SEAL Allegedly Texted Photo Cradling ISIS Fighter's Head

Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Gallagher (Image: LinkedIn)
Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Gallagher (Image: LinkedIn)

This article by Paul Szoldra originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO -- Navy SEAL Chief Edward "Eddie" Gallagher allegedly texted a photo of himself cradling a dead ISIS fighter's head in one hand while holding a knife in the other and boasted that he "got him with my hunting knife," government lawyers said Wednesday.

In an Article 32 hearing before Navy Judge Advocate Capt. Arthur Record, government lawyers introduced a large binder of eyewitness statements, interviews, photographs, and text messages to establish that Gallagher's case should be referred to court-martial. The preliminary hearing only requires probable cause of a crime for a hearing officer to determine whether to recommend a full trial.

Gallagher, a 19-year veteran of the Navy, has been charged with four counts of violating military law, the most serious of which is premeditated murder. On or about May 3, 2017, according to the charge sheet, Gallagher allegedly murdered a wounded ISIS fighter by stabbing him in the neck and body with a knife.

Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Joe Warbinski was the only witness called by the government team, led by Navy Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak.

Warbinski, who has been investigating the case since April, told the hearing officer he had taken sworn testimony from 9 members of Gallagher's unit, SEAL Team 7 Alpha Platoon. According to Warbinski, the platoon was operating in Mosul alongside the Iraqi Emergency Response Division when the alleged murder occurred.

The Iraqis called in an airstrike on a building and then subsequently captured a wounded ISIS fighter, who Warbinski approximated to be about 15 years old. After the fighter was taken prisoner -- and briefly interviewed by an Iraqi journalist -- he was turned over to the SEALs at their compound and medics began treating him, including Gallagher.

Gallagher briefly left as other SEALs began to help with medical treatment of the fighter, who was having trouble breathing and was apparently hit with shrapnel in the left leg. But one other SEAL medic, C.S. (witnesses were reduced to initials in the proceedings to shield them from potentially being placed on so-called "ISIS kill lists"), told NCIS he believed he had just stabilized the fighter before Gallagher "walked up without saying anything at all" and started stabbing him.

C.S. told investigators it left him in "complete disbelief."

Afterward, according to the charges, Gallagher posed next to the body and took pictures, in addition to carrying out his reenlistment ceremony.

In total, there were three eyewitnesses to the alleged murder. Others on the team or attached to it commented on other aspects to NCIS, according to Warbinski, who said that EOD Chief M.M. "couldn't believe what had happened" to the wounded man, adding, "this was just a brainwashed kid."

An Air Force combat controller with the SEALs found it "inappropriate" and "disrespectful" to take photos with the body and conduct a reenlistment. The photos, which were introduced under seal and not shown during the hearing, were discovered in a search of Gallagher's personal cell phone.

Still, Warbinski described three photos taken from Gallagher's phone during the hearing.

In one, the SEAL Chief held up the dead fighter's head, still attached to the body, with one hand while holding his knife in the other. The second showed a similar pose but zoomed out, with two other SEALs in the background. The third showed Gallagher holding the fighter's head by his hair, which Warbinski said was apparently right after the reenlistment ceremony.

During cross-examination, Gallagher's civilian defense attorney Philip Stackhouse seemed to imply that other SEALs had engaged in similar behavior and posed with bodies: "Did you ask whether every person took a picture with that ISIS fighter that day?" he asked (Warbinski said no). Stackhouse also asked why NCIS did not seize the entire SEAL platoon's phones for evidence.

"You took them at their word?" Stackhouse asked of Warbinski's questioning of witnesses, to which he for the most part agreed, adding that "it seemed like all their statements were consistent and true."

Charges against Gallagher also included two other incidents that took place at separate times, in which the SEAL Chief allegedly shot and wounded two civilians.

