Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Aaron Howard, right, is asking a military appellate panel to toss his 2020 general court-martial conviction for indecent conduct and impersonating an official in cell phone texts. He said he was innocent. Submitted photo.
A former SEAL filed an appeal Tuesday, Dec. 21, that paints military leaders and their attorneys as corrupt martinets and levels allegations of rampant legal and sexual shenanigans by senior operators inside the ultrasecret Development Group, better known as “SEAL Team 6.”
Aaron T. Howard, a highly decorated former special warfare operator first class with the famed Virginia-based unit, is asking a panel of judges at the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington, DC, to overturn his early 2020 general court-martial verdict.
A military jury found Howard guilty of trying to catfish a string of women to send him nude selfies, but he’s always insisted on his innocence and wants another day in court to prove he was framed by fellow sailors.
“They ruined my life,” Howard, 36, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “They destroyed my career. I want my case overturned. I want my name cleared. I want them to issue me a public apology, which I know they’ll never do. And then I’ll fade away. I’ll take the back pay they stole from me and I’ll ride off into the sunset.”
Pentagon leaders denied comment, saying they don’t discuss ongoing litigation.
At the heart of Howard’s appeal is the accusation that SEAL Team 6 leaders and senior judge advocate general attorneys at Naval Station Norfolk committed unlawful command influence to convict him.
Called the “mortal enemy of military justice” by higher courts, unlawful command influence happens when leaders utter words or take actions that illegally guide the outcome of court-martial trials or undermine the public’s confidence in the armed forces by appearing to tip the scales of justice.
In their zeal to crush a SEAL, Howard alleges, SEAL Team 6 leaders brought charges against him only because he sought legal advice about his rights; withheld evidence that would’ve impeached the statements of leaders aligned against him; forced commandos to shun him and refuse to help him on his legal defense; sent him to hard labor for years before his trial to shame and break him; and played administrative games to deny him a valor commendation, including withholding his pay, fabricating his FITREPs, denying him medical care for battlefield wounds, and killing his advancement to chief petty officer.
And the senior enlisted leadership of the SEALs topped it all off by balling Howard’s formal dress uniform into a garbage bag, the filing alleges. The uniform was in tatters, his chevrons shredded, his trident pin pounded by a hammer, his ribbons ripped.
An entire page of the appeal details allegations of SEAL Team 6 senior leader misconduct.
There’s the chief special warfare operator with three alcohol-related incidents during his time in the squadron, including a driving under the influence conviction that triggered a one-year ban from driving on military installations, a week behind bars, and a breathalyzer mounted on his steering wheel.
There was the master chief accused of beating detainees, allegedly with a nonjudicial punishment (NJP) and Disciplinary Review Board ruling trailing in the wake of these alleged war crimes.
There were the master chief and senior chief who allegedly got whacked at NJP for their lucrative help providing classified information to a video game designer. Not to mention the master chief who allegedly was charged with violating Article 93 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, cruelty and maltreatment of a person subject to his orders.
Howard’s filing also drops the dime on a master chief who left a squadron “for something related to drug use and has been to NJP more than once in his career.” And what about the lieutenant commander who was “having an affair” with one of the alleged victims in Howard’s case?
Navy leaders declined comment when contacted by Coffee or Die.
At the very least, that should’ve been disclosed to Howard before his court-martial trial because “it provides an explanation as to why DEVGRU Command went so far outside the lines in their treatment” of Howard, wrote the SEAL veteran’s attorneys, Timothy C. Parlatore and Elizabeth M. Candelario.
Howard said SEAL leaders made him a target in 2017 because he wanted to stay home for his wife’s childbirth instead of deploying to Somalia. The 2017 Blue Squadron Seal of the Year who was vying to become DEVGRU’s top operator said he suddenly found himself in the crosshairs of senior enlisted leaders.
“They told me I’d be labeled a traitor,” Howard said. “They said I’d go to court-martial as a deserter and a traitor, treating me like a terrorist. All that happened to me after that, started with that.”
Howard said weeks later he was accused of posing as a female civilian nutritionist who texted other women to send nude selfies. No photographs, however, were ever exchanged.
Howard said his command asked him to take a polygraph test proving he wasn’t the spoofer. According to his appeal, he passed both tests. Howard told Coffee or Die he wasn’t even in the country when some of the communications with the women occurred. He was on a combat deployment.
In early 2018, Howard retained legal counsel. That allegedly sparked a confrontation with his command master chief and another master chief, who told him he was “guilty for getting a lawyer,” a “fucking idiot,” and a sailor who “cannot be trusted,” according to court records.
They ordered Howard to a Disciplinary Review Board on the catfishing case. The panel recommended he go to nonjudicial punishment proceedings. At the hearing, fellow SEALs came forward to support him, but he was found guilty.
“I didn’t want to say I was guilty. I told them that I wasn’t guilty. They said, ‘You’re guilty anyway,’” Howard told Coffee or Die.
Howard was supposed to receive a Bronze Star with Valor for battlefield bravery. It was signed but never presented to him in a ceremony. He found it shoved in a trash can.
SEAL leaders removed Howard from DEVGRU and sent him to Naval Air Station Oceana. He’d spend the next two years there scrubbing toilets, scooping dog poop, removing roadkill from roadways, raking rocks, and maintaining the officers’ club.
Barred from the DEVGRU compound, he couldn’t maintain his qualifications at the shooting range, jumps, or dives. That special pay ended. According to his appeal, the command fabricated his FITREPs to scuttle his advancement to chief petty officer.
On June 7, 2019, Navy officials arraigned Howard on the catfishing charges, the same issue he thought had been resolved at NJP.
But this time, the SEALs who had supported him refused to aid his defense team at court-martial. And Howard still refused to plead guilty.
Howard’s legal team tried to get the charges thrown out, arguing that the prosecution of the SEAL was compromised by unlawful command influence. The military judge tossed out their motion.
They argued that Howard’s demeaning assignment to Naval Air Station Oceana proved leaders were punishing him before trial.
The judge threw that one out, too.
After the unlawful command motion was filed, the brass allegedly cracked down on Howard’s appointed Navy defense counsel. According to the appeal, the lieutenant’s Norfolk senior defense counsel told him their boss, the “upset” commanding officer of the Navy Mid-Atlantic Defense Services Office, wanted to talk to him about the motion.
Court filings allege that Howard’s Navy attorney felt that his “career had been threatened” after being “chastised for overly zealous representation.” On Aug. 16, 2019, the commanding officer convened his entire corral of JAGs to discuss what he called “defense overreach,” according to the appeal.
“He explained that just because filing a motion is legal and ethical does not mean it’s the right thing to do, and that defense counsel must ‘show restraint,’” the court filing states.
Howard’s Navy counsel asked the military judge to withdraw from the case. On Aug. 19, 2019, his request was granted.
At trial in early 2020, a panel of his peers found Howard guilty of indecent conduct for encouraging women to send nude photos and for impersonating an official in text messages. He was reduced a pay grade, forfeited $500 per month for three months, and spent 30 days in the brig.
Howard’s appeal arrived independently of hundreds of DEVGRU files that were leaked to Coffee or Die this week alleging the mistreatment of other sailors and civilian employees at the clandestine command.
They’re mixed in with files detailing overseas operations, award citations, battlefield photographs, inspector general complaints, including the alleged treatment of female civilians at the command, screenshots of cell phone communications between operators, the inevitable parade of PowerPoint slides, and an avalanche of paperwork detailing daily life at home and abroad for operators made famous by the slaying of al Qaeda leader Usama Bin Laden during a 2011 raid inside Pakistan.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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