Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher is a highly decorated combat veteran, who made the mistake of posing for a photograph with a dead Islamic State group combatant.
It was a breach of etiquette, to be sure. And it was not good optics for a Navy SEAL to have done such a thing.
But it is a minor charge, the only thing a military tribunal was able to convict him of amidst a complicated trial that was marred by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and a witness who changed his story on the stand. Despite the relatively minor charge, some in the Navy wanted to remove Gallagher from the SEALs, stripping him of his Trident pin, a serious consequence.
Throughout the trial and the debate over Gallagher’s future, one of his strongest supporters has been President Donald Trump, who tweeted: “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”
I agree with the president on this one.
It seems fair to argue that Gallagher might have had a prickly personality and wasn’t the best example of military excellence.
What doesn’t seem fair is trying to railroad him out of a career as a punitive reaction to the acquittal on more serious charges. But that is exactly what the Navy brass, under the leadership of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, tried to do.
After the mixed decision was handed down by the tribunal in July, the Navy pursued an internal inquiry to decide whether Gallagher should be demoted and stripped of the trident pin, essentially kicking him out of the SEALs.
The Navy suspended its internal inquiry, but Spencer was reportedly angry that Trump had intervened in a personnel decision by overruling Gallagher’s demotion and demanding he keep the Trident pin. He tried to engage in some back channel moves without notifying Defense Secretary Mike Esper, and was fired. On his way out, Spencer criticized Trump with a parting shot: “[I don’t think the president] really understands the full definition of a warfighter. A warfighter is a profession of arms and a profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to, and they hold themselves to.”
I am not an expert on military justice or the code. But as a lay person who is the daughter of a Cold War veteran, the niece of a Marine, the great-niece of a man who parachuted onto the beaches of Normandy and the cousin of combat veterans in Vietnam, I know what honor looks like. It is not “perfection.” It is not stoicism. It is not the almost inhuman ability to suppress our natural emotions in the face of brutality.
Honor is what Gallagher showed by being on the front lines in a war that had taken the lives of friends and comrades, men killed by adherents of that sick ideology embraced by the dead Islamic State group fighter.
To worry about the optics and flawed etiquette of posing for the cameras with a vanquished enemy is outrageous, and the Navy leaders who pushed for Gallagher’s demotion and expulsion from the SEALs were not defending the reputation of the service. They were bowing to PC priorities.
This was not Abu Ghraib. This was a photo of a dead combatant and the men who were glad he couldn’t hurt any more of their brothers.
There will be those who will defend the Navy’s right to clean its own house simply because they hate the president so much. There are others who would defend the Navy regardless of who was in the White House. Both are wrong.
Gallagher, who has announced his retirement, never should have been convicted of posing for an offensive photo.
The president was right to stand up for him. The shame is that the Navy didn’t.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.