“Send us the Goddamn cold-weather equipment we ordered from supply. Signed, Freezing in Fucking Afghanistan.”
This message was sent to the Commanding Officer of SEAL Team 3 by my platoon Chief in December of 2001.
Sometimes leaders have incredibly tough decisions to make. Especially when traditional channels of communication aren’t working. In rare cases going outside the normal chain of command is required to get the required attention when normal channels have failed.
This is what Captain Brett Crozier faced when the coronavirus was spreading like wildfire across his ship, putting the lives of his crew at risk. “We aren’t at war and these sailors don’t need to die unnecessarily”, was the message he was trying to convey but fell on deaf ears.
My platoon Chief did the same thing that cold December morning in Kandahar, Afghanistan. By hitting send on that email, directly to the CO of Team 3, he bypassed our platoon commander, and the chain of command, putting his career at risk. Why do this? He was taking care of his men.
How did it get to this?
Our platoon had ordered specialized cold-weather gear as we were tasked with doing high altitude mountain missions (SEAL TEAM 3 was a desert platoon!). The equipment that we ordered did not come. Instead, we got a box of random cold-weather gear. Initially, we didn’t care, something had come! Turns out our supply department reps went to an outdoor store and just dug through the “sale” bin, and tried to match our list with the on-sale items to save their budget. So when we happily dug out the sleeping bags we were shocked to find that the bags were kids sized and wouldn’t fit a grown man! Among other shockers…
Our Chief got an apology from our CO, and we got our cold-weather gear. Thank you, Commander Curtis, for the gear, AND for being a great leader when pressed by our Chief.
I didn’t realize it at the time but I would soon find myself, many years later, in a tight spot with my own chain of command.
Fast forward, and I’m an E6 just promoted to the role of sniper course manager of the west coast sniper program. I think I was 28 at the time.
The problem? Our division Master Chief had gone full-blown maniac on my instructors, myself, and the students. We’d put up with it for about six months before I finally snapped.
Let me explain in detail how I arrived at my own Captain Crozier moment.
The division Master was a regular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
He would make a decision and change it the next day. He’d scream insane shooting instructions at instructors in front of students (a credibility destroyer). Once he attempted to force the students to rewrite their course critiques because he was being mentioned negatively! Imagine Disneyland taking a survey and trying to force you to change your answers before they let you leave the park with your family. Insanity!
Then the straw that finally broke my back: He demanded I call all the instructors in on a Saturday to clean up the classroom and lockers because he said it wasn’t up to his standards.
All this, after my guys just worked a grueling three-month-long sniper course of seven day work weeks away from their families!
I said, “With all due respect Master Chief, I’ll come in and clean it myself, I’m not going to make these guys come in on a weekend.” He said, “Suit yourself.” Which I did.
The place was already spotless except for a couple of student lockers that had some bush branches from their Ghillie sniper suits scattered on the floor. Out of a class of twenty, there were a few branches tucked into a corner of one of the lockers!
So I left my own pregnant wife and two kids, and drove down to the bunker to sweep it up. Then I fired off an email requesting a meeting with my Division Officer that week. I knew that I had already exhausted all other means of redress, including going directly to the Master Chief, on several occasions, for resolution. He tried to have me reassigned but I dodged that bullet as we continued to ram heads on a daily basis.
I knew I was risking my own career sending the email to my division officer because a Chief that worked with me had tried to bring similar issues up a month prior, and got re-assigned the same week. Chief Chris went from the #1 Chief at the Command to last in one week! Chris had balls though; he did the right thing and lost his career over it. Sound familiar in the case of Crozier?
What did I have to lose? A lot.
I had recently been meritoriously promoted to E6 as the #1 ranked E5 at the Command and had just taken my first Chief’s exam and was pretty sure I’d make Chief my first time up.
I had to do something for the health of the sniper program, and my instructors. We had rebuilt the program from scratch and collectively turned it into one of the best shooting courses on the planet.
I got called up to the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training compound the next week.
