Some of you may know the name Tim O’Donnell as...
By Jack Mandaville
“When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.”
There is an unquestionable chasm between the images presented by the American military as an institution and those of the individual troops on the ground. With modern social-media giving a growing voice to the proletariats of our armed forces, it appears the US Military has entered into a quiet battle between the top brass and ground troops in order to control who presents their image to the masses.
This internal conflict has correlated with the advent of tools like Facebook, Twitter, and an increasing access to the publishing industry. American troops are voicing their opinions in equally cerebral and lowbrow ways—the latter being confined to the sphere of private rants on Facebook over seemingly typical and age-old military gripes. But many of those who have tackled the establishment in larger capacities, namely in book publication or popular blogs, have faced severe repercussions from their leaders.
Gone are the days of the American war fighter being perceived as a bloodthirsty Myrmidon willing to defend public policy at all costs. What we’re now beginning to recognize is that modern American servicemembers are, the majority of the time, as socially diverse and politically involved as their peers in the private sector.
So begins the troubling story of former Navy SEAL Carlton Higbie and his role in a legal battle that stemmed from a 173 page personal manuscript that he released last year.
Every aspect of Higbie’s ordeal leading up to and shortly following the publication of his book, Battle on the Homefront: A Navy SEAL’s Mission to Save the American Dream, appears to be—at times—as maddening as the current conflict he has become embroiled in.
“I put this in a book not to bash the military, but to improve the system,” Higbie, who currently resides in Virginia Beach, VA, told me during a phone interview. “If I’m going to put my life on the line for my country, I want to make sure things are right across the board.”
In the spring of 2004, after walking away from an athletic scholarship at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT during his sophomore year, Higbie enlisted in the Navy with an immediate goal to serve as a SEAL. From there he served the majority of his eight and a half year enlistment with SEAL Team 10. He left the Navy—shortly after his book’s release—with the rank of Petty Officer First Class after two combat deployments to Iraq, where he was awarded a Joint Service Commendation Medal with a Valor distinguishing device among numerous other decorations.
His opening chapter is a brief autobiographical account of his well-to-do upbringing in Greenwich, CT and how he often butted heads with authority figures who were, according to him, “the definition of wimpy progressives and liberals.” The former high school and collegiate wrestling standout went on to write that he “would not adhere to the preppy ways of tennis, golf, and popped-collar polo shirt cliques.”
The main text itself is a compilation of his personal opinions regarding numerous matters both facing the American military and people as a whole. These short sections cover everything from his views on America’s founding principles to the often dangerous consequences of military bureaucracy—with a significant allotment of commentary on social controversies and President Obama within the eleven chapter book, ending with a chapter dedicated to his proposed solutions.
The subsequent release of his book in early April of 2012—which didn’t violate any operational security and was clearly stated in the opening pages that it’s not an official stance by the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense—set forth a chain of events in which Carl Higbie was forced out of the Navy under suspicious conditions, lost his security clearance and, under more egregious circumstances, had his honorable discharge downgraded shortly after his separation from the Navy from a commander he never met. This particular injection, according to Higbie and his lawyer, Guy Reschenthaler, may possibly be the first known case where the United States Navy reduced a sailor’s character of service after his honorable separation.
Here’s how the events transpired.
In September of 2009, Carl Higbie, who was serving on his second deployment as a Special Operations Petty Officer Second Class in SEAL Team 10, was involved with the secret mission that captured Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist, Ahmed Hashim Abed—the mastermind of the 2004 Fallujah bridge hanging which resulted in the death and mutilation of four Blackwater USA contractors and was, for all intents and purposes, one of the contributing factors to the increase in sectarian violence throughout Iraq.
After his capture, Abed falsely accused the SEALs of physically abusing him immediately after his detention, an unsubstantiated allegation. Three of the SEALs ended up getting charged and going to court martial. Higbie, having been a part of the mission, served as a defense witness during one of the trials. All three SEALs were eventually acquitted, despite intense pressure by top military brass to convict.
It was during this time that Carl Higbie met his current lawyer, Guy Reschenthaler, who at the time was a lieutenant JAG lawyer representing one of the accused. The two formed a quick friendship based off mutual political leanings and their disenfranchisement with the Navy’s treatment of its personnel in areas of conflict.
