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Eddie Gallagher and the changing story of a death in Iraq

Eddie Gallagher and a death in Iraq
Eddie Gallagher and a death in Iraq 07:11

The platoon of Navy SEALs went off to war in 2017 as a "band of brothers." By the time they came home, some of them had turned on their leader, Eddie Gallagher, a man they'd once revered.

Former SEAL Josh Vriens was a member of Alpha Platoon. "When I found out he was my Chief, I was excited," he said. "I saw how he did business and ran our training. He was always motivated. That's exactly what you're looking for in a Chief."

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked, "Did you see him as a role model?"

"Absolutely," Vriens replied. "He was someone I looked up to."

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Members of Alpha Platoon. CBS News

But after months of vicious house-to-house fighting in Iraq, Vriens and other members of Alpha Platoon did the unthinkable: they broke the "code of silence," and accused their leader of war crimes. 

Until now, none of them had been interviewed on television.

Vriens said, "If your loyalty lies with a guy like Eddie Gallagher, then you need to reevaluate why you're a Navy SEAL."

"A lot of them were so torn apart by what happened on that deployment that they immediately left the SEALs completely disillusioned," said New York Times reporter David Philipps, who has written a book about Gallagher's platoon, called "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs" (Crown). "You've got a bunch of exceptional alpha males, all together, and sometimes that drove people to do things that got so far away from the values that they thought they represented that it struck other SEALs as crazy."

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Crown

Vriens had never been in combat, and ached to get in it: "If you're a United States Navy SEAL and you don't [fight], that's like being a football player and not wanting to play in the Super Bowl. That's our job."

Gallagher gave Vriens and the rest of Alpha Platoon exactly what they wanted. They were supposed to stay 1,500 yards behind the front line, backing up Iraqi troops as they retook the city of Mosul from ISIS. But Vriens said Gallagher told them to turn off their GPS trackers so they could get closer to the fight without headquarters knowing.

"Originally that was Eddie's idea," Vriens said, "but at the same time we were signing on with it.  Anybody that wasn't cool with it was kind of labeled as a coward. The rest of us, we wanted to get after it. And you know, unfortunately that meant breaking the rules."

Philipps said, "There's a subculture of SEALs who feel that, to a certain extent, they are above the law and should be – that the real fighting, the dirty fighting that must be done by unconventional forces, sometimes isn't as pretty as the rulebook makes it sound."

But some members of Alpha began to believe Gallagher was needlessly risking casualties, exposing his men to enemy fire on a rooftop, for instance, where a helmet cam captured the moment one of them got hit.

As Philipps tells it, some days Gallagher would hole up in a sniper position and come back bragging about his kills. At first, the SEALs passed it off as just talk. "And then, some of the platoon started to see what they thought was his bullets actually connect with old men, with school-age girls, and they had to realize, 'Wait a minute: all these stories that he's been telling, maybe those aren't jokes,'" he said.

Then, the Iraqis brought in a barely-conscious ISIS fighter who had been wounded in an air strike. A helmet cam video showed Gallagher taking charge of the prisoner. 

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Chief Eddie Gallagher (right, in cap) takes control of a prisoner (far left), an ISIS fighter who had been wounded.  CBS News

The rest of that video has vanished, but three SEALs said they witnessed Gallagher stab the prisoner. 

Afterward, some of the men lined up for a trophy photo with the body, but later claimed they only did it to please Gallagher.

Martin asked, "Why do the world's toughest dudes seem so scared of Gallagher?"

Philipps said, "Eddie Gallagher is a popular, respected dude, with connections all over the SEAL base back home. If you intend to stay in your career and move up as a young SEAL, going against a guy like Eddie Gallagher is probably the worst decision you can make."

Eleven months later, Vriens and other members of Alpha told the Naval Criminal Investigative Service what they say happened. They were not just diming Gallagher out; they were breaking the code of silence.

Vriens said, "How am I supposed to teach my kid between right and wrong and look 'em in the eye, if I'm not doing everything that I can?"

Gallagher was charged with premeditated murder, but the prosecution's case fell apart in a made-for-TV moment when their star witness suddenly confessed that it was he who killed the prisoner.

Gallagher's acquittal was hailed by then-President Trump, and the newly-retired Navy SEAL returned the favor by presenting the commander in chief with an ISIS flag.

Today, Gallagher lives in the Florida panhandle with his wife, Andrea, keeping a high profile in the culture wars. 

On "60 Minutes" in 2020, Gallagher steadfastly maintained his innocence. "I'm not trying to hide anything," he told David Martin then.

"Did you stab that fighter?"

"No, I did not," he replied.

According to Gallagher, he and three other SEALs performed emergency procedures on the fast-sinking prisoner.

"Were you keeping him alive?" Martin asked.

"Yeah, we were," said Gallagher. "I mean, as they were doing the procedures, he was alive, but he … it wasn't looking good."

A year later, on the Apple podcast "The Line," in an interview conducted by Dan Taberski, we heard a very different story:

Gallagher: "The grain of truth in the whole thing is that that ISIS fighter was killed by us and that nobody at that time had a problem with it. We killed that guy. Our intention was to kill him. Everybody was on board. Not one person was like …"
Dan Taberski: "Your intention was to kill him."
Gallagher: "It was to do medical scenarios on him until he died."
Taberski: "Is that nursing to death?"
Gallagher: "Yeah, if you want to put it in a nice way."

Martin asked Taberski, "Were you surprised?"

"Shocked, just on-the-floor shocked," he replied. "Couldn't believe it. Could not believe it. After all this time, that he was willing to change his story like that, was incredibly shocking for me, incredibly surprising."

Gallagher's attorney says the editing of Taberski's interview was misleading. The Navy says the case is closed.

For Josh Vriens and other members of Alpha Platoon, the case of Eddie Gallagher remains open. 

"His story just keeps changing," Vriens said. "The only way he's going to heal and come out on the other side of this is if he comes clean. His greatest punishment right now is living with himself."

     
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Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Carol Ross. 

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