Eric Greitens’ bid for governor of Missouri hinges on his experience as a Navy SEALs member, which he has chronicled in three books and promotes on his campaign website, where he is pictured wearing a combat uniform, holding a rifle. “In the SEALs we learned, ‘there is no prize for second place in a gunfight,’” he said recently on Twitter.
Now Greitens, seeking the Republican nomination, finds himself in a battle with some former comrades, who charged in a slickly produced YouTube video that he exaggerated his record and was unduly benefiting from his time in the SEALs. The dispute lays bare a widening rift among Navy SEALs, provoked by what leaders and many in the ranks describe as rampant commercial and personal exploitation of a brotherhood that once prized discretion.
In recent months, the Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, California, which oversees the elite force, has told its men to lower their profile and tried to rein in public appearances by active-duty members. The Pentagon imposed a rule in September restricting the appearance of service members in video games, movies and television shows. Current and former members have widely circulated a pointed critique — titled “Navy SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame, and the Loss of the Quiet Professional” — that laments the commercialization and warns that it is doing harm.
“The raising of Navy SEALs to celebrity status through media exploitation and publicity stunts has corrupted the culture of the SEAL community by incentivizing narcissistic and profit-oriented behavior,” Lt. Forrest S. Crowell, a SEAL, wrote in the critique, his master’s thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Partisan politicking and public disclosure of tactics, he added, “erodes military effectiveness, damages national security, and undermines healthy civil-military relations.”
But the pushback has had little sway over former members who are increasingly giving paid speeches, sounding off on politics on Fox News and stamping the force’s name on hats, backpacks, vitamins and even a campaign bus. A television show by the Weinstein Co., working with a former SEAL consultant, is set to air on the History channel later this year, and a half-dozen books are scheduled to roll off the presses in coming months, adding to the 100-plus published by former SEALs since 2001.
“It’s on a pendulum swing, and that pendulum went past where anybody felt it was necessary, and it went past where people probably would want it to be,” said Greg Geisen, a retired Navy commander and former SEALs spokesman.
Ever since SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden, the SEALs — who make up less than 5 percent of the nation’s active-duty Special Operations forces — have been catapulted into the spotlight, becoming the closest thing the nation has to living action figures, featured in numerous video games and movies. Far more SEALs have gone public than their more reticent Army counterparts in Delta Force and the Rangers. (The Onion even joked that the Navy formed an elite SEAL book-writing unit to churn out accounts of secret missions.)
Former SEALs have offered accounts of derring-do, being transgender, SEAL-style yoga, dog-training techniques and even SEAL humor. One author, Matt Bissonnette, earned millions for “No Easy Day,” a firsthand narrative of the bin Laden raid, but had to forfeit the profits for failing to submit it for Pentagon review of classified information.
Some SEALs, contending that they have every right to benefit from their experiences in the military, say the publicity has done no harm and divulged few if any classified tactics or techniques. Kevin Lacz, a former SEAL whose book “The Last Punisher” is due this summer, said in an interview that readers are captivated by “the mystique and aura of the teams,” and want to hear “stories about SEALs written by SEALs.”
Brandon Webb, who founded a veteran-run news website, SOFREP, that focuses on the Special Operations community and is an author of several SEAL-themed books, was cited in the thesis as someone who has exploited the SEAL brand.
“Ever since wars have been fought guys have been writing their stories,” Webb said. “It’s important for Americans to know what the guys fighting the wars have been experiencing, not just from the perspective of a talking-head politician or a four-star general.”
The elevation of SEALs in the public eye has plenty of precedent; there have been countless books and movies about heroics or sacrifice by organizations like the Marines and the Green Berets in other eras. The U.S. military has often assisted Hollywood, figuring that inspiring narratives helped win recruits and support.
The Naval Special Warfare Command helped create the clamor for tales of SEAL daring. After 19 SEALs and helicopter crewmen were killed during a 2005 mission in Afghanistan, Marcus Luttrell, who lived through it, was given time off to work with a writer on what became the best-seller “Lone Survivor.” It was published in 2007 and released as a feature film in 2013.