As the trials for the accused SEALs were underway in the Spring of 2010, Higbie—whose mounting frustration with the trial was compounded with the loss of a teammate who he felt died because of the restrictive rules of engagement set by SEAL leadership—exercised his First Amendment rights and began writing the manuscript for the aforementioned book. After its completion in April of 2010, Higbie notified his chain-of-command that he would be publishing the book. According to him, they “laughed it off.”
For the next two years, Carl Higbie’s chain-of-command had a sufficient amount of opportunity to read his manuscript before its publication and address any concerns they may have had. Furthermore, Higbie took personal initiative and ran the manuscript through a gauntlet of non-SEAL JAG lawyers and senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials to ensure that his writing did not violate any operational security or other Dept. of Defense regulations. All of them, according to him, gave their unofficial clearance, but continued to instruct him to go through his command. Still, his superiors and SEAL JAG officers refused to look at the text.
“He continually tried to have the public affairs officer look at it,” Guy Reschenthaler, who is currently out of the Navy and practicing law privately, told me. “They were icing the book. The Navy went out of their way to make sure his First Amendment rights weren’t being upheld.”
In September of 2011, roughly a year and a half after he completed the manuscript and notified his command of his intentions, Carl Higbie released his manuscript for publication after repeatedly telling his superiors that he was going to release the book which, again, was within his First Amendment rights both as a citizen and member of the United States Military.
In early April of 2012, two years after he completed his manuscript, Battle on the Homefront was published by Ameriman, LLC based in Riverside, CT.
On the very same day of his book’s release, Higbie received a preformatted letter from his chain-of-command citing “possible ethical violations.” Soon after that, he received a Page 13 written counseling form for “potentially inappropriate political speech.” Nevertheless, there was no non-judicial punishment brought against him. His record, minus the new Page 13, had been spotless throughout his career.
It was at this junction that Carl Higbie, who by then was serving as an instructor for air operations for all SEAL teams in Little Creek, VA, began receiving what he claims was systematic, unjust harassment from his superiors.
This alleged persecution came mostly in the form of receiving counseling chits for uniform violations—which he had never received before in his eight year career. These ranged from minor uniform violations to potentially treasonous behavior. The most notable case included an incident where a superior officer, who was wearing gym attire, wrote Carl up for showing up to work in gym attire. Moreover, his command began to assign him menial tasks that wouldn’t have otherwise been given to SEALs of his rank and experience.
Soon after that, an independent review from a reserve naval officer, Commander Grant Staats, recommended that Carl Higbie’s security clearance be removed along with his removal from the SEAL community.
After Staats’ recommendation, the situation culminated with Carl Higbie having to attend a Trident Review Board made up of high-ranking SEALs and Navy personnel. On this board, which was to determine his future eligibility as a SEAL, he claims that he was castigated by numerous sailors who had previously told him, during personal conversations, that they agreed with his stances.
Additionally, Carl entered the board with over seventy letters of character recommendation from peers and senior members of the Special Operations community.
A notable excerpt reads (for the sake of OpSec, names have been redacted):
I have served in the United States Navy for 17 and half years as a member of the SEAL community, I have completed 13 deployments throughout my career and I feel that I am very capable of recognizing effective leaders and outstanding operators for our armed forces. I can say without a doubt that it would be a devastating blow to our community if SO1 Higbie is not permitted to continue to share his wealth of knowledge and experience as a SEAL operator with his current rank and qualifications.
Another from a Lieutenant Commander in the community reads:
The quality of his work and desire to learn his job were only indicators of the person he is and what drives him. It was always clear to me that what motivated him was not self, but something much greater. His belief in our country and our mission stood out among dedicated warriors who were willing to put their lives on the line without hesitation. I’m sure that I am not alone when I say SO1 Higbie would be one of the first SEALs that I would pick to serve with.
In summary, I highly recommend SO1 be absolved of all charges against him and that he be allowed to continue to serve his country in the dedicated and faithful manner he has to date. He will continue be a highly valuable asset to any unit he serves with.
“The decision was made before I set foot in there,” Carl tells me. “This came from way higher than the people on that board.”
Higbie told me that during his board he openly fought back.
“I know some of you,” he claims to have said. “We sat around campfires in Iraq bitching about this stuff [the contents in the book].”
