- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2018

They are among America’s most elite military fighters, but a string of recent high-profile scandals and abuse allegations — including drug-smuggling, detainee abuse and murder — has put the U.S. special operations forces under unprecedented scrutiny, prompting a commandwide soul-searching.

Top officers at the Pentagon and the Florida-based U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) have issued a series of commandwide mandates to review and reinforce ethical and conduct standards, according to internal communications and memorandums obtained by The Washington Times.

The missives issued by Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas, head of Special Operations Command, and Owen West, head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict directorate, are initiating an intensive three-month review starting Jan. 1 to reinforce “core values and their role in [special operations forces] culture,” they state.

“The first step in any treatment program is admitting you have a problem. … That is not lost on the senior leadership,” a Special Operations Command official said in a recent interview.

“Special operators want to be known for the vast accomplishments and sacrifice of the team in defense of our nation, not the misdeeds of the rotten apples,” the official said.

The internal review also is being planned amid rising congressional concern about reports of abuse, criminality and falling standards of discipline in the ranks. The most recent defense authorization law approved by Congress specifically directed Defense Secretary James Mattis to review the ethical and professional standards within the special operations command.

A review of “allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year” points to an urgent need for such a review, Gen. Thomas wrote in an internal email last week. The review found that the Special Operations Command “faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the Team and the Individual in our SOF culture,” he wrote.

“We will not allow inexcusable and reprehensible violations of that trust to erode decades of honorable service, teamwork and progress by the members of USSOCOM,” Gen. Thomas wrote in the email.

The five-point plan outlined in the internal memo represents the first guidance of its kind issued by senior leaders of Special Operations Command.

Serious lapses

Celebrated in Hollywood and in American popular culture, the image of the Special Operations Command has been tarnished by a string of serious accusations and public relations nightmares in recent months.

In the most notorious episode, two members of the famed SEAL Team 6 — Navy Petty Officer Anthony DeDolph and Chief Petty Officer Adam Cranston Matthews — face charges of felony murder, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, hazing and burglary in the death of Army Green Beret Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar in Bamako, Mali, last year. Published reports say the special ops fighters, along with two Marines, were attempting to silence Sgt. Melgar after he discovered they were stealing operational funds meant to gain intelligence on local terrorist groups.

Separately, a case is proceeding against Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, accused of stabbing an Islamic State detainee to death during fighting in Mosul, Iraq, in 2016. Prosecutors allege that Chief Gallagher killed the man after other members of his SEAL team treated his injuries.

Roughly 20 SEALs and Navy officers have been implicated in Chief Petty Officer Gallagher’s case. He stands accused of premeditated murder and aggravated assault for reportedly shooting noncombatants during his time in Iraq. He is being held at the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San Diego.

The Military Times also has reported this year on individual cases in which Special Forces personnel have been arrested on charges of drug-smuggling, spousal abuse and rape.

Pentagon officials and private analysts say the review will be in part a way to get a sense of the scale of the problem.

“I do not think you can say the entire community has a problem. That is a gross overstatement,” said Steven Bucci, a former battalion commander with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group and a senior Defense Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

“There are some individuals that have some problems that have to be dealt with,” said Mr. Bucci, now a senior analyst with The Heritage Foundation. “We have had enough of these incidents … that are bordering on criminal. The impetus in the [command] is we have to deal with this quickly.”

War fatigue

Growing concerns about the conduct of American special operations forces exploded into the public last year when Capt. Jamie Sands, head of all East Coast-based Navy SEAL teams, held a “town hall” meeting to warn some 900 Navy special operators in the command about the use of illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and ecstasy.

In response to news of rampant drug use among the SEALs, Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, sponsored legislation requiring U.S. Special Operations Command and the head of the Pentagon’s special operations directorate to conduct an accountability review. The final bill expanded the scope of Ms. Speier’s measure, calling for “a comprehensive review of the ethics programs and professionalism programs of the United States Special Operations Command and of the military departments for officers and other military personnel serving in special operations forces.”

Mr. Bucci said the troubling reports of criminality and substance abuse were symptoms of strains building up among special operations forces over nearly two decades. The unprecedented pace and tempo of special operations missions targeting al Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist threats since Sept. 11, 2001, have stress levels soaring.

“The more people [deployed] out there at the end of the string, the more there are chances of something bad happening,” Mr. Bucci said. “When you have this many people at war for this long, things start to slip.”

As part of the upcoming 90-day review, command officials in Tampa, Florida, will study “the correlation between operational trauma and behavioral health” and study whether the rigors of repeated combat deployments played a role in some team members’ actions, Gen. Thomas wrote.

“We must stand together and resist divisiveness stoked by private and public speculation without the benefit of the facts,” he said.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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