“They decided I should write a book about the mission,” Luttrell wrote in his second book, “Service.” It felt “strange,” he wrote, adding that “as SEALs, we’d been taught to hold our stories close, to say nothing to outsiders, especially the press.”
“But we also knew how to get something done when the chain of command spoke,” he wrote.
In 2005, the Defense Department told the SEAL command to increase the number of enlisted SEALs by 500 within five years, according to an internal memo. The average increase in the force over the previous decade was just five annually. The United States was fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and SEALs were getting killed, wounded or just burned out and leaving the service.
The command decided that a movie aimed at high school athletes would be the best way to draw more recruits. The film project, though, took years. “Act of Valor” was released in 2012, grossing $81 million at theaters around the world.
The film sent “a confusing message” to SEALs, who questioned why the command “could take advantage of the public interest and adulation but individual SEALs could not,” Crowell wrote in his paper.
Perhaps most damaging to the command’s credibility, many members of the force argue, was that the leadership used active-duty SEALs as actors. Rorke T. Denver, one of the stars of “Act of Valor,” left the Navy and went on to write his own best-seller, “Damn Few,” and has another book coming this month as well as a television show premiering on Fox.
He is one of 10 SEALs represented by the speakers’ bureau Leading Authorities; others include Robert O’Neill, who claims credit for killing bin Laden and gave dozens of speeches last year, and Greitens, the Missouri candidate for governor. Greitens’ fee for a speech in Asia was as much as $75,000, according to the bureau’s website.
Public interest intensified after Team 6’s 2009 rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates and peaked with the bin Laden killing in May 2011. The timing was propitious for Greitens, 41, who had published his memoir, “The Heart and the Fist,” just weeks before. A telegenic former Rhodes scholar and White House Fellow, he became a sought-after television guest and his book a best-seller.
He went on to write two more books, both displaying the SEAL insignia — an eagle clutching a gun, an anchor and a trident — on the cover. The foundation he started to help veterans, The Mission Continues, brought in $1.6 million in 2010 and more than $7 million in 2011. Greitens was paid $200,000 that year, according to the foundation’s public filing. (Greitens stepped down as chief executive in 2014 and left the board last year because of his campaign for governor.)
The anonymous group behind the recent video attacking him said that Greitens exaggerated his service as a SEALs member in his books and TV appearances. He answered by releasing his military records and publishing testimonials by SEALs and Marines who had served with him. In an interview, Greitens said that he suspected a decision he made as a young officer to push for disciplinary action against members of his unit over drug use in Thailand might have prompted the recriminations.
“I believe that what I did there was the right thing,” Greitens said. “I believed it then, I believe it now, but there are some people that are upset about it.” He added that he saw greater visibility of SEALs as a positive. “The more successful Navy SEALs there are, the more glory it reflects on the community and the better it is for our country,” he said.
Other SEALs have also become involved in politics. Kristin Beck, a transgender SEAL formerly known as Christopher Beck, is running for Congress in Maryland, campaigning on her military record. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican and former Team 6 officer whose campaign bus is emblazoned with the SEAL Trident and six stars, is seeking re-election this year and has a political action committee called SEAL PAC supporting him.
Crowell complained that O’Neill, the self-professed bin Laden shooter, had been sending “signed Navy SEAL flags” to SEAL PAC donors. “How can the symbol of an apolitical military unit be used in such a partisan way without any protest from society or the military?” he wrote.
In a statement, O’Neill said he supported Zinke, “because he believes as I do that having more of these quiet professionals in Congress would be a very good thing.”
Crowell also cited two former SEALs officers, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, who published a book about leadership aimed at business managers. When they appeared on Fox News, they also used the platform to attack Obama’s defense policies. Babin recently said on Twitter that any conservative who would accept Hillary Clinton as president was “either a fool or a liar.”
Willink declined to comment for this article; Babin did not respond to requests for comment.
But Crowell lamented how “the progression from publishing a benign book on leadership to becoming immediate pawns in a political debate shows the slippery slope that awaits SEALs who market their identities and pursue public personas in the wake of SEAL fame.”