Saluting and supporting our heroes this holiday season

Ray Hartwell Contributor
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In the wake of Veterans Day and the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we turn to celebrate holy days of both Judaism and Christianity. During this month, our nation’s believers and their tolerant neighbors all show respect for the religious traditions and values that undergird our nation.

It seems to me this is an appropriate time for our political and military leaders, and the rest of us, to remember and thank our military personnel at home and abroad for their courage and sacrifice.

We should pledge as well to give them our full support. Unfortunately, especially in the current administration, our leaders have put our fighting forces at greater risk by ill-considered rules of engagement, and have even treated them as wrongdoers when they have served our country heroically and well.

This holiday season, I call on all of our nation’s leaders — military and civilian — to join me in saluting three Navy SEALs who typify our country’s finest citizen-soldiers: Julio (“Tony”) Huertas of Illinois, Jonathan Keefe of Virginia, and Matthew McCabe of Ohio.

These three exemplify the dedication and sacrifice of the men and women in our armed forces. Their story underscores the challenges today’s military faces, from slashed budgets and accelerated deployments that strain lives and families, to a climate of political correctness that can threaten both mission and morale.

Last year these three SEALs participated in a daring operation in Iraq. Their goal was to capture Ahmed Hashim Abed, a terrorist and murderer responsible for many atrocities, including the killing and public mutilation of American civilians in Fallujah. When intelligence pinpointed Abed’s location, the SEAL team infiltrated his compound at night, on foot, through miles of hostile territory to avoid having their quarry warned by the sound of approaching helicopters. The SEALS could have easily killed Abed and many of the not-so-innocent folks who harbored him. Instead, Abed was seized, handcuffed and hooded, and carried back to a helicopter that delivered him to confinement. There were no casualties; not a shot was fired.

After his capture, the killer Abed claimed he had received a bloody lip from the Americans. This was an expected terrorist tactic, a move prescribed in a captured Al Qaeda manual, where one can also find helpful guidance on plucking the eyeballs of infidels and using power drills on their skulls. So, Abed played the “abuse” card, and it had exactly the “lawfare” effect intended by its authors: causing our military and civilian leaders to turn against our own troops.

An investigation followed. A sailor assigned to guard Abed admitted leaving the prisoner unattended in violation of orders. This guard eventually claimed he saw McCabe punch Abed in the “gut,” and that Huertas and Keefe saw what happened. But his version of events conflicted with Abed’s, and the two of them were contradicted by all of the numerous other witness accounts of what happened.

Nevertheless, McCabe was charged with assaulting Abed. Huertas and Keefe were charged with failing to prevent the assault and with lying to cover it up. All three denied any attack occurred. The high command offered them the option of “non-judicial” punishment — a letter of reprimand in their files, and no other sanction. Yet, this would have been very damaging to their military careers.

Confident they had done no wrong, the three exercised their right to demand trials by court martial, so that the command would have to prove what they strongly denied. They hired lawyers at substantial cost, and then lived and worked for months under the cloud of charges leveled by an Islamist terrorist and the weak and possibly manipulated guard.

The prosecution’s subsequent conduct raised serious questions about the objectivity of the investigation and the motives of the high command in ordering the cases to proceed. For example, when numerous witnesses came forward with testimony that supported the SEALs, these witnesses were read their rights and effectively threatened with charges of a cover-up if they did not support the prosecution’s case. Ultimately a military judge rebuked the prosecution, ruling that the witnesses could testify without facing criminal allegations for doing so.

It was also strange at best that McCabe, charged with hitting Abed, was tried last. His acquittal on charges of assaulting the prisoner would have meant there was no crime for Huertas and Keefe to have prevented or concealed. Their trials could have been avoided. That would have saved a lot of time and money, as the government required both of them to go to Iraq for trial, since only there could they exercise their constitutional right to confront their accuser Abed. (After all, constitutional rights are not just for terrorists!)

All three trials resulted in acquittals for the SEALs. Verdicts were reached swiftly. Debriefing of jurors revealed that they found the prosecution’s key witnesses wholly lacking in credibility. Most observers came away believing that Abed bit and bloodied his own lip, and that the guard concocted his story to avoid disciplinary action for failing to watch Abed, and then was pressured to give testimony against the SEALs.

These cases never should have been brought because it was clear that the defense’s evidence was overwhelming, and that the prosecution’s was flimsy and contrived. But we can take heart knowing that these three SEALS showed tremendous skill and courage in the operation that bagged a much-wanted terrorist, and showed great moral courage and personal honor by choosing the risk of a prison sentence in order to clear their names. Reassuringly, the military judges and jurors involved showed similar fortitude. At trial the prosecution urged them to “find their moral courage.” They all did.

We offer thanks and respect this holiday season to SEALs Huertas, Keefe, and McCabe, and their fellow warriors, families, and friends. By the millions, your fellow citizens are grateful for your service to our country. We wish you every success on your future missions. And may our top military and political leaders give you and your comrades in arms the support you so richly deserve.

Ray Hartwell is a partner in the Washington office of a major law firm, where he specializes in competition law and white collar criminal matters. The views he expresses are his alone. He can be reached at rayhartwell@rocketmail.com.