SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. Navy intelligence specialist Colleen Grace was asleep on a remote air base in Iraq in 2019 when she was woken up by knocking on the door next to her room, and then a voice she recognized.
The voice belonged to a Navy corpsman she knew. He was upset and speaking loudly to the Army colonel who lived next door. Grace heard the corpsman say that a sailor who attended a Fourth of July barbecue had just been raped by a member of the Navy SEAL platoon on the base. The corpsman asked the colonel what to do because the victim was afraid that if she reported the incident, retribution would follow.
“And that’s real,” Grace heard Hospitalman First Class Gustavo Llerenes tell Col. Thomas Collins, a physician’s assistant with the Florida National Guard. “It’s a good ol’ boy’s network.”
She said she heard Collins urge Llerenes to keep his voice down, saying the walls between the rooms were thin.
Grace, who could no longer hear the conversation between medical professionals, looked down at her phone to check the time. Just then Grace noticed a missed text from a friend asking her to come over. “Urgent,” the message read.
When Grace got to her friend’s room around 1:50 a.m., she found the sailor curled up in her bed. A giant black bruise marred her jawline. Several other marks lined her neck. It was then that Grace realized the overheard conversation about a rape was about her friend.
Grace said her friend told her the sex started out consensual in the SEAL’s room but then he started biting and choking her. Her friend told her that at one point she thought “what is he going to do with my body when he kills me?” because she said he was strangling her so hard she couldn’t breathe.
Grace gingerly asked her if it would be OK to photograph her injuries. She said she lifted her friend’s shirt to find more bruises — on her breast, a shoulder, her stomach.
Grace sent the photos to her friend’s phone, and then hugged her and cried, unsure of what would happen next.
But she and her friend would not stay silent.
Within weeks, the entire Foxtrot platoon of SEAL Team 7, known as Trident 1726, was sent home early to San Diego. It was an extremely rare move to cut short the mission of a unit that was there to combat remnants of ISIS. Navy officials have given few details other than to say there was an alleged sexual assault and drinking at a Fourth of July barbecue in Iraq in 2019 in violation of Navy rules barring deployed troops from consuming alcohol.
The story of the platoon being pulled from Iraq has been previously reported, but documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with nearly a dozen people give the first in-depth view into what led to the rare recall. The documents and interviews show that women deployed with the SEALs say they were ogled and sexually harassed during the deployment. Records obtained by the AP from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service also reveal a previously unknown reported allegation of sexual misconduct against the SEAL platoon chief, Special Warfare Operator Chief Nicholas Olson, two days before the Fourth of July barbecue. Olson denies any wrongdoing.
The platoon was withdrawn after the Navy made an unusually public push to strengthen order and discipline in its secretive elite force amid a series of scandals involving SEALs. The misconduct has included cocaine use and tampering of drug tests by members of SEAL Team 10 based in Virginia, and last year’s conviction of Navy SEAL Adam Matthews, who was sentenced to one year in military prison for his role in the 2017 hazing-related deathof an Army Green Beret in Africa.
The Navyfired three SEAL leaders in the aftermath of the alleged rape on the Iraq air base and charged an enlisted SEAL with sexual assault, aggravated assault via strangulation and assault by battery for allegedly biting the victim on the face, among other counts, according to his charge sheet. He faces a court-martial in November. A hearing in the case will be held Friday at Naval Base San Diego.
Jeremiah Sullivan, the lawyer for the SEAL, said he is innocent and “we look forward to trying his case in a court of law.” The SEAL, who was charged Dec. 30, filed a counter claim in February against the sailor alleging she sexually assaulted him, taking advantage of him when he was “incapacitated.”
AP is not naming the SEAL despite his criminal charges nor the sailor because they both say they were victims of sexual abuse and AP has a policy of not identifying victims unless they choose to be.
Grace is the first service member to come forward to talk about what happened at Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq. She spoke to the AP in an exclusive interview, detailing what she witnessed that night, describing what she said were attempts by Olson, the platoon chief, to stop the alleged sexual assault from being reported, and revealing other misconduct towards another female sailor working with the SEAL platoon during the 2019 deployment to Anbar Province.
AP spoke to other service members on the deployment who asked not to be named or quoted for fear it could jeopardize their military careers. The sailor who reported being sexually assaulted on July 4, 2019, declined to be interviewed. Llerenes, the Navy corpsman, also declined to be interviewed for this story. Multiple attempts were made to connect with Col. Collins but were unsuccessful.
The drinking at the Fourth of July barbecue in Iraq and the alleged sexual assault that same night came only two days after the acquittal of Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who was accused by his platoon members of killing a captive Islamic State fighter and shooting civilians during a deployment to Iraq in 2017. Gallagher was also a member of SEAL Team 7 in Iraq but with a different platoon and under different leadership.
