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Questions Remain Over What Will Happen To 3 Navy SEALS Implicated In War Crimes Case


It was just last week when Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher was facing the real possibility of being kicked out of the Navy SEALs. Then President Trump intervened. The secretary of the Navy was fired. And Gallagher, who had been convicted of posing with the body of an ISIS captive, was told he could retire in peace. This turn of events may have a long-term impact on the SEALs. It could also change the fates of other SEALs caught up in Gallagher's story.

Joining us to explain is Steve Walsh of KPBS in San Diego. Hey, there.


KELLY: Who are the other SEALs caught up in this?

WALSH: So Lieutenant Jake Portier was originally charged with covering up the 2017 incident in Iraq, including the one charge where a military jury convicted Gallagher, which is posing with a corpse on the battlefield. Portier's case was thrown out by the chief of naval operations after the Gallagher trial.

I talked to Jeremiah Sullivan, who is the attorney for Lieutenant Portier. He said the Navy indicates his Trident review board will continue. He wants the Pentagon and the head of the naval special operations, Rear Admiral Collin Green, to end this process.

JEREMIAH SULLIVAN: There are very junior petty officers, deck seamen, even junior officers who are looking now up their chain of command at Admiral Green and the secretary of the Navy, who can't follow the president's order. You may disagree with the president, but it's an order.

WALSH: So the review board is also looking at the unit's commander, Lieutenant Commander Robert Breisch. During Gallagher's trial, witnesses indicated that the commander knew about allegations of misconduct in Iraq earlier than indicated but didn't take action.

Also, Lieutenant Thomas MacNeil - now, MacNeil was one of seven SEALs who testified against Gallagher. So the way this could play out is Gallagher could retire with 20 years at full rank and benefits. And one of the men who actually testified against him could be thrown out of the SEALs.

KELLY: Wow. What an extraordinary turn of events that would be. Who will get to do the reviewing? Remind us how this process works.

WALSH: So the way this works, it's a group of officers who will review their status. Now, they've been invited to submit statements, but this isn't like a court martial. They aren't going to get the opportunity to actually speak directly to this board. Now, this process is not as uncommon as you might imagine. The Navy revoked 154 Trident pins since 2011. Ironically, one of the most clear-cut reasons for ousting someone from the elite SEALs is after they've been convicted of a crime. And among this group, only Gallagher was convicted.

So as for - so for the specific review panel on these remaining SEALs, Defense Secretary Mark Esper is asking the acting secretary of the Navy to review this case. We could hear as early as tomorrow. Esper has said publicly that he wants to move on.

KELLY: Just give me a sense of how this is playing out in the SEAL community, as it were. We're speaking to you. You're there in San Diego, which is - you can see SEALs training there on the beach every day. What are people saying about this?

WALSH: So Gallagher does have his supporters, people who think the military overstepped when they came after him. They support the president's decision to intervene. Now there are others who worry about the impact of the president reaching down to overturn the decision of his commanders, that this may lead to others just bypassing the chain of command and appealing directly to the White House.

KELLY: I mean, give me a sense of what the long-term impacts of this might be on the SEALs, on the Navy overall.

WALSH: So the head of naval special warfare, Rear Admiral Collin Green, has been pushing to reform the culture and ethics of the SEALs. The worry is that this could be lost in this battle of the White House. I actually talked with Bob Muth. He's a law professor at the University of San Diego and a former judge advocate general for the Marines.

BOB MUTH: I think the way you resolve that is getting back to basics and ensuring a strong ethical foundation. And I think the concern is, by the president's recent actions, perhaps he's suggesting that he doesn't think that that's the right course.

WALSH: So the question for Green is whether or not this is even going to go forward. We've really never seen anything like this. It's basically unprecedented...

KELLY: Unprecedented.

WALSH: ...Especially amongst these secretive SEALs.

KELLY: OK. That's Steve Walsh of KPBS.


WALSH: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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