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SunLit Excerpt: In “Alpha,” moments of calm before the Navy SEALs’ world changes

New York Times reporter David Philipps chronicles the case that rattled the culture of America's elite fighting unit

Editor’s note: This excerpt contains some profanity.

The ring of vibrating brass Tibetan bowls filled the silent room. It flowed across sailors and Marines stretched out on their backs with their eyes closed. The ancient, wordless chorus of the bells played from a recording in the corner of the room, lapping at the present and washing away tension and nagging thoughts like waves on the shore of a clear, cold lake.

It was September 11, 2018. Special Operations Chief Edward R. Gallagher pulled in a breath as the bells rippled across the silence and his mind floated. The Navy SEAL let his breath go gently and drew in another. Three weeks into an intensive program at a military traumatic brain injury clinic near San Diego, he was finally easing into the rhythm.

The clinic was called the Intrepid Spirit Center, and it was made for guys just like Eddie. It had opened less than a year before to help all the troops who had spent the better part of their adult lives getting battered and blasted by repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a haven where, finally, they could heal.

Eddie had joined the Navy at age nineteen in 1999, two years before the World Trade Center came down, and had been fighting the war on terror ever since under various official names: Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve. He’d gone up against Taliban warlords, Baathist insurgents, Shia militia, mujahideen, and crazed ISIS fanatics. For seventeen years Eddie had been in a constant cycle of training and combat. All told he had spent almost four years deployed overseas. Seven deployments, first as a medic in a Marine infantry platoon, then as a Navy SEAL shooter, then finally as a platoon chief. Different jobs, different countries, different years, different wars, same fight.

Eddie looked like a Navy SEAL poster boy. He had close-cropped blond hair, glacier-blue eyes, a strong, square jaw, the shoulders of a lion, and a lion’s killer instinct. He was fast, agile, strong, and a dead shot. But a closer look revealed a face deeply lined from years in the desert sun. After so many deployments, the mileage was starting to show. He was thirty-nine years old. In the military, where the average age is twenty-seven, he was closing in on obsolescence. His back hurt. His neck hurt. His shoulders hurt. He had ringing in his ears from too many gunfights. Sometimes he had trouble remembering things. Not that he regretted any of it. For all the talk about post traumatic stress disorder and the unfair burden the nation had put on its warfighters, Eddie never once saw combat as a hardship. He had chosen it. He was good at it. He thrived on it. Truth be told, it was cool as hell. He loved the heart-pounding exhilaration of gunfights. He loved the simple intensity of war. Sometimes he felt it was the only thing that made sense. If there were bad guys out there looking to take on the United States and become martyrs, he was happy to punch their ticket.

In the SEAL Teams, guys repeatedly described Eddie using one word—a word that in most places is a term of caution but in the Teams is the highest praise: aggressive. He was aggressive in training. He was aggressive as a leader. He was aggressive in battle. Now he was trying to bring the same intensity to meditation and healing.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

A buffalo drum joined the timeless song of the Tibetan bowls. Eddie kept his eyes closed, oblivious to the patients around him, listening to the rhythmic thump, pulling in slow breaths as if pulling in a line from that deep, silent lake. A woman with wavy brown hair who was leading the therapy quietly urged the group to feel the presence of each joint and muscle fiber in every angle of their fingers, every curve of their spine and every crease in their brow, then let the tension drain away. Feel the weight of the body, the strain. Then relax, reflect, release.

But his wife, Andrea, had kept on him until he agreed to give therapy a try. He was having problems he could no longer avoid. He needed to learn to deal with them.

“Alpha” by David Philipps

Eddie pulled in a breath. The Intrepid Spirit program included a lot of granola bullshit, to be sure. Not exactly his style. He was an old-school guy. He didn’t talk much about his feelings. He didn’t complain. He pushed through whatever was coming and moved on. But his wife, Andrea, had kept on him until he agreed to give therapy a try. He was having problems he could no longer avoid. He needed to learn to face them and deal with them. She hoped the program would do him some good.

Andrea. He had known her since high school. The lock screen on his phone was her sky-blue eyes and blond hair, her perfect smile. He considered her his best friend. He didn’t know where he would be without her. Divorces were common in the SEAL Teams, but they had held it together through multiple stints overseas. They were raising three kids. To anyone who asked, he said she was his rock, the one who held him steady. Sure, they’d had their scrapes. What SEAL couple hadn’t? He was gone so often between training and deployments that maintaining a relationship took real work, especially since he couldn’t talk about a lot of what he did. A lot of military couples who lived such separate lives eventually became strangers, even if they stayed together. Andrea had never given up on him. They had tried to learn to communicate better, even if their worlds had to be separate. He felt that they were as strong as ever. So when she pushed him to do this whole Intrepid Spirit thing, even though he doubted that listening to a bunch of hippie music would do any good, he agreed to go. Granola or not, he told himself, if he was going to do it, he would do it like a SEAL: all in, full speed ahead, with all his focus and effort. And actually, after he opened his mind to it, a lot of it was kind of cool. After years of jumping out of planes, fast-roping from helicopters to the decks of bucking ships, and kicking in doors in failed countries where even a lot of the friendlies probably wanted you dead, the granola stuff was a pretty nice change.

