The Navy SEALs Killed bin Laden, But They Aren’t Supermen

For decades, the Navy SEALs have been claiming that their training is not just the toughest in the US military, but possibly the whole world. They killed Osama bin Laden, no doubting that, and they have been featured in novels, documentaries, war films, TV series, self-help and leadership books to name a few. I have even seen Navy SEAL romance novels on! But recently there have been a number of scandals that have been getting attention. To name a few that were reported in a 2022 article: “After two decades of war with little accountability, the SEALs’ ship has run aground. War crimes, drug use, sexual assault on deployment, and homicide are just some of the charges against active-duty SEALs in recent years. In a span of two years, two SEAL Team 6 operators killed a Green Beret while deployed to Mali; a group of SEALs turned in their platoon chief, Eddie Gallagher, accusing him of an array of war crimes, including the stabbing death of an unarmed, injured Islamic State fighter; rampant drug use was discovered in an East Coast SEAL unit; and an entire SEAL platoon was sent home from a deployment to Iraq after military leaders learned that they’d been drinking excessively and one of operators was accused of sexual assault.”

These are all very serious and reflect a toxic culture. In my view though, of these, the one that does the most damage to the SEALs image as “America’s finest and toughest warriors” is drug use. In 2017, CBS News reported that drug use was widespread in the SEALs. According to reporter David Martin, “‘People that we know of, that we hear about have tested positive for cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy,’ said a SEAL. ‘That’s a problem.’ How prevalent is drug abuse in the SEAL teams? ‘It’s growing,’ said one SEAL. ‘The drug use, it’s growing.’”

Another article from 2022 noted that there is also the matter of SEALs using performance- enhancing drugs (PEDs) in training to give them an edge. “A recent report in the New York Times is sure to send shockwaves through the senior leadership of Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC), which commands the U.S. Navy SEALs. The report stated that the recent death of BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL] trainee Kyle Mullen has revealed a culture of ‘brutality, cheating, and drugs’ at BUD/S, with ‘dozens’ of unnamed SEALs and recent BUD/S graduates stating that the use of performance-enhancing drugs has become rampant in SEAL training over the last decade. After syringes and PEDs were discovered in Mullen’s vehicle in the wake of his death, the commanding officer of BUD/S ordered mandatory drug testing. Forty trainees either tested positive or admitted to using ‘steroids or other drugs in violation of Navy regulations,’ according to the New York Times article.” Things like this make me wonder how “special” the Navy’s Special Forces really are and if they really are elite warriors or just hired guns with huge egos pumped up by steroids. As a fan of the USN, this makes me sad.

The brass have noted what has happened to the SEALs and said that the culture of silence must change if the SEALs are going to improve their reputation. In 2021, an article on discussed the problems, but used the past tense, implying they have been solved. “The Navy’s highest-ranking officer acknowledged on Monday that the branch’s elite warfighting unit, the SEALs, had a problem with character and ethics. Speaking at the annual Sea Air Space conference at a convention center just outside of Washington, D.C., Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday noted that the special warfare community underwent ‘a comprehensive review’ that he likened to the review the surface warfare community conducted after the collisions of the Fitzgerald and the McCain. That review looked at the collisions the two destroyers had with merchant ships in 2017 that claimed the lives of 17 sailors. The evaluation of special forces was conducted by the U.S. Special Operations Command and found that unrelenting demand — along with the command’s willingness to take on the missions when overtasked — has taken a toll across special warfare units. According to Gilday, the issue ‘with the SEALs — it wasn’t professional competency like it was in the surface community; it was character and ethics.’”

Given the reports in 2022 about rampant use of performance-enhancing drug use during training I would say “professional competency” is indeed an issue, just like the others. Since many of them have used PEDs, I must conclude, sadly, that the SEALs are nowhere near as tough and professional as we in the public have been led to believe, and it will take many years of investigations and reforms to bring this organization up to standard. Mark my words, and it hurts me to say this, but contrary to what Admiral Gilday said, this matter is by no means closed.


Matthew Cole “A Ship Run Aground: How The Navy SEALs Failed America And How They Can Change, The Intercept, February 23, 2022.

David Martin “Navy SEAL Drug Use ‘Staggering’ Investigation Finds” CBS News website, April 11, 2017.

Frumentarius “The Navy SEALs Training Has A Drug Problem” Sandboxx website, September 6, 2022.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.