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Is former MMA fighter’s manslaughter conviction a sign that attempts to reform Navy SEAL culture failed?

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Anthony DeDolph, of SEAL Team 6, was sentenced to 10 years for killing Green Beret Logan Melgar in a hazing incident in Mali.

Members Of A U S Navy Seal Team Fast Rope Onto A Navy Submarine During Joint Training Wi
A U.S. Navy Seal training demonstration near Hawaii in 2002.
Photo By U.S. Navy/Getty Images

In the earlier hours of June 4, 2017 U.S. Army Special Forces Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar was woken up in his room, in the U.S. Embassy housing complex in Bamako, Mali. by the sound of sledgehammers being used to break through his door.

Through the door burst SEAL Team Six members Petty Officer Anthony E. DeDolph and Chief Petty Officer Adam C. Matthews, accompanied by to US Marine Corp Raiders, Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell Jr., a Malian guard and a unidentified British man.

DeDolph, a former pro MMA fighter, seized Melgar and put him in a rear naked choke. Melgar’s hands were bound with duct tape and, after he fell unconscious, he was posed on the ground with the Malian guard (in a manner that suggested some sort of sexual activity) while the British man recorded the whole thing.

At some point during this incident someone noticed that Melgar was not breathing. An impromptu tracheotomy was attempted, but it was too late Melgar was dead.

What followed was an attempt by those involved to cover-up and mislead investigators about what happened that night in Mali. One story is that Melgar was drunk and needed to be subdued, another is that DeDolph accidentally killed Melgar while teaching him a submission hold.

Eventually those responsible were charged and sentenced with various crimes. DeDolph received the stiffest penalties, after Melgar’s cause of death was determined to be a crushed throat.

On January 23 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison due to a plea deal that him confess to involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy to commit assault, hazing, and obstruction of justice. He was also given a dishonourable discharge from the military. DeDolph had been initially charged felony murder.

It is believed that DeDolph and his group attacked Melgar because Melgar had grown ‘fed up’ of the SEALs and Marines frat-like behaviour (per Army Times). It is also believed that Melgar suspected DeDolph of stealing money from a fund used to pay informants.

According to a new essay published in The Jurist DeDolph plea deal and relatively light sentence are the result of a culture war within the SEAL community. The opposing factors were commanders wanting to reform the SEAL’s violent reputation and those wanting business as usual. The reformers lost. And former US President Donald Trump played a key role in making sure that happened.

The tension within the SEAL community regarding ethos largely revolves around DeDolph and Mattherws’ SEAL Team Six, the unit famed for its raid on Abbottabad in 2011 and the assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

SEAL Team Six was founded in 1980 by Richard Marcinko, who was regarded as a rebel within the SEAL and Special Forces community. It is thought that Marcinko set-up his new unit in his own image. His team members soon earned a reputation, within the community, for abusing narcotics, wrecking equipment and racking up drunk driving arrests.

In the decades since then SEAL Team Six has been accused of a litany of battlefield crimes and atrocities. Many of them are documented in Matthew Cole’s in-depth piece for the Intercept titled The Crimes of SEAL Team 6. Among those crimes is a 2002 wedding party massacre in Afghanistan and the practise of ‘canoeing’, a form of mutilation involving close range gunshots to the head.

In 2019 Rear Admiral Collin P. Green was given command of Naval Special Warfare Command, which is responsible for the SEALs. When he took on this role Green pledged to reform the units under him with a focus on individual/team responsibility to curb the actions that had earned SEAL Team Six such a bloody reputation.

However, Green would last less than a year in this position after a very public disagreement with President Trump.

The disagreement was over Eddie Gallagher.

In 2018 Gallagher, a member of SEAL Team Seven, was charged with stabbing 17-year-old Khaled Jamal Abdullah to death. Abdullah was captured while fighting for the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq. Gallagher is accused of saying on radio ‘he’s mine’, referring to Abdullah, before approaching the downed fighter. Gallagher is then accused of stabbing Abdullah to death, who was receiving medical attention at the time.

Gallagher then posed with Abdullah’s body and sent the picture to his friends. In one text message he told a friend, “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.”

Gallagher was also accused of indiscriminate killing while on sniper duty (per New York Times).

In 2019 Gallgher was convicted of posing for the photo, but was acquitted of the more serious charges after the medic, Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, confessed to killing the Abdullah by covering his breathing tube before Gallagher could reach him. Scott’s ‘mercy killing’ claim, which came as a surprise during Gallagher’s trial, was given after Scott was offered immunity for his testimony.

When trying Gallagher Navy prosecutor Chris Czaplak told a court, “Chief Gallagher decided to act like the monster the terrorists accuse us of being. He handed ISIS propaganda manna from heaven. His actions are everything ISIS says we are.”

Gallagher was sentenced to time served (four months) for the lesser crimes he was convicted of. He was also demoted, but avoided being dishonourably discharged.

President Trump inserted himself into the Gallagher case by tweeting his opinion that Gallagher should be celebrated instead of prosecuted. When his court martial did not result in a discharge form the military Trump congratulated Gallagher. Trump then announced that he had directed the Secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, to revoke Navy Achievement Medals given to members of the prosecution team that oversaw Gallagher’s case.

After the trial Rear Admiral Green ordered a review of Gallagher’s case. The review was set up to determine whether Gallagher should be stripped of his Trident Pin, thus removing him from the SEALs. During this time Green had noted that SEALs with any criminal convictions almost always lose their pin.

In response to this President Trump 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!”

Trump did have the power to terminate Green’s review into Gallagher. However, ABC news reported that a private deal was made between Navy Secretary Spencer and the White House. Spencer promised that Gallagher would not lose his Trident Pin if Trump did not interfere with the process.

After this was revealed, Spencer was fired by Defense Secretary Mark Esper for going outside the chain of command. Esper publicly stated that Trump had ordered him to allow Gallagher to keep his Trident Pin. Gallagher retired from the military in November 2019 with his pin.

Green left his position with the Naval Special Warfare Command shortly after and became Chief of Staff for USSOCOM.

Green was replaced by Rear Admiral H. Wyman Howard III, someone who does not seem to share Green’s desire to reform the SEALs behaviour. According to The Intercept Howard once purchased hatchets for SEAL Team Six members and instructed them to bloody those weapons on the battlefield.

Had Green stayed in his position, and fulfilled his promise to reform SEAL behaviour, DeDolph may not have received a plea deal for the brutal killing of Melgar that ensures he will be released before his 50th birthday.