How to Fix a Broken Special Operations Culture
In early June of this year, Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Maxwell of the U.S. Marine Corps was sentenced to four years in jail for his part in the unlawful killing of a fellow servicemember, Army Green Beret Sgt. Logan Melgar. During the trial, the court heard how Maxwell and three others, all special operators, allegedly planned to tie Melgar up before subjecting him to a sexual assault by a Malian man whom they had brought along for that purpose. By the time of Maxwell’s sentencing, one of the assailants, SEAL Chief Petty Officer Adam Matthews, had already received a one-year sentence after a plea bargain that required him to testify against the others. The remaining two accused, Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Chief Petty Officer Anthony DeDolph are still awaiting trial.
“How can something like this happen in 2017?” asked the military judge Col. Glen Hines. He continued, “The question needs to be answered. If we don’t get to the bottom of it, this is going to happen again.” With this prediction, Hines suggests that the Melgar murder, shocking though it might be, was no aberration, but a symptom of a culture decayed from within. He’s probably right. How else to explain the recent spate of serious incidents in the special operations community, which run the gamut from war crimes and spousal murder to child rape and drug trafficking? Perhaps Hines was looking too at the rank and status of the individuals involved in Melgar’s murder, all of whom were highly respected leaders in elite units, including two members of the storied SEAL Team Six. These men weren’t outliers, but rather the type who attract emulation by peers and subordinates: “Kevin was a hero of mine,” commented one Marine special operator I know, before adding, “or was.” When such men commit an act that appears to outsiders to be off the scale, it suggests that similar behavior has up to this point been condoned, even lauded, by the culture to which they belong. And as Hines indicates, unless something is done to fix that culture, Melgar’s murder is likely to be just another waypoint in a descending pattern of illicit conduct in America’s special operations community.
Since Maxwell’s trial there have been more incidents: a Navy SEAL platoon was sent home from Iraq amid charges of drinking and sexual assault, and a report revealed widespread cocaine use among members of SEAL Team 10. In early July, the court martial of SEAL Eddie Gallagher, accused of stabbing a prisoner and shooting civilians, ended in him being convicted of a lesser offense amidst allegations of command interference, witness tampering, and prosecutorial cover-up. This profusion of disciplinary infractions and outright criminal behavior reinforces the perception that a community hitherto vaunted as the Pentagon’s golden child is now in a cultural crisis. This week, Gen. Richard Clarke, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, called for a top down ethics review.
Speculation about the underlying cause of these incidents tends to focus on the rationale that they are the inevitable result of the stress imposed by a high operational tempo and repeated exposure to danger.
“Any time that you subject a human being … let’s say, somebody who’s already a high achiever, greater than average intelligence, the ability to suck up more pain ― and you subject them to the kinds of environments, the things that they see, the things that they see done, the things that they necessarily have to do, over and over and over again ― you start breaking down the human component, the spirit, the soul, the mental processes, the judgment,” retired Sgt. 1st Class Greg Walker told Military Times in February. Walker, cited in the article as being an expert on the topic, is a former Green Beret who served during the early days of Iraqi Freedom. His statement echoes a common refrain.
I find this argument unconvincing. It would perhaps provide plausible explanation for a rise, say, in the number of DUIs and other relatively minor infractions but surely not for murder, rape, drug trafficking, and child pornography. And as a former member of the special operations community, I would argue that the term “special” carries with it higher standards of resilience, maturity, and behavior than might be expected from our conventional counterparts. The admittedly significant pressures of sustained exposure to combat shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the type of behavior that has made recent headlines. Perhaps there is a simpler and more credible answer: We have let some of the wrong people into our community.
Whatever the causes behind this cultural decline, its effects will likely be felt far beyond the special operations community. “Degradation of these forces is a national security problem we ignore at our own peril,” concludes a recent editorial in USA Today. The authors — three eminent former military lawyers – are not given to hyperbole, and their argument has merit. U.S. special operations forces play a prominent role in the execution of U.S. foreign policy, deploying annually to some 80 countries. Their unique capabilities make them the force of choice to lead operations in high risk places such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia — where poor decisions will likely have far reaching consequences.
Clarke’s decision is the right move, but it won’t be enough. While the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command is ultimately responsible for the conduct of all U.S. special operations forces, the problematic cultures entwined with these crimes are formed at a much lower level — within the four service components that make up his command. And it is here, within the ranks of the SEALs, Green Berets, Marine Raiders, and Air Force special operators, that it will have to be fixed.
Changing a culture is a tough thing to do, requiring nothing less than a concerted campaign. And the analogy here with a military operation is not incidental. During my career, I have led operations to defeat an insurgency and to bring about changes in organizational culture, and I can readily see parallels between the two. In fixing a culture, as in counter-insurgency, there are no silver bullets to assure success, but there are some rules which, if ignored, guarantee failure. These rules are not sequential steps but rather lines of effort, a term used in military planning to group similar types of action to be executed simultaneously in order to achieve the objective.
