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The Lesson of Eric Greitens, and the Navy SEALs Who Tried to Warn Us

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The Missouri legislature is scheduled to begin a special session, on Friday, to discuss whether to impeach Eric Greitens, the state’s embattled governor. A former Navy SEAL who was once a rising star in the Republican Party, Greitens is now fighting allegations of sexual coercion, blackmail, invasion of privacy, and misuse of charity resources to fund his campaign. The charges stunned many in Missouri, but in the tight-knit SEAL community, Greitens has been a divisive figure for years. In 2016, before Greitens was elected, a group of mostly anonymous current and former SEALs tried to sound the alarm about why they thought he was unfit for office. “What we were afraid of is that, eighteen months from now, you’ve got candidate Greitens, former Navy SEAL, running for President,” Paul Holzer, a former SEAL who worked on the campaign for one of Greitens’s gubernatorial-primary opponents, John Brunner, told me. But Greitens, who used his military background to create a public image of honor, courage, and leadership, was largely able to deflect their criticism.

After the killing of Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team Six in a 2011 raid, Navy SEALs became full-blown celebrities, and Greitens rode that fame to speaking tours, a spot on Time magazine’s 2013 “100 Most Influential People” list, and, eventually, the governor’s mansion. The success of the raid also intensified a growing division in the SEAL community.

SEALs have traditionally embraced a culture of quiet professionalism. Part of the SEAL credo reads “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.” In the last two weeks, I spoke to more than half a dozen current and former SEALs about the spectacular implosion of Greitens’s public image. Most chose not go on the record, but all expressed frustration that a peripheral and contentious figure in their community, one who served overseas but never served with SEALs in combat, became a public face of the SEAL community. Many complained to me that it tends to be those who are least representative of SEAL core values, such as Greitens, who end up trading on the group’s reputation and representing them in public, earning respect from American citizens but contempt from other SEALs.

In 2015, Lieutenant Forrest S. Crowell, a Navy SEAL, wrote a thesis for Naval Postgraduate School titled “SEALs Gone Wild.” In it, he argued that the SEALs’ celebrity status had corrupted


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