After the Eddie Gallagher case and other scandals, Navy SEALs say they have to rethink how they pick their leaders

Navy seal nap
Navy SEAL candidates take a two-minute nap on the beach after winning an ocean-boat race. Richard Schoenberg/Corbis via Getty Images
  • The Naval Special Warfare community is taking aggressive steps to fix what is widely seen as an ailing culture.
  • A new leadership course is meant to address years of scandals that have roiled the SEALs and tarnished their reputation.
  • “The [SEAL] Teams and the guys need the best leadership that there is available,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following years of scandals, the Naval Special Warfare community is taking aggressive steps to fix what many in the US special-operations community see as an ailing culture.

A new leadership course is meant to address years of scandals that have discredited the Navy SEAL community in the eyes of their colleagues and the public.

A string of scandals

Eddie gallagher
Edward Gallagher after being acquitted of premeditated murder at Naval Base San Diego July 2, 2019. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

A string of recent scandals have marred the SEAL Teams’ reputation.

They includes drug abuse by members of SEAL Team 10; unauthorized book deals and video game gigs by former and active-duty SEALs that jeopardized tactics, techniques, and procedures; and the firing of all of SEAL Team 7’s senior leaders after a platoon was involved in a drunken party while deployed to Iraq.

There have been war-crimes allegations leveled at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (formerly known as SEAL Team 6). Two SEAL Team 6 operators were also implicated in the murder of a Green Beret while deployed to Africa.

The most severe and widely publicized case was that of Chief Eddie Gallagher, who was charged with murdering a teenaged ISIS fighter, who had been captured and sedated, in 2017.

Gallagher was acquitted of murder but convicted of a lesser charge, though he was later pardoned by President Donald Trump in a series of events that roiled the SEALs and led to the firing of the Navy’s top civilian official.

Navy SEAL trident graduation
A member of SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 receives their Special Warfare pin during their graduation, April 15, 2020. US Navy/MCS 1st Class Anthony W. Walker

These scandals prompted Naval Special Warfare Command leaders to take corrective disciplinary actions across the force, even bringing back the hair and uniform regulations to which regular Navy personnel are subject.

As a result, morale is frail within the force, and it is struggling to hold onto its operators.

“Retention isn’t the best, with a lot of dudes choosing to leave because of the climate” at the Naval Special Warfare group level and above it at Naval Special Warfare Command, an enlisted SEAL told Insider.

The winding down of combat deployments over the last five years has also played a part, the enlisted SEAL said.

To address the scandals, US Special Operations Command did a comprehensive review of its special-operations troops’ ethics, discipline, conduct, and professionalism.

Although SOCOM’s review of itself didn’t find any malpractice, it did find that poor junior leader development, a sketchy approach to professional military education, and career progression issues undermined leadership, discipline, and ultimately accountability.

In addition, the report found that special-operations units have a tendency to assess for and select the candidates with the highest physical scores, de-emphasizing character and behavioral attributes.

Put simply, special-operations units prefer strong, athletic candidates, even if a very small number might display questionable personality and moral characteristics.

Navy SEAL Afghanistan
A US Navy SEAL takes a defensive position in a village in northern Zabul province, Afghanistan, April 10, 2010. US Navy/Chief MCS Jeremy L. Wood

“It’s very competitive to become a SEAL officer. Slots are few and far between and competition is very high. Although emphasis is given on leadership qualities, the physical aspect is what they use to weigh more,” a reserve SEAL officer told Insider.

“Moral courage” is also a highly sought attribute, the reserve SEAL officer said. “Do you have the balls to tell your chief, who has 3-4 platoons and a dozen-plus years in the Teams under his belt, that something isn’t the right call?”

Most junior officers are willing to do that, “but apparently not all,” the reserve officer added.

“To qualify for a SEAL officer contract, officers or cadets need to blow the PT test out of the park, and the minimum requirements are higher than that required for an enlisted SEAL contract. My bet is that the past wars created such a demand for [special-operations forces] that the leadership was OK with letting some physically suited but leadership unsuited candidates slip through the cracks,” the reserve officer said.

Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of US naval operations, said at a recent conference that the problems with the SEALs “wasn’t professional competency” but rather “character and ethics.”

At the event, Gilday said he fully supported Naval Special Warfare Command’s new initiative.

A new course

Naval Special Warfare candidates do jumping jacks
Naval Special Warfare candidates do jumping jacks during a weekly Navy Special Warfare physical screening test, June, 24, 2013. US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Anastasia Puscian

To address its leadership shortcomings, Naval Special Warfare Command has launched the NSW Leader Assessment Program (NLAP), which is intended to transform how the SEAL Teams select and promote their officers and senior enlisted leaders.

The four-day course will assess leadership potential, cognitive aptitude, communications skills, and personality attributes.

All levels of leadership will have to go through the course before assuming command, meaning senior enlisted (chiefs and above), junior officers (lieutenants) before taking command of a platoon, and field-grade officers (lieutenant commander and above) before assuming command of a SEAL team.

“The pilot is an example of a methodical approach to ‘build a little, test a little, learn a lot’ as we iteratively evolve new ways and means of officer and enlisted leader selection and pairing,” Rear Adm. Hugh Howard III, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, said in a recent statement to Congress.

Howard said he intends to expand the new effort to all levels of officer and enlisted leadership in order to enforce standards and correct any deviations.

Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman
Naval Special Warfare candidates hit the surf during Crewman Qualification Training in Coronado, California, September 10, 2008. US Navy PO2 Christopher Menzie

Naval Special Warfare has already been through two pilot courses and is now geared for its first official one.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction. The [SEAL] Teams and the guys need the best leadership that there is available, and this new initiative looks like it’s going to ensure that in a meritocratic and transparent way,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

Like any organization, the SEAL Teams have their own internal politics. “You’ve got leaders who are legit interested in the welfare of their guys, and then you’ve got ‘leaders’ who are there not for the right reasons,” the former SEAL officer said.

“We’ve created and cultivated a certain image around the [SEAL] Teams,” the former officer said, assigning some blame for that to the Naval Special Warfare community itself. “That promise of publicity and recognition sometimes attracts people for the wrong reasons. That’s dangerous in a leadership position.”

While Naval Special Warfare Command seems to be taking the right steps to fix a problematic situation, it remains to be seen if the new approach to leadership will make a difference.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.