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WASHINGTON — Four months ago, retired Navy SEAL Capt. Dick Couch reached out to the head of Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Collin Green, to tell him some hard truths.
“I contacted him and said, ‘I think you have some problems,’” said Couch, a Vietnam veteran who has lectured at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and written a book on battlefield ethics. The SEALs were not doing enough to condition their people “morally and ethically” for the battlefield, he told the admiral.
It was a message that Couch said he has been delivering to the heads of Naval Special Warfare Command and U.S. Special Operations Command for the past “eight or nine years.” But Green was the first of those leaders to respond positively, he said.
“He was very forthcoming, and he was very anxious to engage along those lines,” Couch said.
By the time Couch reached out to Green, the admiral was already coming to grips with the extent of the challenge facing him when it came to the issue of instilling “good order and discipline” in the Navy’s elite Special Operations force. A series of high-profile scandals ranging from drug abuse to accusations of murder had put SEALs in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
With Congress asking hard questions about what was going wrong in the SEALs and the wider Special Operations community, Green issued a letter to the Naval Special Warfare force July 25 that was notable for its bluntness. “We have a problem,” he wrote in bold, underlined text. “Some of our subordinate formations have failed to maintain good order and discipline and as a result and for good reason, our NSW culture is being questioned.”
Fixing that problem, Green wrote, was his “top priority.” But even he could not have imagined that his effort to confront these issues would result in having his attempts to discipline one of his SEALs — Eddie Gallagher — publicly and repeatedly countermanded by the president of the United States.
The Navy charged Gallagher with premeditated murder, attempted murder and a series of lesser offenses after teammates accused him of fatally stabbing an unarmed, wounded teenage prisoner in Iraq. But after a series of prosecution missteps, Gallagher was acquitted at court-martial this summer of all but a charge of posing for a photograph beside the dead militant’s body.
Throughout the case, President Trump had voiced his support for Gallagher, and when the Navy demoted Gallagher by one rank, Trump reversed the decision. When it was revealed that Green planned to establish a review board to determine whether Gallagher should lose his trident pin — essentially whether or not to kick him out of the SEALs — Trump again intervened, ordering Defense Secretary Mark Esper to ensure that Gallagher kept his pin.
The brouhaha over Gallagher resulted in the termination of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, and leaves in doubt top-level support for Green and his efforts to refocus the SEALs on issues of good order and discipline.
Little in Green’s career up to this point suggested he was going to be involved in a high-stakes showdown with the president. “He just didn’t come up on the radar much,” said a retired senior SEAL officer who knows Green. “He’s the gray man.”
But a retired SEAL captain who has known Green since the early 1990s said that although the admiral is “self-deprecating [and] not full of himself in the slightest,” he is “confident in his decision making” and is the right man to fix the problems in the SEAL community.
“Collin’s as good as they come,” the retired captain said. “He has taken on the leadership issues and the challenges in the community head on, and I am confident that he has been doing the right thing on this.”
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1986 and becoming a SEAL two years later, Green served in a variety of command and staff assignments across Naval Special Warfare for the next 30 years. “He knows the community very well,” said the retired SEAL captain.
More than one former SEAL interviewed for this story referred to Green as a “nice guy,” but none could cite specific examples from his career that might point to how he will deal with his current situation.
The Navy referred questions about Green to his spokesperson at Naval Special Warfare Command, who did not respond to multiple messages.
Although the moral and ethical problems of the SEAL community were already “on the table” when Green stepped into the position, “he’s done a very good job in trying to pull the community in the right direction and address some of the problems,” Couch said. “He takes this very seriously.”
At Green’s invitation, Couch, whose book on battlefield ethics is cited in Green’s July 25 letter, met with a group of about a dozen senior officers, enlisted leaders and civilians whom the admiral had assembled to figure out a way forward. Headed by Capt. Bart Randall, commodore of the Naval Special Warfare Center, “they were tasked with talking things over and making recommendations to the commander,” said Couch, who declined to discuss the specifics of the group’s conversations. “They’re trying to find courses of action that are going to help reverse these things: how do they … inject a moral component and an ethical component into the force to make sure these things don’t happen in the future?”
Most SEALs were supportive of Green’s initiative, said the other retired SEAL captain. “People didn’t have huge issues with any of the points that he made,” the retired captain said. “It’s true. The community has issues.”
But Trump’s decision to reach down several layers of command to intervene in the Gallagher case has vastly complicated Green’s efforts, and will likely hurt if not derail them, according to multiple retired SEAL officers.
“I have to imagine it’s going to have an effect,” said the retired SEAL captain. “When you undercut the chain of command in big things or little things, you send a message.”
The retired captain said he’s worried that “the next time the community thinks about prosecuting somebody, there is going to be a concern or a hedge that all the person has to do is get a high-profile lawyer who will absolutely go to the mat and try to get somebody’s ear.”
It has also placed Green’s professional future in jeopardy. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a team guy talk about what happens if you become at odds with the president of the United States,” said a retired senior SEAL officer. Asked what in a SEAL officer’s career would prepare Green for his current predicament, Couch replied: “Nothing.”
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