“It makes the military look bad,” one board member allegedly said.
Carl Higbie was stripped of his Naval Special Warfare Trident after the board convened—dropping him of his status as a Navy SEAL.
The Navy’s next step was to give Higbie a captain’s mast—a non-judicial punishment that would have further disgraced his reputation. There was one kicker, though: the Navy knew that if they brought him to a captain’s mast, Carl would surely be requesting a court-martial and, according to Carl, “They weren’t going to take me on in a court-martial because they knew I’d win in a fair trial.”
In a behind-closed-doors meeting shortly after his Trident Board, Higbie was brought in by leadership and told he could “get out peacefully” if he signed a DD-214 separation document. Worn from the destruction of his name and legal battles, along with the fact that he was a few months from his natural release date from the Navy, Carl signed the document on July 8, 2012. In Block 24 of the document, under “CHARACTER OF SERVICE,” it clearly reads, “HONORABLE.” Block 28 gives his reason for separation under “REDUCTION IN FORCE.” Higbie acknowledged and signed for his Honorable Discharge in Block 21a.
“I wouldn’t have signed if it didn’t say ‘Honorable,’” he says.
After eight and a half years serving with distinction in one of America’s most elite military units, Carl Higbie was a civilian again.
“He was a SEAL’s SEAL,” his current representation and friend, Guy Reschenthaler, tells me. “There were a lot of people who came out in support of him and, from what I understand, some of their careers suffered because of it.”
The events that transpired around Higbie’s discharge could arguably derive from a growing push within the Navy to construct and control their own image. With a growing number of SEALs publishing books, consulting for video games and films, and speaking with the media, top brass has taken increasingly harsh measures to combat these private endeavors. But while the brass has hampered individual activities within its lower ranks, they’ve simultaneously indulged in their own ventures—most notably the 2012 film Act of Valor, which was released shortly before Higbie’s discharge.
What separates Act of Valor from every other film in American cinematic history was the overwhelming control the Department of Defense had on the script, production, and release. It was, as Huffington Post writer Jordan Zakarin stated, “born not in Hollywood, but the Pentagon.”
AoV’s production came at a time when the SEAL community was making a drastic transition in numbers. There had been a call in Washington DC—which trickled down to the Navy command—to increase the amount of active-duty SEALs and, as a result, their answer was the creation of a feature length, cinematic recruiting commercial.
New York Times writer John Anderson elaborated in his February 17, 2012 articles titled, “On Active Duty For The Movies (Real Ammo).”
Rear Adm. Denny Moynihan, of the Navy Office of Information in Washington, explained that every four years the Defense Department “looks at itself and says, ‘What is it that you need to be moving forward, and where do you think you are?’ ” He added, “For the Navy and the SEAL community it was, ‘Hey, you need 500 more SEALs’ and that launched a series of initiatives to try to attract more people. This film was one of those initiatives.”
One of the Act of Valor stars was a real life SEAL, Lt. Cmdr. Rorke Denver, who wrote his own book, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, in which he wrote about this push by Navy leadership.
…”We want more SEALs. You will get us more SEALS.” There was also an addendum to that, unstated but perfectly clear: “And if you won’t, we will find new leaders who will.”
…That spurred one of the greatest silent and under-the-radar wars in our community’s history. On one side were the senior commanders who were charged with creating more SEALs. Their superiors wanted it. So did the politicians in Washington. On the other side was, basically, the rest of the force junior to them. Without question, all the instructors were dead set against lowering the standards in any way that would get more guys to graduate….
“A lot of us in NSW [Navy Special Warfare] were really angry about our tactics and procedures being exposed in that movie,” Higbie tells me. “A lot of our insert/extract capabilities were shown, things that were fairly secretive before.”
We must ask an honest question: Is there a certain degree of hypocrisy in the Navy’s push to censor its lower ranking personnel while concurrently working on their own media projects with questionable releases of OpSec?
The story should be over at this point. This should be nothing more than a cautionary tale about a citizen-warrior utilizing the very rights he was not only sworn to uphold, but upheld in some of the most dangerous and secret missions one could ask of a servicemember. Carl Higbie took on Big Navy over a book that he had given them ample warning about… and lost.
