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Navy SEAL trial exposes divide in normally secretive force

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher hugged his wife, Andrea, after leaving a military courtroom in May.
Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher hugged his wife, Andrea, after leaving a military courtroom in May.(Julie Watson/Associated Press)

SAN DIEGO — It was called the ‘‘The Sewing Circle,’’ an unlikely name for a secret subsect of Navy SEALs. Its purpose was even more improbable: a chat forum to discuss alleged war crimes they said their chief, a decorated sniper and medic, committed on a recent tour of duty in Iraq.

The WhatsApp group would eventually lead to formal allegations that Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher fatally stabbed a wounded Islamic State captive in his care and shot civilians in Iraq in 2017.

Gallagher, 40, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A jury of mostly combat Marines will decide the fate of the 19-year-veteran and Bronze Star recipient charged with murder, attempted murder, and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline for posing with the corpse for photographs.

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No matter the outcome, the court-martial at Naval Base San Diego has provided a rare view into the insular Navy SEAL community and likely will have a long-term impact on one of the military’s most secretive and revered forces. It has pitted veterans against each other both inside the courtroom and out in a debate over brotherhood, morality, and loyalty.

‘‘SEALs, it seems to me, have been seeing themselves as God-like on the battlefield, and there is a real danger in taking that view of one’s unit or one’s self,’’ said Gary Solis, a former military judge and Marine Corps prosecutor who teaches law at Georgetown. ‘‘I think this will alert the SEAL community that the rules apply to them.’’

The case has laid bare challenges among US special forces as the United States increasingly relies on such troops, which make up only 2 percent of the military yet carry out most of its battles around the globe.

A number of special forces members are on trial this year. A Navy SEAL last month pleaded guilty to hazing and assault charges for his role in the 2017 strangulation of a US Army Green Beret in Africa.

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The scandals have prompted a review by the Navy’s top commanders into the behavior of the special warfare teams. During Gallagher’s trial, it was revealed that nearly all his platoon members posed for photos with the dead militant and watched Gallagher read his reenlistment oath near the body in an impromptu ceremony.

Lieutenant Jacob Portier, the officer in charge, has been charged separately for overseeing the ceremony and not reporting the alleged stabbing.

The trial also has shown the struggles of military courts in prosecuting alleged war crimes. The lead prosecutor was removed after allegedly tracking the defense team’s e-mails to find a news leak, and the lead investigator acknowledged on the stand making mistakes.

Closing arguments are expected Monday. A jury of five Marines and two sailors, one a SEAL, will weigh whether Gallagher, on his eighth deployment, went off the rails and fatally stabbed the prisoner as a kind of trophy kill, or if the boy died from wounds sustained in an airstrike and Gallagher is being falsely accused by junior SEALs trying to permanently oust a platoon chief they hate.

Nearly a dozen SEALs have testified over the past two weeks. Most were granted immunity. Seven SEALs said Gallagher stabbed the prisoner on May 3, 2017, moments after he and the other medics treated the 17-year-old boy.

Two SEALs testified they saw Gallagher plunge his knife into his neck, including Special Operator Corey Scott, who stunned the court when he said he was the one who ultimately killed the teen by plugging his breathing tube with his thumb as an act of mercy. The Navy has said it’s considering perjury charges against Scott.

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An Iraqi general who handed the wounded prisoner to the SEALs testified that Gallagher did not stab the boy.