There also had been plenty of time to work out, which was Eddie’s big thing. He was five-foot-eight and 165 pounds, all of it sculpted muscle. In twenty years he had barely missed a day of running and lifting weights.

Stopping to take a breath and reassess had new resonance for Eddie because he was planning to retire from the SEALs in a few months. That meant for the first time in years of constant training and deploying, he had a few moments to reflect. By nearly any measure he’d had a hell of a career. After spending a lot of his teenage years in trouble, he had decided to set himself straight. One morning in 1999, without telling his family, he had walked into a Navy recruiting station in a strip mall in Fort Wayne, Indiana, determined to enlist. On the wall there was a poster of a SEAL commando coming out of the water with night-vision goggles and a glistening assault rifle. Eddie told the recruiter that was what he wanted to do. The recruiter laughed and said the SEALs are not something you just sign up for. They had to pick you. First Eddie had to decide on a Navy career field, then he could apply and hope to get into the SEALs.

Right now the Navy needs corpsmen, the recruiter told him. “Sweet, I’ll do that,” Eddie told him. He had no clue what a corpsman was.

He went to basic, then to the Navy’s corpsman school, where sailors learn to be combat medics. He tried to get into the SEALs right away but a war was on and the Navy needed him as a medic. He deployed to Iraq right after the 2003 invasion. He came home and became the medic for a group of Marine snipers. He kept applying to the SEALs. He kept getting told no. But if Eddie had one trait he was known for—aside from aggression—it was that he never quit.

In 2004, after multiple rejections, he finally got the green light to try out for the SEALs. That in itself was another ordeal. The SEALs had a six-month course at their West Coast base in Coronado, California, called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or simply, BUD/S. It was designed to attract tough guys who thought they were unbreakable—and then break them. For months the trainees had almost nonstop physical punishment, running on miles of soft sand, swimming in frigid water, carrying heavy logs, sleep deprivation, and harassment devised to make students quit. No one got off easy.

The SEAL instructors that trained Eddie were pure muscle and menace. As the students ran through the surf each morning in twin lines, the instructors ran beside them, dealing out endless push-ups in the sand or freezing-cold sessions of sit-ups in the pounding Pacific surf, striking down hubris like ancient gods. If it looked like a guy wasn’t suffering, the instructors would make sure to fix that. They wanted to strip students down to nothing to reveal if they had the will to keep going. When things were darkest, when the students’ muscles felt like rags, when their feet were too swollen for their boots, when the rasp of the ocean cold rattled in their chests, the instructors encouraged the students to quit. Go ahead, get a hot meal, get some sleep, stop the pain. We understand. Go home. You don’t belong. We don’t want you here.

There was a brass ship’s bell in the northeast corner of the BUD/S training compound. Any student who wanted to quit only had to ring the bell three times. By the time six months was up, seventy-five percent of the students had rung the bell. Eddie was not one of them. After five years of trying to get even a chance at tryouts, he was so energized that the beatdowns and sleep deprivation felt like a reward. They were recognition that he had made it. All he had to do was take the pain. He graduated in 2005 with Class 252. He later called it “the best time I never want to have again.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

After becoming a SEAL, Eddie was stationed in Coronado and steadily climbed the ranks of the Teams. He was smaller than most SEALs but tried to make up for it with grit. There was no assignment he would not take. Already a solid combat medic, he focused on building out other skills. He became an expert marksman and sharpshooter with a pistol. He learned to work with explosives and also became a free-fall jumpmaster and an ace with a rocket launcher. He was determined to become the badass he had seen years before on the recruiting poster.

In the down times, Eddie was laid-back. He liked to laugh. He was easy to get along with and usually got the job done. Before long he had a reputation in Coronado as a good dude, a solid Team guy, a real frogman.

Eddie also showed he was a fearless fighter. Along with the seven medals he had for good conduct and achievement, he had two Bronze Stars for heroism with a “V” pinned to the ribbon of each that denoted valor under fire. He’d gotten the first as a journeyman shooter in Afghanistan in 2009, when his squad was searching stalls in a bazaar and came under fire. The write-up described how Eddie rushed through the kill zone, set up an assault on a rooftop, and launched two shoulder-fired rockets, obliterating the enemy position.