After a lengthy conversation with my Division “O” he said he’d look into the problem and thanked me for coming to him and for reporting the facts, and not drama — a good lesson for anyone in a leadership position: always stick to the facts.
The following Monday, much to our pleasant surprise, our Master Chief was re-assigned to Bahrain in the Middle East. He opted to retire on the spot instead.
Problem solved and I made Chief a few months later.
I, like Captain Crozier, put my career at risk for the benefit of the sniper course and my instructors. He demonstrated clear leadership and a selfless, likely career-ending, sacrifice in the face of his crew’s health in the face of the coronavirus.
This is the type of gutsy leadership that used to be rewarded but I fear that the Navy, in general, under pressure to expand since 9/11, has not done a great job of building a strong culture of professional leadership among both senior enlisted and officers. Don’t get me wrong here. Some of the most intelligent, and best leadership I’ve seen has come out of my navy experience however, even the best organizations lose their way.
To make matters worse, the majority of our elected officials who oversee the military have their heads so far up their asses they can’t see the light of day, let alone can they use good judgement or make good decisions.
Our elected officials can’t even map out what the next 12 months of coronavirus look like; they just extend the measures week by week.
If anyone doubts that there currently exists a clear leadership failure at the top levels of American Government and the Department of Defense I’d ask this one simple question: Why are we are still in Afghanistan with no clear strategy 20 years later? Trillions of tax-payer dollars wasted, not to mention some of America’s best and brightest lost forever, to combat, drug addiction, suicide and worse.
There are no straight answers on Afghanistan. I’ve asked senior military officers, elected officials in the Congress and the Senate and have gotten no good answer.
The words complete shit show come to mind.
Let’s rewind and address the leadership failure in the Navy and Naval Special Warfare community. I am holding Big Navy leadership accountable because last I checked it was Navy SEALs, not Army SEALs.
Case study: Navy SEAL leadership decline post 9-11-01.
Before September 11th, 2001 there was very little upward mobility for SEAL officers. To become Admiral as a SEAL was an incredible long shot. Most of the really good junior officers got out after their platoon commander tour was over, or they screened for DEVGRU (SEAL TEAM 6).
They realized there were not a lot of job opportunities open to them beyond being a platoon commander or operations officer. For example, one of my platoon commanders went to Harvard for an MBA and on to a career in finance. Another went to MIT and later to NASA. As I write this article, he’s spinning around the earth at over a thousand miles per hour onboard the International Space Station. Hope you’re well, Chris!
After 9/11, the Special Ops community exploded. U.S. SOCOM, once an obscure command, became the center of the new war on terror. If you were a conventional unit and didn’t have your foothold in Special Ops you were irrelevant, and your budget was going to shrink. So SOCOM and the SEALs were the new darlings of the Department of Defense. And the SEALs could do no wrong under Big Navy, they drank the cool guy Cool-Aid, put the blinders on, and now they are paying for it.
What did this mean for our SEAL officers? If you had a pulse and could show up on time you got promoted up the ranks.
As a leader, you have to take responsibility for the organization you’re in charge of, including its culture. The exponential growth of the SEAL Teams and deployment pressure coupled with extremely poor leadership decisions saw the beginning of a cultural decline that would continue for decades leading up to the fragile state of the community today. A broken, fragmented and dog eat dog environment inside and outside the community.
The beginning of the end started in 2002 as the war machine was churning in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The operational deployment schedule was pushing the limits of the community and the lines between good and bad started to blur.
In 2002, my senior Chief at the sniper cell where I was an instructor tested positive on a command drug test. In the regular Navy, he would have been separated immediately.
However, my command hid the results and tucked away this senior Chief so he could get his full retirement. This sends a signal to the rest of the organization. There are good signals and there are bad.
In this case, this is a terrible signal to send to the rest of the command (e.g. this behavior is ok, as long as you’re a good operator or “good guy”).
I’ve never spoken about this until now, I maybe have alluded to it in the past, but now it’s about time we talk about it openly so the Teams can fix things and get back to having a solid reputation. Currently, in the SOCOM world, their reputation is worth as much as Enron stock.
