The Missouri legislature is scheduled to begin a special session, on Friday, to discuss whether to impeach Eric Greitens, the state’s embattled governor. A former Navy SEAL who was once a rising star in the Republican Party, Greitens is now fighting allegations of sexual coercion, blackmail, invasion of privacy, and misuse of charity resources to fund his campaign. The charges stunned many in Missouri, but in the tight-knit SEAL community, Greitens has been a divisive figure for years. In 2016, before Greitens was elected, a group of mostly anonymous current and former SEALs tried to sound the alarm about why they thought he was unfit for office. “What we were afraid of is that, eighteen months from now, you’ve got candidate Greitens, former Navy SEAL, running for President,” Paul Holzer, a former SEAL who worked on the campaign for one of Greitens’s gubernatorial-primary opponents, John Brunner, told me. But Greitens, who used his military background to create a public image of honor, courage, and leadership, was largely able to deflect their criticism.
After the killing of Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team Six in a 2011 raid, Navy SEALs became full-blown celebrities, and Greitens rode that fame to speaking tours, a spot on Time magazine’s 2013 “100 Most Influential People” list, and, eventually, the governor’s mansion. The success of the raid also intensified a growing division in the SEAL community.
SEALs have traditionally embraced a culture of quiet professionalism. Part of the SEAL credo reads “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.” In the last two weeks, I spoke to more than half a dozen current and former SEALs about the spectacular implosion of Greitens’s public image. Most chose not go on the record, but all expressed frustration that a peripheral and contentious figure in their community, one who served overseas but never served with SEALs in combat, became a public face of the SEAL community. Many complained to me that it tends to be those who are least representative of SEAL core values, such as Greitens, who end up trading on the group’s reputation and representing them in public, earning respect from American citizens but contempt from other SEALs.
In 2015, Lieutenant Forrest S. Crowell, a Navy SEAL, wrote a thesis for Naval Postgraduate School titled “SEALs Gone Wild.” In it, he argued that the SEALs’ celebrity status had corrupted their culture “away from the traditional SEAL Ethos of quiet professionalism to a Market Ethos of commercialization and self-promotion.” Crowell warned that the new approach incentivized “narcissistic and profit-oriented behavior” and undermined healthy civil-military relations by using “the credibility of special operations to push partisan politics.”
Greitens, who has been in office for a year and a half, is accused of coercing his former hairdresser into a sexual encounter in 2015 and threatening her to keep her quiet. According to her testimony, he led her into his basement, bound her hands, blindfolded her, ripped off her clothes, took her photograph, and coerced her into performing oral sex. He told her that if she made details of the encounter public, he would release the photograph. Greitens also faces felony charges for tampering with a computer to gain access to a donor list associated with the charity organization he founded in 2007. The allegations, which Greitens has denied, will be considered in the Missouri General Assembly special session. The revelations have provoked bipartisan condemnation, with several Missouri Republican state lawmakers sending a letter to Donald Trump, asking him to demand that Greitens step down. The President has not responded.
Greitens’s controversial reputation among the SEALs began, oddly, when he performed what could arguably be considered an act of integrity. In 2004, he was a junior officer in the Navy SEALs, taking part in a large military exercise in Thailand. While there, he suspected that the ranking SEAL officer in his squadron, a highly respected combat veteran named Scott Hobbs, might have been abusing and distributing drugs.
Greitens was new to the command and had yet to prove himself. “Culturally, you’re not viewed as SEAL until you’ve deployed in a SEAL platoon,” one former operator told me. In Thailand, Greitens served in a unit that supported one of the deployed platoons, the “team guys,” who were considered the force’s rock stars. The exercise was a chance for Greitens to get command time and learn how the SEALs worked before getting assigned to a platoon and heading to Iraq or Afghanistan. For a few of the SEALs in Thailand, though, the exercise was a chance to unwind between combat tours with binge drinking, drugs, and prostitutes.
The easiest course of action for Greitens would have been to look the other way, or report the problem to the senior enlisted officer in the unit, who likely would have addressed the issue in-house. But Greitens worried that some of his sailors were taking part in the drug use and reached up to senior leadership outside Thailand. Drug tests were ordered. “We have a rat,” Hobbs told his men. Hobbs tested positive, along with four other SEALs, and three special-boats crewmen. Courts-martial were scheduled, and two SEAL platoons that had been preparing to deploy in Iraq or Afghanistan were sent home. SEAL platoons in Baghdad that had been expecting to be relieved had their tours extended. Other stateside platoons were deployed early and kept overseas for eight or more months. They were told that one individual was responsible for their extension—Eric Greitens.