Rule One: Acknowledge the Problem
For members of any organization, it’s never easy to identify symptoms of cultural decline. And among leaders trained to be positive and nurtured by the same culture, a certain amount of wishful thinking is inevitable. “Every organization has its bad apples,” is the implicit refrain. “Punish those responsible, but don’t taint the majority with the actions of a few.” Clarke’s initiative will be the second such review to be conducted this year. The first culminated in a seven-page report issued by the Pentagon in March, which concluded that the review “did not identify any gaps” in the special operations community’s programs, but declared that it would undertake a “90-day focus period on core values.” In the weeks following the release of the Pentagon’s report, the Gallagher case hit the headlines and a special operations pilot was arraigned on charges of raping a child.
Reading the report’s recommendations, I could feel my eyes roll reflexively towards the ceiling, but it also made me reflect on my experience as a junior captain when I took command of a recruit training company which had recently seen ten drill instructors court martialed for the systemic abuse of recruits. So ingrained was this behavior in the culture of that company that the abuse continued on my watch. This continued abuse was enabled by my failure to accept that hand-selected Marine non-commissioned officers had done such things with the tacit acceptance of their peers.
Culture and collective identity are enmeshed. When you have spent the better part of a lengthy career in a particular community, it makes it difficult to recognize when that community’s culture has changed for the worse, or maybe has been flawed in some way for quite some time. That is probably why the first step of Clarke’s review involves a cross service assessment so that it might be, for instance, SEALs or Green Berets who take a look at the Marine Special Operations Command. The challenge will be for the leaders of each organization to accept these findings and treat them as their own.
Any organization has its bad apples, but the focus of the upcoming review should be on how the larger population reacts to the illicit actions of these outliers. Whether or not they choose to report such behavior is the real test of cultural norms, the dividing line between a rash of disciplinary problems and a truly broken culture. Rear Adm. Colin Green, the head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, was not playing with semantics when, last month, he advised his commanders, “I don’t know yet if we have a culture problem. I do know that we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately.”
Rule Two: Employ Trusted Agents
All leaders run the risk of losing touch with what is really happening underneath them. A wise commander uses trusted agents to keep a finger on the pulse and to play a key role in the information campaign that is an essential component of culture change. These are members of the organization who have access and influence with the rank and file, who can balance loyalty to the organization with trust and acceptance from those who make things happen at the lowest levels, and are thus well positioned to root out and resolve problems before they have a chance to fester.
In the special operations community, these people are the senior enlisted leaders: the sergeants major, master sergeants, and senior chiefs — men who have worked their way up the ranks and have 15 years or more of hard service under their belts. Because these enlisted advisors are so experienced, leaders sometimes forget to give them guidance. Now is the time to do so. Given a clear mandate — to right the ship — and armed with the tools they need to succeed, chief among which is the support and ear of the commander, there is little that these trusted agents cannot accomplish.
Rule Three: Harness and Rein in the Cultural Power-Brokers
Even a strong command team determined to bring about change will fail unless it has first brought on board those members of the organization that are the real guardians of its culture. Typically, these people hold positions that make them directly responsible for the most junior members of the organization.
In the special operations community, where the unit of action is a 12 to 18-man task unit, it is the team chiefs, the senior non-commissioned officer in each of these groups, who control norms of behavior. And in cases where a unit’s culture has gone awry, only those who set the standards for that culture will be able to bring it back. But for this to happen, they must believe that change is necessary, and therein can lie a paradox. Sometimes these enlisted leaders, who regard themselves as being steadfastly loyal to the organization, and without whom the organization couldn’t function, have a different perspective from those at the head of that same organization.
When things start to go wrong, it’s often because these cultural power brokers feel that those at the head of the organization are impervious to an aspect of their profession that only they understand, a dissonance between what they have been tasked to do, and what needs to be done in order to get there. Armed with this belief, they will tolerate rule-breaking because they think that it is necessary to achieve organizational goals. My drill instructors, for instance, would argue that the rules governing recruit training made it impossible to turn civilians into marines in just 12 weeks.
In other cases, they allow their subordinates to cross the line because they see it as reasonable dispensation in a profession that demands so much of its members. “Just blowing off steam,” was the rationale offered to me once by a team chief whose men had been caught drinking while on operations. His assumption was that there is no correlation between what he saw as being a relatively harmless infraction and the type of illicit behavior that makes headlines. And he would have been dead wrong. In the case of the SEAL platoon sent home from Iraq, what began as a quiet drinking session that might have gone unnoticed ended with an allegation of rape and public disgrace.
Commanders cannot assume that these all-important middle managers are on board with their priorities. Clear and constant communication, delivered directly and via trusted agents, can help to fix this, but commanders should also be prepared to remove from their positions those who fail to see the light. Holding leaders accountable for what happens in their units is not a new concept, but it is sometimes enforced less than rigorously. It’s never an easy decision to end a subordinate’s career simply because something bad has happened on their watch. But only by doing so can you send the message that it’s a leader’s responsibility to set the right tone in his unit, thus discouraging such infractions from taking place. As a Marine officer steeped in the value of positive leadership,this was a hard lesson for me to learn. But in command of my recruit training company, I found myself failing to fix a situation that I eventually realized no amount of persuasive leadership would resolve. It was only when I explained to the senior drill instructors, who are the cultural power brokers in that environment, that they would lose their jobs if any of their subordinates got in trouble, that things began to improve — dramatically.