The music shifted again. The Tibetan bells faded and the notes of a Native American flute rose in the room like summer grass. They drifted and bowed. Somewhere behind them the therapist urged the class to focus on their own emotional self, to be aware of the feelings rooted deep inside.

It wasn’t a kind and supportive environment, but that was the idea. Neither was combat. If any shred of weakness made it into the Teams, it could cost lives.

“Alpha” by David Philipps

After two Afghanistan tours, Eddie came back, shaved off his big, bushy operator’s beard, and in 2010 became an instructor at BUD/S. Now he was one of the bronzed, ripped gods running students through the freezing surf, punishing hubris, and telling men to quit. It wasn’t a kind and supportive environment, but that was the idea. Neither was combat. If any shred of weakness made it into the Teams, it could cost lives. The instructors were quality control, the first line of defense.

After a stint as an instructor, Eddie tried to find a way overseas again. Being a Team guy in a platoon, operating in the field, kicking in doors—that was more his speed. He craved action. He wouldn’t shy away from any mission. He liked to think of himself as one of those operators the nation could call in to take care of any situation, the shadowy group of pipe hitters who got the job done no matter what. He left BUD/S, transferred to SEAL Team 7, and did a stint in Iraq in 2013, then another in 2015 in an undisclosed country in the Middle East, where his squad was part of a quick reaction force— ready to be dropped anywhere in the region at the first sign of trouble. After a decade in the SEALs, he had built a reputation as a seasoned badass. In the SEAL Teams, where there’s no shortage of overachievers revved up on testosterone, that was saying something.

Eddie was promoted to chief right as the SEALs were going from a somewhat obscure commando force to America’s military crush. The nation was years into the wars sparked by 9/11 and the American public had stopped trusting leaders who said victory was near. Hope for spreading democracy in foreign lands was in a nosedive; even a grim status quo seemed unlikely, but people still wanted fighters who could take out the bad guys. Enter the SEALs. They were the men who in the absence of broad strategic victory could still deliver wins—the guys who shot terrorists in the face and dropped from helicopters onto cargo ships to free hostages, the guys who killed Osama bin Laden. They were evidence that in the face of repeated military failures, America was still great. And the nation loved them for it.

Men joined the SEALs for all kinds of reasons. Some saw it as a service to the nation or the world. Some were seeking the ultimate physical challenge. Some had something to prove to someone, often themselves. None of those fully described Eddie. Growing up, he loved combat movies, especially the ones that focused on small groups of fighters on the ground: Arnold Schwarzenegger spraying a machine gun one-handed in Commando, Charlie Sheen dealing out head shots to terrorists in Navy SEALs, and Tom Berenger, slaked in green face paint, stalking through the jungles of Vietnam in one of Eddie’s favorite movies of all time, Platoon. From those screen-lit hours in movie theaters, he knew that was what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a fighter. When a doctor at the Intrepid Spirit Center later asked Eddie why he joined the military, he said simply, “To go to war.”

His last deployment had checked all the boxes. Eddie had been put in charge of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7. As chief, he had whipped that group of eighteen men into an elite team of operators. Top marks in almost every measure. And because Alpha was far and away the best, they had been picked for the toughest assignment. In early 2017, they were sent on a classified mission to clear ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul. That was real war with a real enemy. The chance of a lifetime. Thousands of hardened jihadi ISIS fighters entrenched in an ancient warren of narrow streets with no choice but a fight to the death.

The mascot of Alpha platoon was a she-devil in thigh-high red stockings with a forked tail and one leg kicked high in the air. Platoon members had her patch Velcroed to their body armor and a mural of her on the wall in their headquarters. They called her the Bad Karma Chick. She got her name from the idea that every good or bad deed piles up on the scales of universal harmony and eventually tumbles down on the present. To most people karma is an invisible, nameless, uncontrollable force. The SEALs saw it differently. They believed that karma was not just visible, it was their job. They were the embodiment of bad karma coming down on bad people. An evildoer could only keep piling negative mojo on the universe for so long before a group of SEALs kicked down his door. The origins of the Bad Karma Chick’s name were lost to the young SEALs Eddie led, but the concept had sunk deep into the culture: Alpha was there to make sure that bad things happened to bad people.