Senior leadership approved of Greitens’s decision to report the drug use, but others in the community believed he should have handled the issue within his local chain of command. (Greitens would later claim that the incident was an example of SEAL values winning out.) Greitens’s time in Thailand would be his last significant deployment as a SEAL. When he came home, he was offered an assistant-platoon-commander billet, but he declined, a SEAL working in his unit at the time told me. It wasn’t a command position in the SEALs, and Greitens had other opportunities lined up, including a prestigious White House Fellowship. He would instead deploy with a unit training and assisting Kenyan forces in Manda Bay, and then leave active duty.
“Greitens is extremely smart, and he had a time line,” one of his fellow-officers told me. “Everything he has done, he’s done thinking ten moves in advance.” Greitens later deployed to Iraq as a reservist, in 2006, and suffered chlorine inhalation and other injuries after a suicide truck-bombing, but he ended his time on active duty never having led SEALs in combat.
Greitens’s political rise coincided with a period when the Navy itself sanctioned, in a few well-known cases, the commercialization and politicization of special operations. In 2007, Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling memoir “Lone Survivor,” an account of a disastrous operation in Afghanistan, was published with the blessing of Naval Special Warfare Command, despite containing contentious factual claims regarding Saddam Hussein’s connection to Al Qaeda as well as overt political speech that criticized “liberals” and the “liberal media.” A year later, the N.S.W.C. endorsed the film “Act of Valor,” which starred active-duty Navy SEALs and grossed eighty-one million dollars. It was in this environment that Greitens wrote his own memoir, “The Heart and the Fist.”
Greitens’s book opens with the story of the chlorine-gas attack in Iraq. “It felt as if someone had shoved an open-flame lighter inside my mouth,” he wrote. He detailed his education as a Rhodes scholar and his humanitarian work. Mother Teresa makes an appearance. In the epilogue, Greitens described a trip to visit wounded service members, where he realized that many of them didn’t want charity so much as a chance to continue to serve their country. This inspired him to create his own highly regarded veterans’ organization, The Mission Continues, which offers fellowships to help veterans do service work back in their communities.
“The Heart and the Fist” is a unique, often compelling book that was also blessed with good timing. It came out three weeks before Barack Obama announced the death of Bin Laden and interest in the Navy SEALs exploded. Again, political and military officials encouraged the interest. The C.I.A. director at the time, Leon Panetta, revealed classified details regarding the raid at a ceremony attended by the screenwriter of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Vice-President Joe Biden commented publicly on the SEALs’ role in the operation. News organizations were eager to find veterans willing to offer themselves up as experts to explain the Navy SEALs to a captivated American audience. Greitens quickly obliged.
In the days and weeks after the raid, Greitens, who was still a Navy reservist, discussed SEAL Team Six with the Wall Street Journal, NPR, the Washington Post, and MSNBC. He appeared on “The Colbert Report” and joked coyly about how a SEAL like himself couldn’t say whether or not he participated in the raid. During one awkward exchange on Chris Matthews’s “Hardball,” Matthews asked Greitens whether the computer simulations of the raid that the program had put together looked authentic. Greitens, who had no more experience on SEAL raids than Matthews did, demurred before complimenting the quality, if not accuracy, of the graphics. By May 22nd, Greitens’s book had shot up to No. 9 on the Times’ best-seller list.
“The first sentence out of his mouth was always, ‘I’m a Navy SEAL,’ ” one former operator complained to me. He didn’t slight Greitens’s service, but it frustrated him that Greitens had crafted a public persona so heavily reliant on honor earned by other men. Some prominent veterans and senior members of the military praised Greitens. The former Joint Chiefs chairman, General Richard Myers, called him a “modern-day Renaissance man” with a vision that is “an inspiration to all.” Bob Muller, a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, called him “exactly the kind of citizen-warrior that America needs.”
Greitens avoided telling outright lies about his service or engaging in the kind of political commentary that other SEALs embraced—from the Fox News contributor Benjamin Smith calling Obama a Muslim, to Carl Higbie’s use of racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay remarks during his time as a right-wing radio host. Instead, Greitens delivered the sort of talks on leadership and service that made him a welcome speaker at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. He was interviewed by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” and made an appearance on “Charlie Rose.” Meanwhile, other members of the SEAL community grumbled about him, but mostly kept their criticism private. One former R.O.T.C. commander at a public university recalled reaching out to fellow former SEALs after a representative approached him about inviting Greitens to talk to the cadets. They didn’t respond with visceral disgust, the former R.O.T.C. commander recalled, but with light disdain, saying, “Nah, don’t bring him. He’s a cheeseball.”
The animus some SEALs felt toward Greitens flared in 2015, after he resigned from his position at The Mission Continues and announced his candidacy for governor in the Missouri Republican primary. The Greitens that the SEALs knew had been a lifelong Democrat. He had even attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention with former Missouri Governor Bob Holden. Now, he was running ads touting his conservative credentials and his SEAL background.
