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The probe into whether SEAL Team 6 commandos killed an American soldier in Mali, explained

Two members of one of the military’s most elite units are being investigated for a horrible crime.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

The family of Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar laid him to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on November 20, five months after his mysterious death during a secret assignment in Africa.

A medical examiner said Melgar was strangled to death, but the most striking thing about the case isn’t that a 34-year-old member of the Army’s Special Forces was killed overseas. It’s that two men under investigation are members of SEAL Team 6, arguably the most revered unit in the entire US military.

The elite, counterterrorism-focused group gained notoriety when it rescued Capt. Richard Phillips from a pirate hijacking in 2009 and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Scores of movies and books — some of them written by SEALs themselves — recount their clandestine, often violent missions, turning the group’s members into national celebrities and pop culture icons.

The probe into Melgar’s case, first reported by the New York Times, is ongoing. No one has yet been charged with a crime. But it appears Melgar may have stumbled onto a scheme where the two SEALs — Petty Officer First Class Anthony DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, and Chief Petty Officer Adam Matthews — reportedly took money from a fund meant to reward informants.

It also looks like Melgar avoided the SEALs on his way to a party, which angered the commandos. A witness told Army investigators that one of the SEALs wanted “to get back” at Melgar. And after Melgar’s death, DeDolph told a witness he “choked Logan out.”

The incident, on its own, is a tragedy. But it also calls into question whether the SEALs — and other elite troops like the Army’s Delta Force — have any checks on how they conduct their missions. After all, they work in remote locations all over the world performing highly dangerous, and highly classified, tasks where there’s a real risk of killing or abusing people who turn out to be innocents. For example, in 2004 at least seven SEALs were charged with abusing Iraqi prisoners. Other SEALs were accused of killing young people in an Afghan town during a 2009 raid.

“The special operations community has been given a lot of authorities to go overseas and conduct operations in small groups with very little oversight,” Mark Cancian, a military expert and former Marine at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told me in an interview.

“You can reduce these kinds of incidents,” he continued, “but nothing will ever be 100 percent effective.”

That means that Melgar’s case almost certainly won’t be the last time America’s elite troops cross the line.

What we know about Melgar’s death — and why it may have happened

Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar.
US Army Special Operations Command

It’s worth reiterating that a Navy-led investigation into Melgar’s homicide is ongoing, so the events leading up to his death — and exactly what occurred the day he died — are still unclear. The military also has yet to formally charge the SEALs, let alone convict them of anything.

But via leaks from people familiar with the probe — which were reported in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, NBC News, and the Intercept — we know some of what transpired. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which leads the investigation, declined to comment on the case because it doesn’t discuss the details of ongoing probes.

Melgar, a native of Lubbock, Texas, who joined the Army in 2012, was on a six-month tour in Mali to collect intelligence on Islamic militants for the US ambassador in Bamako, the capital city.

During his mission, Melgar had two separate run-ins with DeDolph and Matthews — the suspected killers with whom he lived — that military investigators are examining as they look for potential motives for the killing.

First, Melgar reportedly found out that the two commandos took money from a government fund — with an estimated value of up to $20,000 — to pay informants. DeDolph and Matthews reportedly offered to get Melgar in on the scheme, but it appears Melgar refused and then threatened to let authorities know what the SEALs were doing. That surely could’ve angered and worried the two SEALs.

Military officials and experts know that cash given to special operations forces — but designated for informants — can sometimes go missing. It’s impossible to ask or expect those troops to track every dollar or get receipts from confidential informants, although there are ways of getting them. That means some theft may be inevitable.

“When you’re talking about young people and you give them a pocketful of money, it can be very tempting” to take some of it, Cancian told me in a reference to the Melgar case.

The second incident, an unnamed witness told investigators, occurred when Melgar drove to a party and the two SEALs believed he intentionally avoided them as he left. Afterward, according to a witness, DeDolph and Matthews kept saying how they wanted “to get back” at Melgar.

That perceived slight, plus Melgar’s knowledge of the money-skimming scheme, may shine light into why the two SEALs allegedly decided to kill Melgar. But the precise details of how they may have killed him are still unclear, in part because the two commandos changed their story about what happened.

DeDolph and Matthews first told investigators they found Melgar unresponsive in his room around 5 am on June 4. But after an autopsy report showed that Melgar had died from strangulation, the SEALs offered a different narrative.

They then claimed that DeDolph and Melgar were wrestling each other around 4 am on June 4 in Melgar’s room. Later, they say that Matthews entered the room and joined the fight, with the three of them eventually ending up on the bed with Matthews landing on top of Melgar. At one point, the team members reported one of the SEALs put Melgar in a chokehold. The commandos may have also used duct tape on Melgar, a witness noted.

The two SEALs then said when they got off of Melgar they noticed he passed out and stopped breathing. They claimed they tried to revive him, even performing CPR, opening an airway in his throat, and finally rushing to get him medical attention at a nearby French clinic.

Melgar, however, died before they arrived.