The first incident occurred on or about June 18, 2017, when Gallagher, posted in a sniper hide in a tower east of the Tigris river, allegedly shot and wounded an elderly Iraqi civilian walking along a road. The second incident, on or about July 2017, involved the alleged shooting of a young girl from the same location.

After both these instances, Warbinski said, other members of the platoon told investigators that Gallagher's rifle was slightly "off" due to poor sight settings and incorrect range cards -- but they decided not to tell him, remarkably, because "they felt that he was targeting civilians."

"Their priority was to protect civilians from Chief Gallagher, not ISIS," Warbinski said, adding that other SEAL snipers would sometimes fire warning shots to keep civilians off the streets.

The claim that Gallagher, a trained sniper, wouldn't know his weapon was not on target, was seized upon by Stackhouse, who asserted he was the "most experienced sniper in the platoon."

Gallagher began his Navy career as a corpsman attached to the Marines, and later became the first non-Marine to graduate from the Corps' Scout/Sniper school shortly after Sep. 11, according to a career biography provided by Stackhouse to Task & Purpose, which said he deployed for nine months to Iraq and Africa in 2003 as a corpsman and sniper.

The bio also noted that Gallagher, who became a SEAL in 2005, served as a lead sniper, lead platoon medic, and lead petty officer, among other leadership roles with the teams. He earned the Sailor of the Year distinction from the Navy in 2014, and had been awarded two Bronze Star awards for combat valor; the first for bravery in Afghanistan when he was with SEAL Team 1, the other for actions during his last deployment with SEAL Team 7 to Iraq.

Despite his impressive resume, witnesses claimed Gallagher was a poor sniper, medic, and tactician, Stackhouse said. "You see the inconsistency, correct?"

Warbinski, however, said there was none. "Every single sniper we talked to spoke to his issues as a sniper."

Government lawyers largely focused on text messages sent by Gallagher to friends in which he seemed to boast about the killing, or later, tried to enlist help in keeping it under wraps.

For example, government lawyers introduced text messages from Gallagher to Chief Warrant Officer 2 B.G., in which he said, "I got him with my hunting knife" with the photo of him with the dead ISIS fighter. B.G. replied, "be careful with pictures." And another text message from Gallagher to a person named "Sneed," according to Warbinski, referenced "getting his knife skills on."

Meanwhile, the charge sheet also alleges Gallagher obstructed justice by attempting to discourage members of the platoon from reporting his actions to leadership during and after deployment. SEAL Petty Officer C.M., for instance, claimed to investigators that Gallagher told them, "I have shit on all of you. If you bring this up you all go down."

Other text messages exchanged between Gallagher and former SEAL Andrew Arrabito seemed to indicate an attempt to name and shame witnesses in public. Soon after the search warrant was executed on Gallagher's residence -- which contained the initials of the witnesses -- Gallagher texted Arrabito to say he knew who the witnesses were and wanted their names put out on social media, to include getting the word out to a private Facebook group for current and former SEALs that they were informing on "multiple SEALs," government lawyers said.

Arrabito did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Task & Purpose.

Stackhouse, for his part, attempted to pick apart some government evidence and offer a different theory: Gallagher, who one witness described as a "hardass," had called some members of the platoon "pussies" and "cowards" for not being aggressive enough on the battlefield, and the murder and assault allegations were payback and an attempt to get him out of special operations.

The death of the fighter, according to Stackhouse, likely came from his already present injuries from the air strike and the SEAL medics' insertion of a "cric" (pronounced crike), or cricothyrotomy, into the fighter's neck, which was meant to help open an airway.

"He didn't stab the dude in the neck," Stackhouse told Task & Purpose during a recess. And when asked whether there was more evidence of the wounding of the two Iraqi civilians, such as media reports, he said, "there's nothing."

"That's not who Eddie is," Senior Chief Robert Ekoniac (Ret.), a friend of Gallagher's who came to the hearing with about 10 to 15 other supporters, told Task & Purpose.

The Article 32 hearing continues on Thursday.

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