Mosul had been something to see—like the setting of the bleakest zombie movie, with a cinematic intensity that made it hard to look away. The coalition hit the city with thousands of air strikes, splintering bridges and smashing buildings to rubble. Iraqi ground forces clawed the city back, block by burned-out block. ISIS responded with truck bombs, booby traps, women in suicide vests, even poison gas. Eddie had been in the thick of it, fighting side by side on the ground with the Iraqi special forces. It was combat all day, every day, in an urban maze that seemed almost designed for killing.

In a few weeks at the height of the battle Eddie saw more action than he had in the first seventeen years of his career. The platoon launched scores of shoulder-fired rockets and missiles and called in more than a hundred air strikes. The chief fired his sniper rifle so much that it seized up and stopped working by the end of deployment. The official count of ISIS fighters killed by the platoon was somewhere around five hundred, but Eddie would often say the real number was probably higher.

It was exactly what Eddie had signed up for: Doing bad things to bad people. Karma. He loved it. When the fight was really revving up, Eddie refused to take a day off. He was either on the heavy machine gun or the sniper rifle day after day. He estimated his personal tally of kills just on the rifle was more than one hundred. He sometimes mentioned offhand that he might have the most kills in the history of the SEALs. Mosul was the type of fight SEALs would talk about for generations. It was Fallujah. It was the bin Laden raid. It was history. Eddie was proud to be a part of it.

After the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2017, the platoon returned to San Diego triumphant. The SEAL leadership gushed about how the guys from Alpha were rock stars. Eddie was rated the number one platoon chief in Team 7. The Navy was going to give him a Silver Star for heroism. His written evaluation from the brass was so polished it almost glowed. At the bottom of the write-up, the commander urged an immediate promotion, typing, “THIS IS A MAN I WANT LEADING SEALS IN COMBAT!”

So he figured he would get out of the Navy and get a job as an overseas security contractor—maybe do some of the same work he did in the Navy, but with better pay and less bureaucracy. He was proud of what he had accomplished. Even if the wars he had lived in were endless, he sure as hell had done his part.

“Alpha” by David Philipps

But rather than pursue a promotion, Eddie decided to retire. When asked why, he said he had seen what happened when enlisted guys like him climbed the ranks. They planned operations instead of doing them. They ended up spending all their time filling out paperwork. They stopped being operators and became managers. Eddie was gifted at war, but he knew he was no ace behind a desk. That had been clear since at least eighth grade. So he figured he would get out of the Navy and get a job as an overseas security contractor—maybe do some of the same work he did in the Navy, but with better pay and less bureaucracy. He was proud of what he had accomplished. Even if the wars he had lived in were endless, he sure as hell had done his part.

So that summer, he and Andrea bought a house near the beach in the Florida panhandle where the water was turquoise and the home prices were half what they were in San Diego. It had a big front porch with a swing and a garage that Eddie could use for his workout cave. Just a few weeks before starting the program at the Intrepid Spirit Center, he had moved the whole family down and gotten them settled. Then he flew back to California. Now with the medical evaluations and meditation classes, he was starting to finally get settled in himself.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The Native American flute swirling in the room was joined by recordings of human voices chanting. Eddie drew in breaths and let them escape. The teacher told the class to sense each part of their bodies, find the tension and pain, recognize the feeling, and then let it drift away. Eddie floated on the lake.

Abruptly the still surface was broken. A voice was speaking to Eddie—not the instructor’s voice. He opened his eyes and there was someone else from the Intrepid Spirit Center telling him he needed to come out into the hall for a moment. Eddie sat up and asked why. The man told him that some salty old master chief from the SEALs was out there asking for him—a guy named Brian Alazzawi.

Eddie pushed himself up to his feet. Good ol’ Alazzawi. They had deployed together to Mosul. Eddie considered Alazzawi a good dude and the antithesis of the paper-pushing manager type. He was big and bald with a bristly mustache and lots of tattoos. Despite his rank he somehow managed to get out with the boys in the field regularly.

They had spent days together in a sniper hide in Mosul, two old school Team guys hunting terrorist dirtbags. But why was Alazzawi at the Intrepid Spirit Center? The center was at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, an hour north of the SEAL headquarters at Naval Base Coronado.

Eddie grabbed his stuff and walked out of the room. He stopped when he saw Alazzawi. The master chief stood in the hall, flanked by two sailors in camouflage. Their uniforms showed that they were not SEALs but military police.The SEALs didn’t often mix with the rest of the Navy and certainly were not in the habit of hanging around with cops. Not a good sign.

“Hey, I need to talk to you real quick,” Alazzawi said. He ushered Eddie into a small office just off the hall. One of the police officers closed the door after Eddie stepped in. Small room, two cops: Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t good.

