of course. But you were back. So you could readjust to family situations and all of that good stuff. Then your platoon might come up for another deployment.”
Rules of engagement are also a hot topic when experts try to unpack GWOT. From deployment to deployment, the guidelines can change. Maybe it was all good to take out a suspected bomb-maker carrying a weapon on your last deployment, but now he needs to walk toward you and raise it for a good kill.
That is precisely the scenario that faced former Maj. Matt Golsteyn back in 2010. Now, he’s facing court proceedings on charges of murdering a suspected Taliban insurgent under terms, he says, that were totally legal at the time.
A board of inquiry following a 2011 investigation found no clear violation of ROE, but the case was revived in 2018 and Golsteyn was formally charged in December.
Meanwhile, Chief Warfare Special Operator Eddie Gallagher is heading to court-martial for allegedly murdering a detained Iraqi teenager in 2017, while another member of his team has been charged for allegedly helping Gallagher cover up a string of war crimes.
Confusion about where and how the lines are drawn can breed cynicism, Walker said.
“The damage that’s been done opens up that person to say, why the hell not?” he said. “If they were being better taken care of and that, the resilience, the resistance to that kind of a thing, would be higher.”
That might have played into the case of former Master Sgt. Daniel Gould, a 7th Special Forces Group soldier who hatched a cocaine smuggling plot from Colombia.
“A segment of them has the possibility of becoming very jaundiced, bitter, cynical, and you just wear people out like brakes on a car,” Walker said.
In June 2017, Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, a Green Beret, was found dead while deployed to Mali. Two Navy SEALs and two Marine Raiders, Melgar’s housemates, have been charged in his strangulation death.
The narrative of the crime has shifted from a friendly wrestling match gone wrong to retribution for a personal slight.
The discipline, intelligence, confidence and competitiveness that would push an operator to the top of the profession can also create problems, if you don’t check in with yourself, Walker said.
“Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness,” he said. “You have to watch and know yourself, and manage yourself and be managed, so that wonderful strength that you have of being a risk-taker, that can be directed properly.”
Issues tend to follow troops home, and in the name of the “brotherhood,” problems can go unaddressed.
“You always had guys that were incredible SOF soldiers, regardless, but they had a hell of a drinking problem. Just because of the nature of the beast, we take care of each other," Walker said, recalling command discussions on this topic.
A former police officer, Walker added that similar cultures are found in law enforcement, firefighting and other professions.
“It’s not unique to Special Forces or the SEALs or anywhere else,” he added.
In a profession where you routinely face death, he said, “you have to be able to depend on each other, and that just overrides when you come back. ‘Yeah, he’s missed formation because he’s been drunk the last several nights, but he’s been through a lot. We’ve all been there. We’ve all got the mission to do.’ Same happens in the conventional force.”
And sometimes that cover extends after outcry from a family. In a letter sent to Army Times in February, the wife of Special Forces soldier detailed her husband’s deterioration and her attempts to get his command to intervene.
“My husband has struggled off and on for more than 12 years,” she wrote, asking for anonymity because her husband is still serving with Special Forces. “I reached out to his immediate command once upon a long time ago, when he was on an [Operational Detachment Alpha] in a [Commanders In-extremis Force] company. Because of the SF attitude toward wives, you all already know how that turned out for me.”
She had gone to her husband’s chain of command again to plead for help more recently, she wrote. Her husband had been driving the family around with an open beer in the center console, “one for the road” his teammate had sent him home with after a house party.
His emotional abuse escalated to physical, landing her in the hospital, she added.
In January, another special forces soldier was sentenced to 10 years in prison for assaulting his wife, once while she was holding their infant son. Though Maj. Jason Sartori was not formally charged, a 15-6 investigation substantiated at least 10 extramarital affairs, including two women who told Army Criminal Investigative Command that he had battered and sexually assaulted them.
“We’ve always had guys who went sideways,” Walker said, offering the example of drug running during the Vietnam War, or an Irish-American Green Beret who deserted to join the Irish Republican Army in the ’90s. "Yeah, you have guys that just have a criminal leaning that for, whatever reason, if an opportunity makes itself available, they say, ‘I’m just going to give this a shot and see what happens'. "
‘They know who’s having problems’
Behavioral and mental health resources are widely available to all troops, including SOF, but the barriers to accessing it can be stronger. Pushing past limits is part and parcel of SOF culture.
“It’s like propaganda for our own people,” Walker said. " ‘I can’t quit. I can’t go in and say that I’m messed up. We’re all messed up!’ That’s a generalization, but that’s how a lot of folks will think. ‘Everybody’s hurt. I can’t go in there and say that I’m special.’ "
Beyond the well-documented stigma that all troops face when seeking help to conquer their demons, there’s also the tangible consequence ― troops undergoing behavioral health treatment cannot deploy. A substance abuse problem could mean a year or two sidelined.