Bad signaling started happening frequently in the SEAL community, especially at a certain Tier One Command. To sum it up, revenge killings in Afghanistan were never reined in, drug addicts were hidden away and tolerated, and much more. Slowly the community I was once proud to be associated with was turning into an episode of the Sopranos.
It’s one of the main reasons I left it all behind me as a 29-year-old Chief Petty Officer. I saw our own leadership over-deploying guys and rewarding bad behavior. Time to go.
“I don’t want anyone from DEVGRU at my Command because they’ll have a drug habit and a bad attitude.” —Former west coast SEAL Team Command Master Chief.
The fact that the well-liked Adam Brown, featured in the New York Times Bestseller, “Fearless,” was addicted to crack while on active duty and still successfully screened for SEAL Team 6 says a lot about where the community was headed over a decade ago. And people knew about it. Let that sink in a bit. Do you think pilots applying for the Blue Angels would let a crack addict at the controls? Not a fucking chance.
I’ll spare you the detailed account of incidents within the SEAL community that relate to murder, drugs, domestic abuse, rape, embezzlement of taxpayer money, and more. You can do a quick Google search for that.
The one clear truth?
The SEALs definitely continue to have a leadership problem under Admiral Colin Green. He only hinted that the SEALs MAY have a cultural issue. You think?
As for me, I’ve personally distanced myself from a community I was once proud to be a member of.
I remember the day I presented Admiral McRaven’s senior leadership at SOCOM with very clear concerns and offered evidence submitted to this site to support the claims.
The result of that conversation? “Who’s talking to you? We want names.”
Then my emails to senior staff were leaked to the community and a half-baked attempt to assassinate my own character and credibility ensued. Guys in senior leadership positions on active duty were openly encouraging ex-teammates (most of whom fall into one of the categories described above) to publicly harass me on social media and in the press.
Then comes a Powerpoint slide presentation with photos of yours truly, Chris Kyle, and Marcus Luttrell (all the SEAL authors who were separated from the navy) and others was paraded around WARCOM (the SEAL parent Command) as if we were responsible for the woes of the community. “Just keep your mouth shut” was the message. Mob rule continued…
My military record speaks for itself and I sleep well at night knowing I did the right thing and would do it all over again.
McRaven is a great leader but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that the SEAL community was rotting underneath his nose and he did nothing about it because deep down he had to know there was some really bad stuff happening.
Never complain without presenting a solution.
My advice to the incoming SEAL Admiral? Get a firm like McKinsey to help rebuild the professional culture of the Teams.
It’s time for radical candor and uncomfortable solutions. America deserves to know the SEAL community is being taken care of, the men that have been over deployed and overexposed to trauma deserve better. I don’t blame the Eddie Gallaghers of the world, it is the SEAL leadership that let the culture decay at the foundation of what was once good. It is senior leadership of both the Navy and the Teams that failed the entire community.
So, do I have an opinion on the Navy’s handling of the Crozier case? Yes, I do, and I think I’ve answered it largely so far but stay with me, we’ll go a little further to the finish line. All of the above is to let you know I’ve been in Crozier’s shoes and I can relate to what happened.
Crozier was a great leader who got screwed by his chain of command and the former Secretary of the Navy, a guy who should have known better but let his ego and political grandstanding get the better of him.
What kind of a man goes to Crozier’s former crew, which obviously has much admiration for him, and attempts to publicly humiliate him? I’ll give you a clue, his name rhymes with Modly.
I’d bet good money that he got passed over for command and never made it past the rank of O-5 when Modly served as a navy helicopter pilot. That fact aside, I know deep down he knows better… it’s why he resigned shortly after the public backlash.
Strip away all the political bullshit, and Crozier, at his foundation, was a man who cared deeply about the Navy and his own crew. He put his career aside to help them when his initial calls for help fell on deaf ears. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the kind of leader America needs more than ever these days– and we lost him.
What a shame for us all.
Fair winds and following seas Captain Brett Crozier; your crew was right to cheer you on. You have the heart of a Lion Skipper and I’d serve with you any day.
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