Navy SEAL Platoon Removed from Iraq over Reports of Sexual Assault, Alcohol Use

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Greek special forces and U.S. Navy SEALs attack an objective under the cover of night during Sarisa 16, an annual Greek exercise, near Thessaloniki, Greece, on Sept. 20, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl)
Greek special forces and U.S. Navy SEALs attack an objective under the cover of night during Sarisa 16, an annual Greek exercise, near Thessaloniki, Greece, on Sept. 20, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl)

A special operations commander's decision to remove a Navy SEAL platoon from Iraq centered around allegations that a senior enlisted member of the team raped a female comrade, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The Navy is investigating a report that a member of SEAL Team 7's Foxtrot Platoon sexually assaulted a female service member attached to the platoon, according to the Times. Some members of the platoon also allegedly drank during a Fourth of July celebration, a defense official confirmed, which is prohibited in Iraq.

A spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. But when commanders began investigating the reports of wrongdoing, the entire platoon "invoked their right to remain silent," according to The New York Times, which cited an unnamed senior Navy official with knowledge of the matter.

Maj. Gen. Eric Hill, an Air Force general overseeing all special operations missions in the fight against the Islamic State, booted the team from the war zone "due to a perceived deterioration of good order and discipline within the team during non-operational periods," SOCOM officials said in a statement Wednesday. The SEALs are based in San Diego.

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The sexual assault claim raises more questions about serious discipline breakdowns in the SEAL community, which was already embroiled in ongoing legal battles and investigations into cocaine use in the ranks. Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Navy Special Warfare (NSW), said discipline is critical not only to SEALs' success on the battlefield, but to preserve the trust and confidence of the American people.

"We're actively reinforcing, with the entire Force, basic leadership, readiness, responsibility and ethical principles that must form the foundation of special operations," Lawrence said. "Leaders at all levels must lead in a way that sustains and sharpens that foundation."

Rear Adm. Collin Green, who leads all Navy SEALs, launched a 90-day review earlier this year to assess ethics and discipline problems within the command after several members were kicked out over drug use and others were accused of hazing and war crimes.

That assessment, Lawrence said, was submitted to SOCOM as part of a bigger look into behavior across all spec ops forces. Details about its findings and recommendations have not been made public.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Smith, SOCOM's senior enlisted leader, this week hit back against the idea that there's a culture of lawlessness within the spec ops forces.

"We have challenges, we have fraying," he told reporters at the Pentagon, "but are those things systematic? No."

Foxtrot Platoon was the only group of SEALs operating in Iraq at the time of their removal, the Times reported, and they were not immediately replaced.

Commanders have the authority to pull troops from a mission if they don't feel they can accomplish it during the course of an ongoing investigation, Lawrence said.

"In this case, the commander lost confidence in the platoon's ability to accomplish the mission due to a perceived deterioration of good order and discipline within the team," she said. "To mitigate potential impacts of this redeployment, other NSW personnel are available to complete the assigned operational requirements."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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