It can be hard enough to get an individual to bring him or herself in for treatment, Walker said, but they can’t always rely on teammates or leadership to intervene, either.
In a small SOF unit of highly specialized experts, both the operator and the command can be reluctant to take anyone out of rotation.
"‘He’s out there, man. But he’s one of our best. And we need him for the next deployment,' " Walker said.
There was a bit of a golden era, he explained, back when Adm. William McRaven was serving in leadership roles within SOCOM, eventually becoming its commander in 2011. He famously implored the force to “take care of our people” and “break down the stigma,” Walker said,
“About 2012, that started to change,” Walker said. “This is my take on it, but I think it’s pretty solid. It’s very expensive to do that. And this is a reality: What is the military’s first and foremost mission, and what is a commander’s foremost mission? Project combat power.”
Public comments have continued in a similar vein. In 2015, then-SOCOM boss Gen. Joseph Votel also opened up about his experience with therapy.
But behind the scenes, Walker said, the demands on the force overran attempts to address individual troops. Commanders would push back, he added, with concerns about staying mission-ready while half-a-dozen guys are in treatment.
"‘You want me to meet requirements ― I can’t,’ " Walker said. " ‘Okay, how about next time? Can you hang in there until next deployment?' Making it more difficult in very subtle ways to actually go and get care and treatment."
The SF wife told a similar story. She spoke to a command sergeant major about her husband’s problems, one who had touted McRaven’s “Preservation of the Force and Family Plan." But instead, she added, leadership moved to punish him for the domestic violence incident.
“No one in the command was going to do what McRaven and company were advertising. They were not going to get this soldier any help,” she said. “They were going to ‘counsel the soldier with a view toward separation.’ "
The experiences are not unique to SOF, Jones said, but the particular cultures of its components can heighten issues.
“They view themselves as elite. They operate in small teams. They operate at a high tempo. They often view themselves as being able to operate in ways, at tempos and in physically demanding locations better than anybody else,” he said. “And with that culture, and with some of those decisions ― and deployments in some of the areas they’re deployed to ― come challenges.”
And those challenges can be compounded if troops are not keeping themselves in check, and neither is anyone around them.
“The people responsible ― by regulation, morally, by [standard operating procedures] ― are leaders,” Walker said. “They know who’s having problems, and if they don’t know, they should be relieved."
“That team sergeant, that master chief, needs to go to his leadership," he added.
DoD’s review will address the resources and programs SOCOM has in place, both to prevent misconduct and to address it when it happens.
But what needs to change? The Pentagon can employ some tools to assess the issue and start to turn things around, Jones said, and the first step is to do the diagnostics.
“How public these become, that’s a debate that the Pentagon can have with SOCOM and with Congress," he said. “How serious are these problems? ... What are the causes of them?”
If the deployment rate is to blame, he added, the Pentagon might take a look at scaling back ODA and SEAL platoon deployments, for example, and staggering which units deploy and to where.
Walker doubled down on that theory.
“When do the senior commanders get together, and go to the Pentagon and the president and say, ‘Our force has been totally overextended, totally overused. We’ve worn out our equipment, we’ve worn out our people, and we need to stop. We need to reassess what our missions absolutely should be, and do a complete rebuild from the top down?' ” he said.
“That takes such a degree of moral and ethical courage, and I don’t know that it’s there,” he added.
The military has done research extensively, Jones said ― often with anonymous surveys ― then taken action with programs to address the issues raised.
“I think the Pentagon is probably the only place — even more so than Congress — that has the ability to do that,” he said.
The answer is not in more training and more awareness, Walker said. Moving from encouraging guys to seek medical treatment to trying to bolster resilience cannot undo damage that’s already been done.
“You don’t build resilience,” he said. "What you’re really going to say is, ‘If you were going to break at point B … we’re going to give you enough stuff that hopefully you might be able to make to it point C before you break.’ "
And perhaps, he added, rather than treatment, that breaking point ends in separation proceedings.
Though, if leadership asked for it, it’s unlikely that Congress or the president would approve such a pause to SOF operations. Instead, Jones said, it’s possible that the national security environment might provide some incidental respite.
If near-peer adversaries like Russia and China are at the top of the list, that could mean more partner-nation training missions and less focus on counter-insurgency. President Trump’s plans to draw down forces in Syria and Afghanistan could take some of the weight off of special operations.
And while Green Berets could very well be training troops in Latvia and Lithuania, or Thailand and Indonesia, to push back against incursion by their belligerent neighbors, it will mostly be conventional land, sea and air power who fight any of those potential battles.
“The SOF elements of that are pretty limited, to be honest,” Jones said. “If there’s a likelihood that SOF is going to get a break, it’s because the U.S. looks like it’s moving out of a post-9/11 period.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.