In one campaign ad, Greitens fires an assault rifle at a target that then explodes, and the words “Conservative. Navy SEAL” appear next to his face. His campaign also sought to raise money selling bumper stickers that read “ISIS Hunting Permit,” bragging that “Liberals will go crazy when they see these.” The way these gimmicks seemed to exaggerate Greitens’s background as a SEAL frustrated some members of the community.
“The guys who are the reason the SEALs are so respected are the guys on the front lines,” one former officer said. “Their families are suffering, sometimes they develop P.T.S.D., or traumatic brain injuries.” That Greitens launched his political career on the back of those types of sacrifices struck many SEALs as dishonest. “I was doing back-to-back deployments, sometimes only four months in between,” one told me, “and this guy never showed up.”
But many of Greitens’s critics were still hesitant to go public with their concerns. As operators who valued the SEAL tradition of quiet professionalism, they felt that it would defy the same ethos that they were accusing Greitens of violating. In February of 2016, a group of SEALs decided to anonymously release an attack video that laid out their criticisms of Greitens’s record. The video earned little attention in Missouri, in part because of its focus on details that most voters did not understand, like the distinction between those who serve with SEAL teams in combat versus those who don’t.
Greitens responded with a forceful video of his own, in which he accused the men behind the attack of being cowards. Incensed, Holzer and his fellow Navy SEAL Drago Dzieran appeared on Dana Loesch’s show to complain about Greitens’s use of SEAL iconography, and to demand that he “run on his own record, not on the record of SEALs.” In March of that same year, sixteen former and active SEAL team members involved with the video spoke out against Greitens in the Missouri Times, again anonymously. It wasn’t enough.
The SEALs who supported Greitens tended to be, like him, celebrities or public figures. Congressman Ryan Zinke, the current Secretary of the Interior and a former SEAL Team Six commander, called him “a highly decorated combat veteran with a proven record of leading from the front.” Rob O’Neill, the SEAL Team Six operator who claims to have shot Osama bin Laden, praised Greitens as a “combat leader,” spoke at his rallies, and offered signed versions of the ISIS bumper stickers in exchange for a hundred-dollar donation to the Greitens campaign.
Since the investigation into Greitens began, five months ago, the governor has resisted calls for his resignation and denounced the charges against him as a “witch hunt . . . exactly like what’s happening with the witch hunts in Washington, D.C.”
Zinke and O’Neill are now silent about their support for Greitens, but sixty-three per cent of Republicans in Missouri say that they still approve of the governor, suggesting that he may survive the scandals despite bipartisan calls for his resignation. “His SEAL training has taught him never to surrender, never to walk away from a fight,” reads a letter from Missouri state Senator Rob Schaaf. “He is trained to endure pain, and those watching can easily see that he is enduring a lot of it, and he seems unmoved by the pain his fellow Missourians are also enduring as a result.” Nate Walker, a Republican congressman in Missouri, was one of the first legislators to call for his resignation. “The political and personal perils surrounding Eric Greitens are disturbing, and as time passes they get more complicated and serious,” he told me. “His total credibility is now in question.”
On Monday, state prosecutors abruptly dropped the criminal invasion-of-privacy charges against Greitens that stemmed from the alleged photograph of his former hairdresser,but a special prosecutor may be named to pursue a different case. Greitens called the development a victory and vowed to fight efforts to impeach him during the special legislative session that will begin on Friday.
The likelihood that the SEAL community will return to its quiet past is small. Even before the Greitens scandal, the avalanche of SEAL memoirs had become a well-worn joke. “US Navy Adds Intense Creative Writing Course to SEAL Training,” reads the headline of an article from The Duffleblog, a satirical Web site. “The people of this nation should be suspicious of SEALs who speak too loudly about themselves,” Crowell wrote. Greitens has underscored the usefulness of this advice.
“It’s probably unrealistic to say that nobody is ever going to go out there and talk about anything,” Jason Redman, a retired Navy SEAL, told me. “And the other end of that spectrum is wrapping yourself in the trident, and going on Fox News, and talking about anything and everything for a buck.” Redman, who survived multiple gunshot wounds to the arms and face, thirty-seven surgeries, and more than a hundred and ninety hours under general anesthesia, does speak publicly about his background. However, he takes care to clear his public remarks and activities with SEAL headquarters, and avoids partisan commentary.
“I think they need to educate guys. If you’re going to talk, you need to make sure it doesn’t create a negative—or, worse case, operational—impact on the SEAL teams,” he told me. “And that’s going to take time as they change the culture.” As for Greitens, he said, “not only is it a black eye for us but a black eye for the military.”