More recently, week Rear Adm. Green fired the leadership of SEAL Team 7 following “a loss of confidence that resulted from leadership failures that caused a breakdown in good order and discipline within two subordinate units while deployed to combat zones,.” None of the three men who were relieved were suspected of personal wrong doing. All had records of exemplary performance: One article pointed to the fact that they held between them no fewer than 11 bronze stars. Another article called Rear Adm. Green’s decision “rare” – as it probably was, for the reasons that I give above. But it was also a clear indication that the head of Naval Warfare Command understands Rule Three.
Rule Four: Win the Population
In a campaign to win back the culture of an organization, the key objective is the workforce themselves, the men and women who form the backbone of any organization. Typically, these people consider themselves to be invaluable members of the organization: loyal, hard-working, and conscientious. They are the men and women who labor to make things happen.
In the special operations community, these are the SEALs, Green Berets, Air Commandoes, and Marine Raiders who are collectively referred to as special operators. They share a bond forged through harsh experiences, a tribal affiliation so profound that it can surpass all other considerations. They are loyal to one another to a degree that only those who have had to depend on others for their lives will understand. But when this loyalty becomes blind, it can lead to the destruction of all that they value.
As with a counter-insurgency campaign, leaders need to pare away the general population from the truly bad actors, the irreconcilables. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to demonstrate to the fence-sitters that loyalty among the bad actors is often paper-thin. Of the four special operators accused of killing Melgar, two — Maxwell and Mathews — agreed to testify against the others in return for a lighter sentence. Examples such as this provide a powerful vignette to counter the idea that loyalty to one’s comrades transcends all other considerations.
To illustrate this point, it might be worth having men such as Maxwell and Mathews explain to audiences of their peers what caused them ultimately to turn on their accomplices, and how by delaying their decision to do so, they brought to an ignominious end everything that had given them pride and purpose. Both have been stripped of rank and special operations insignia and will be dismissed from the service following jail time. Hearing this message directly would undoubtedly have a powerful impact upon those to whom the sense of belonging to an exclusive community cuts to the core of their identity.
And conversely, conduct that is in line with the organization’s core values should be publicly recognized, especially when it involves reporting errant behavior. The members of Gallagher’s platoon who tried to prevent him from shooting at civilians and who came forward to turn him in showed extraordinary moral courage. Reinforcing this kind of behavior through praise, and — where appropriate — tangible reward is a powerful weapon in the culture war. It’s a tipping point approach, whereby commanders are looking for quick wins such as these to give their campaign momentum and bring the rank and file onto their side.
Rule Five: Refer Back to Rule One.
Even when an organization is back on even keel, leaders have to be attuned to symptoms of regression. Unless they make a continuous effort to inculcate a positive culture, it just takes a handful of bad actors to fill the vacuum and take the organization back into freefall.
When it comes to changing culture and the consequences of failing to take timely action, the Marine Corps’ hallowed institution of recruit training provides a recent cautionary tale. Hand selected, rigorously trained, and widely emulated, Marine drill instructors who are the guardians of this culture hold totemic status, representing all that is best about the traditions of the Corps. But when things go wrong within this culture, they go very wrong.
In 2016, an investigation into a recruit’s suicide unearthed a systemic pattern of abuse, carried out by a handful of rogue drill instructors and tolerated by their peers. Prior to the suicide, there had been indications and warnings aplenty that something was rotten in the state of Parris Island. In one such incident, a drill instructor accused a Muslim recruit of being a terrorist and shoved him into an industrial dryer before turning it on, injuring him in the process. Other drill instructors watched, like sycophants around a school bully, not participating but failing to intervene. A subsequent investigation revealed little and resulted in no punitive action. Within weeks, another Muslim recruit in the same battalion was dead, having jumped off a second-floor balcony in an apparent attempt to escape torment at the hands of his senior drill instructors. It was then that the Marine Corps realized that it had a problem on its hands, and the subsequent publicity and congressional attention carried with it a sub-text that presented the Corps with an existential threat: “Fix the culture, or lose your recruit training.”
The incident was a sobering reminder of the consequences when leaders fail to recognize cultural decay.
If Gen. Clarke’s review, which is scheduled to conclude in November, reveals that the culture within the U.S. Special Operations Command is indeed broken, it will take a determined campaign to fix it. And if things are as bad as recent headlines make them appear, it will be a race against time to do so before Col. Hines’ grim prediction is proven correct.
Andrew Milburn is the former commander of the Marine Raider Regiment and Combined Special Operations Task Force Iraq. He is the author of an upcoming book, When the Tempest Gathers.
Image: Defense Department