What transpired after his separation is where things become patently outrageous.
Shortly after his separation, in early August, Carl went on Fox and Friends for two days to promote his book, discuss certain issues regarding the President and senior military leadership, and to talk about the upcoming election. Again, Carl Higbie was a civilian at this point and was not legally constrained by any aspects of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Like any citizen, he had free reign to voice his opinion.
In early September of 2012, as Higbie was settled into his new life with a successful tree removal company in Virginia Beach, VA, he received a letter from the Department of the Navy that was dated August 28, 2012.
In this letter, he was informed that the “Honorable” discharge listed in his previous DD-214 had been due to a administrative error and that his character of service had been downgraded to a “General” in an amended DD-215 document.
This downgraded characterization of service can impinge on the quality of Carl Higbie’s life for many different reasons. Aside from the troubling reality that it can exclude him from many well-paying and coveted jobs offered to men of his experience, it also affects his access to his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits—something he needs to rely on due to the fact he interrupted his collegiate wrestling scholarship to serve his country in a time of war.
The letter was signed by a Captain W.F. Denton—who had taken over for Carl’s previous commander after Carl was separated under honorable conditions. Higbie had never met or served under Captain Denton, yet this man was changing the nature of his discharge after he had signed it in person.
Furthermore, the amended discharge was dated August 10, 2012—four days after Higbie’s last appearance on Fox and Friends where he spoke candidly about his views on the President and other controversial issues. And again, he was doing this as a normal citizen, not as an active-duty sailor.
Captain Denton, in his notarized letter, cites the reason for Carl’s downgrade in Paragraph 3:
That NAVPERS 1070/13 was in reference to Higbie’s previous Page 13 for “potentially inappropriate political speech.” What’s troubling is that the minor charge was not an issue and was not brought up when Higbie signed his Honorable Discharge under the guise of Reduction in Force policies.
Higbie’s chain-of-command were all fully aware that he was willfully signing the document under the acknowledgment, as plainly stated in his DD-214, that he would be receiving an Honorable Discharge.
Guy Reschenthaler quickly sent off a response letter to Captain Denton asking him to reconsider the clearly unmerited change of Higbie’s discharge.
One excerpt reads:
Reschenthaler, in a memo to the media dated April 8, 2013, lays out a concrete explanation as to why the Navy’s change in Higbie’s discharge is contrary to its policy:
The characterization violates a Bureau of Personnel Instruction (BUPERSINST 1900.8C) which states that the “character of service must be appropriate and consistent with the reason and authority for separation.” As Higbie separated under “Force Shaping,” meaning that he left voluntarily due to overstaffing, he should not have been given a general discharge. A general discharge is typically reserved for involuntary separations where the servicemember has done something below standards to warrant separation. In short, a general characterization is inconsistent with “Force Shaping.”
What we’re possibly witnessing is a concerted effort by members of the Unites States Navy to slander the reputation of one of its own. And it is clearly evident to me that their efforts to inhibit Higbie’s post-service professional and educational prospects are purely retaliatory in nature.
I must state, in full disclosure, that my personal opinions do not necessarily coincide with or reflect those of Carl Higbie. I don’t have to agree with him. But what bothers me about this case is the Navy’s plain disregard for his First Amendment rights during the events leading up to the book’s publishing. They had every opportunity to review his manuscript beforehand, but instead opted to send him through a cyclone of bureaucratic red tape in an attempt to wear him out.
In addition, the most obvious wrongdoing on the Navy’s part has been their apparent drive to penalize him after his honorable service—a service that was both honorable through conduct and, more pertinently, legal documentation.
“I’m personally offended by what has happened to Carl,” Reschenthaler says. “Senior leadership doesn’t support Carl, but I think he’s a hero to a lot of the younger officers and enlisted personnel.”
Carl Higbie’s take on the matter is similar to certain arguments in his book about military bureaucracy.
“This is another example of military senior leadership doing what’s best for their career over their country.”
It’s difficult to establish the fine line between the American warrior’s duty to uphold the ideals of our nation and when he or she rightfully feels the need to speak out against it. We do know, however, that the enduring tug-of-war between trigger puller and policy enforcer will continue as long as discourse is alive and healthy in this country. But who sets the standard… and how far can they go to punish those who preserve that very speech?