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Special operations review finds leadership, discipline issues

Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 25, 2019. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo)

A review of the culture and ethics of U.S. special operations forces found that in some cases a lack of leadership, discipline and accountability led to conditions for unacceptable conduct, officials said Tuesday.

Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, initiated the comprehensive review of the command’s ethics and culture in August. The decision came after several high-profile incidents involving special operations troops.

Three of the cases received attention when President Donald Trump pardoned Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, Navy Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher and Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance.

Golsteyn, who was a captain with Fort Bragg’s 3rd Special Forces Group, was accused of killing an unarmed Afghan national. He said the killing was justified under the wartime conditions in Afghanistan because the man was thought to be an insurgent who made a bomb that killed two Marines.

Gallagher, a Navy SEAL, was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter in Iraq.

Lorance was convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 and sentenced to 19 years in prison for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three men in Afghanistan.

A letter to members of Special Operations Command released Tuesday said the review found that two decades of sustained combat has affected the special operations culture in troublesome ways.

The letter was signed by Clark; Chief Master Sgt. Gregory A. Smith, the command senior enlisted leader; and the commanders and senior enlisted leaders of Joint Special Operations Command, Army Special Operations Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, Marine Forces Special Operations Command, and Naval Special Warfare Command.

“The bottom line is that we have disproportionately focused on (special operations forces) employment and mission accomplishment at the expense of the training and development of our force,” the letter said. “In some cases, this imbalance has set conditions for unacceptable conduct to occur due to a lack of leadership, discipline and accountability.”

The letter said the review was started after the discipline issues within the force jeopardized the trust of the country. The goal was to improve special operations forces, it said.

“We have an incredible force, and the vast majority of you demonstrate that every day, but great organizations regularly review themselves, identify deficiencies, and correct them,” the letter said.

The 69-page review report included 21 pages of findings and recommended actions and 11 appendices.

A review team, which had 18 members, was led by Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Frank Donovan, the assistant commander of Joint Special Operations Command. It did not find that Special Operations Command has a systemic ethics problem.

“The review team uncovered not only potential cracks in the (special operations forces) foundations at the individual and team level, but also through the chain of command, specifically in the core tenets of leadership, discipline and accountability,” the report said.

The demand for special operations forces has led to challenges, according to the report.

“The continuous global demand for (special operations forces) capabilities, combined with a (special operations forces) culture focused on force employment and mission accomplishment, has led to sustained high operational tempo which challenges unit integrity and leader development, and erodes readiness,” it said.

The team initially focused on smaller Special Operations units, such as the Army Special Forces Operation Detachment Alpha and the Navy SEAL platoon.

“However, each of those individuals and units have commanders and senior enlisted leaders responsible to teach, train, mentor and hold them accountable,” the report said. “This did not appear to be happening as regularly as it should — or at least with a level of professionalism required to maintain good order, discipline and accountability, specifically during the (Force Generation) process.”

Special Operations troops are encouraged to emulate others with tactical deployment experience, according to the report.

“Deployments forward, specifically to locations where combat is a possibility, are valued above all other things, and perceived as the ultimate expression of competence,” it said. “In return, those who did deploy forward, specifically in some degree of combat, are held as almost an infallible standard bearer for the rest of the organization to emulate — seemingly regardless if it is a positive or negative standard.”


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