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Navy Board May Strip Gallagher Of SEAL Status Despite Trump Support

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The nation's top Navy SEAL and the White House may be on a collision course. Last week, President Trump restored Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher to his full rank and pardoned two other service members. All three had been accused of war crimes, and Gallagher had been reduced in rank. Now the head of the Navy's special ops unit has started a process to kick Gallagher and three others out of the Navy SEALs. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS in San Diego sends us this report.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: The SEALs have an almost mythical reputation, one that's been a powerful recruiting tool. Just listen to this promotional video from 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNIS HAYSBERT: Their actions are typically swift and decisive, striking with surprise, speed and appropriate use of force.

WALSH: But that reputation is being tested by, among other things, the Gallagher case. The Navy SEAL was accused of murdering an unarmed detainee in Iraq. During a trial plagued with misfires, he was found not guilty of the most serious crimes. Then came clemency from the president.

In a seeming rebuke of the White House, the Navy has now begun the process that may toss Gallagher out of the SEALs. After the Gallagher trial ended in July, Rear Admiral Collin Green issued a letter to his commanders. He wrote, we have a problem.

DICK COUCH: We haven't done enough to - of moral conditioning.

WALSH: Green ordered SEAL commanders to read the book "A Tactical Ethic" by Dick Couch. The author, a Vietnam-era SEAL himself, says he and Admiral Green have discussed the challenges faced by today's SEALs.

COUCH: When they come in, say, you know, you've got to be tough, you've got to be smart, you've got to be professionally proficient, but you also have to be morally intact. You are an American warrior.

WALSH: While President Trump was tweeting his support for Gallagher last summer, Green had another disciplinary problem on his hands. The admiral recalled another platoon from SEAL Team 7 from Iraq over allegations that included drinking and unprofessional conduct. He removed SEAL Team 7's top three leaders.

Again, former SEAL Dick Couch.

COUCH: I think there's a lack of leadership. And the insistence on right moral conduct - that's the key thing, and that has to be changed and turned around, and those falling short have to be separated. Excommunication is a wonderful thing.

WALSH: Admiral Green ordered SEALs to ditch unofficial insignias and get back to Navy haircuts. But there are larger issues, like lengthy deployments. Special Operations Command made an effort to shorten duty tours, but Couch believes that some of the damage may have already been done.

COUCH: The more senior guys that have seen an awful lot of combat, and a couple of them seem to be damaged by that. And it bleeds into the younger guys.

WALSH: To truly restore Navy SEAL culture, the focus will probably have to extend beyond disciplinary actions. Dr. Pauline Kaurin teaches professional military ethics at the Naval War College.

PAULINE KAURIN: If everything is centered on the discipline issues and there's no discussion of culture or broader ethical issues, to me that would be a red flag.

WALSH: She says modeling ethical behavior starts at the top. SEALs are also watching to see who wins the back-and-forth battle between their command and the White House. The victor is likely to set the tone for special forces going forward.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.