Changing their story was bad enough, but it was a doubtful claim that turned DeDolph and Matthews into suspects.

The SEALs told higher-ups that Melgar was drunk when they fought. But it turns out Melgar didn’t drink on June 4 — people who knew him said he didn’t drink at all — and there were no drugs or alcohol in his body when he died.

Melgar’s wife, Michelle Melgar, was also unconvinced when she heard of the SEALs’ drinking allegation. She then sent emails from her husband to investigators that included some of his concerns about two SEAL members. Apparently Melgar had also told his wife shortly before he died that he had worries about the commandos and that he would tell her everything when he returned home. It’s still unknown what exactly his concerns were.

Both DeDolph and Matthews are now at SEAL headquarters in Dam Neck, Virginia, on administrative leave. They haven’t yet been charged with a crime.

Melgar’s high school honored him during a homecoming football game on October 6, and he was posthumously awarded a top defense medal.

A family member also celebrated him. “Staff Sgt. Melgar did what most only dream of and excelled at every turn!” the family member shared on a local news site. “His life was epic! He is missed dearly every single day, but his legacy lives on.”

Do SEALs need more oversight?

House Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing On U.S. Special Forces
US Special Operations Command Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on May 2, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

If it’s found that DeDolph and Matthews killed Melgar, then the crime is theirs and theirs alone. But the incident still raises questions about how much freedom SEAL Team 6 has and how little supervision it receives.

After all, SEAL Team 6 commandos usually operate at night and have almost complete latitude to make decisions without their bosses or cameras around. That means other people’s lives are in their hands, and their superiors stationed abroad or back in Virginia may not know the full story of what happened in the field.

“Obviously special operations forces need to operate in the shadows to do their job, but this can lead to problems,” Sean McFate, a military expert at the Atlantic Council, told me. He also noted that Congress would need to mandate more oversight of the special operations forces community.

One former SEAL, Matt Bissonnette, who wrote a book about his time in the service under the pseudonym Mark Owen, recalled how he and others killed people in their beds. “I snuck into people’s houses while they were sleeping,” he wrote in No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL. “If I caught them with a gun, I killed them, just like all the guys in the command.”

Another former SEAL took that sentiment a step further in an interview with the New York Times: “If in your assessment you feel threatened, in a split second, then you’re going to kill somebody.”

But sometimes the foul play can be less lethal, yet still troubling. Take what happened during one of SEAL Team 6’s most famous missions: the 2009 rescue of Captain Phillips. A sack filled with about $30,000 that Phillips gave to the pirates soon disappeared after he was safely secured on a lifeboat. That sack of money, which Phillips remembers leaning against while on the vessel, was never found — even after Navy investigators made SEALs answer questions about the incident during polygraph tests.

It’s hard to fully appreciate the danger commandos are in. More than half of US service members who died in combat since 2015 came from the special operations forces community. And if they survive, they still have to deal with the mental and physical effects of the missions. “Your body is trashed,” a retired operator told the Times about the aftereffects of operations; “your brain is trashed.”

Because of the danger and stress, all special operations forces — not just the SEALs — are susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Those conditions can lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts. In 2014, the New York Times reported that while suicide rates were in decline for most service members, they continued to increase for commandos.

But the horrors of the job — which SEAL Team 6 is extensively trained to do — are no excuse for the crimes commandos sometimes commit. One SEAL sniper killed three unarmed people in Afghanistan, including a young girl. The sniper was later kicked out of the unit because of the incident. Further, seven SEALs were charged in 2004 for assaulting and abusing detainees in Iraq. It’s worth highlighting that the perpetrators received punishments in these cases.

And during a 2009 mission to kill or capture a top Taliban operative, SEAL Team 6 members killed 10 people and at least eight students, according to the United Nations, although some US military officials claimed the young students had guns and links to the militant group.

Those aren’t isolated incidents; they highlight a pattern of repeated abuses by SEAL Team 6 around the world. The problem is it’s hard to investigate each instance because there are so few witnesses to each potential crime. And as Geoffrey Corn, a military justice expert at South Texas College of Law Houston, told me earlier this month, “the SEALs are a community that circles to protect its own, and it might be a little bit challenging to get people to be forthcoming with information.” That may happen even if a SEAL does break the law.

SEAL Team 6 and other commandos will argue that they need the freedoms they already have, otherwise they can’t do their jobs. But as Loren Schulman, a defense expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank, mentioned on Vox’s Worldly podcast on November 16, members of the special operations forces community may need — and even want — more oversight.

“Special operations forces guys need and want to be told no a lot of the time because they will go the extra limit; they will push the boundaries; they will propose missions that are far outside the realm of what we as a democracy would find appropriate. And they want that oversight to be able to draw them back in,” she said.

So the balance between SEAL Team 6’s need for freedom and oversight is a hard one to strike. But a system that leaves space for the murder of soldiers like Melgar by fellow service members is unsustainable — and ultimately harms America more than it helps.