Eddie had other reasons he was trying to get out of the SEALs, things he didn’t often mention. There were rumblings about things that had happened in Mosul. There was a formal investigation. It was all bullshit, Eddie assured his wife and friends, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t real trouble. Eddie had spent months watching the investigation smolder until it abruptly flared up. Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents had raided his house. They had seized his computers and phones and some of his equipment from Iraq. Then they had done nothing for months. Things quieted down, leaving Eddie wondering if the investigation had died or if, at some point, after he had spent the majority of his life doing Uncle Sam’s dirty work, his own government was going to come after him.

Now here it was. He watched the master chief pull out a piece of paper.

“We’re taking you to the brig,” he told Eddie.

Eddie took the paper in his hands and read. It was a signed order calling for his immediate confinement. Eddie had been planning on a week filled with art therapy, meditation, yoga, and a few more sessions with doctors to scan for brain injuries. Instead he was going to jail.“Can you explain this to me?” Eddie said, looking at his friend.

Eddie saw it as the ultimate betrayal. He had risked his life multiple times for his nation, executed its missions, killed its enemies, done the covert work politicians would probably deny even existed. And now he was going to take the rap.

“Alpha” by David Philipps

Alazzawi looked at Eddie, then looked down at the floor. He said he wasn’t sure what was going on, he was just following orders, but both men knew what was happening. Eddie saw it as the ultimate betrayal. He had risked his life multiple times for his nation, executed its missions, killed its enemies, done the covert work politicians would probably deny even existed. And now he was going to take the rap.

The two military police officers took Eddie’s phone and dropped it in a Ziploc bag. They handcuffed him and led him down the hallway past the meditation room and out into the sunny parking lot, where they put him into a van.

It was the start of a nearly two-year court-martial that hit the Navy SEALs like a missile. Within hours news rippled through the SEAL Teams of the arrest of the great Eddie Gallagher, the platoon chief who had just returned from kicking ISIS ass in Mosul. But as it did, a different story emerged from his platoon. In that story, told by a number of the men who served under Eddie, the enemy had not been ISIS but rather their chief. According to those men, the official accounts of triumph hid a darker reality: that Eddie Gallagher had come unglued, that he had lied to get medals, put men in danger to build up his own glory, shot at women and children and crowds of civilians, and murdered a prisoner in cold blood.

Eddie denied it. And there were few who had reason to doubt him. He was a true warrior and experienced fighter in an organization that prized both, a rising star in the SEALs destined for great things. Also, he was a good dude and friend to many. For them, it was easier to believe the explanation Eddie gave, that the whole thing was a lie. The accusations, he said, all came from misguided, inexperienced new guys in Alpha who in the face of combat had refused to go out on ops and instead had concocted stories to try to cover their own cowardice. Eddie had tried to set them straight in Mosul, and he hadn’t done it nicely. He had called them out as the cowards they were. In the Teams, where courage and reputation are everything, the young SEALs knew that if they didn’t take the chief down, word would get out and take them down. So they hatched a plan. It’s fucked up, Eddie would tell people, I’m being framed.The battle that emerged over what really happened in Mosul would play out both in public and in private over the next two years. And the collateral damage was so great that it swept through the SEAL Teams and the Pentagon to the White House and ultimately cost the secretary of the Navy his job. It also revealed a darker side of the SEALs, one that had been scuttling beneath the shining white image and heroic Kevlar exterior, down where many SEALs valued loyalty over truth and image over honor, and saw bloodshed as the true yardstick of worth. The battle over Eddie Gallagher became a battle over what the SEAL Teams stood for, and what they would become. The consequences would reverberate for years.

Eddie didn’t realize any of what was coming as he was led out of the Intrepid Spirit Center in cuffs. He just knew he was in trouble. He wanted to call his wife. He wanted to call his lawyer. He wanted to call his buddies in the SEALs. He wanted to figure out what the fuck was going on. He kept asking, but Alazzawi and the two cops weren’t giving him any answers.

A short van ride brought Eddie to Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, the largest military prison on the West Coast. He was put in shackles and led through the bureaucratic prison in-processing: name, rank, address, emergency contact.

“Know why you’re here?” one of the guards filling out paperwork asked.

“No idea,” Eddie said.

“Well, you need to give us a reason,” the guard said. “I don’t know,” Eddie sighed. “Killing ISIS?” 


David Philipps is a Colorado native living in Colorado Springs.  His first job was with the Colorado Springs Gazette, where he worked as a paperboy in his youth and in 2014 won the Pulitzer Prize for his report exposing how soldiers at Fort Carson who showed post-deployment symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury often were punished and thrown out of the military without benefits. He’s currently a national correspondent for the New York Times covering the military and veterans.



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