Gallagher — who was convicted of a single charge for posing with the dead teen militant’s body for a picture — got support from President Donald Trump, who prevented the military from taking disciplinary action against the former SEAL, pitting the commander-in-chief against the Navy’s top brass.
The Fourth of July incident led to a second ethics review of America’s commando forces in a year. The review by the Special Operations Command found a problematic culture that overemphasized combat and put troops at times far from supervision, opening the door to inappropriate behavior.
Navy SEAL Capt. Todd Perry, the commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq in 2019, blamed the “Gallagher Effect,” a term coined by leadership to denote the corrosive influence on a platoon such as the one Gallagher’s behavior had on order and discipline.
“It only took one bad platoon chief to influence the entire platoon,” that the no-drinking rule did not apply to them and that the “brotherhood” was more important than the Navy — “just as Gallagher was able to do with the dishonorable members of his platoon” during his deployment in 2017, Capt. Perry stated in an interview with an Army officer investigating the Fourth of July incident, according to military records obtained by AP. During the interview in Baghdad on July 29, 2019, Perry made no mention of any sexual assault allegations.
About a dozen female service members were attached to the SEAL platoon during a six-month deployment to Iraq that began in March of 2019.
On the air base, Grace and the other service members who supported Special Operations Task Force-West, the unit responsible for missions inside Anbar Province, Iraq, lived at Camp Fenin while the SEALs stayed at Camp Freiwald, about a 10-minute walk away.
The deployment — Grace’s first with the SEALs — was slow, she said. Others who had deployed previously to Iraq told her they had never seen it so quiet. She was asked to identify ISIS targets for the SEALs in an area that had been largely untouched for the past nine months.
Grace said the women worked hard to earn the respect of the SEALs. “We’re in there 18 hours a day. We wanted their respect. We were doing good work for these guys,” she said.
But Grace said the intelligence staff was under a lot of pressure from the SEALs to do more. “People were itching to get outside the wire at every opportunity,” but not a lot of information was coming in that they could act on, Grace said.
Then she said she started receiving text messages from Olson, the platoon chief, late at night that were not work-related. At first, she thought it was because he thought highly of her work.
“After I’d been invited over to that side of the camp to have drinks on multiple occasions, I was like this is inappropriate, and that’s kind of when he and I stopped speaking,” Grace said.
The Fourth of July was a holiday and for some of the special operators, there was even more reason to pop open a bottle with the military jury in San Diego acquitting Gallagher, ending a war crimes case that had tarnished the commando force’s image.
Grace said only two days earlier, one of her friends had knocked on her door crying and said Olson exposed himself to her after they met at a makeshift lounge on Camp Freiwald.
According to a July 16, 2019, report of the incident by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a male, whose name was redacted, met a female to talk privately on July 2. He told her “how all of the team wants to sleep with you,” and “we all talked about who will be the first one to do it.”
The male then reached into his pants and “exposing his penis,” grabbed her from behind her neck and pulled her toward his groin area, according to the report. Afterwards, the male drove the woman to a base cafeteria and asked her to walk back alone to her room so no one would see them together. Later, the woman received a text from the man apologizing for his behavior. The AP was able to confirm the incident involved Olson and a sailor through interviews with service members on the deployment.
Grace said her friend told her that Olson also said how everyone had noticed the nipples poking through the T-shirts of the female sailors during their daily briefings. She added that her friend said there were other “vile comments.” Olson’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said his client denies making any inappropriate comments.
“I feel violated on her behalf,” Grace said. “But also like wow, we are not respected. We are not members of the team. We are pieces of meat that these people ogle.”
Parlatore, who also represented Gallagher, said the July 2 allegation is false and was made by an intelligence specialist who held back information necessary to kill ISIS.
“These individuals have the motivation to lie about my client,” Parlatore said.
The victim signed a statement on July 13, 2019, saying she did not wish to participate in the investigation. In the signed statement, obtained by AP, it states she understood the chances of the suspect being brought to justice would be greatly reduced without her assistance. The case was closed.
The woman told Grace she did not want to report Olson for exposing himself to her on July 2 because she was concerned it would hurt her career.
“She was tough as nails and she didn’t want anyone to know that anything affected her ever,” Grace said.
After the alleged incident with Olson, the woman told Grace that she would only go to the barbecue for a short while, and she wasn’t going alone. With her friends off to celebrate and the night to herself, Grace face-timed with her family in Michigan, watched Netflix, and then fell asleep.
Hours later, Grace was woken up by the knocking and rushed to help another friend, who said she had just been raped. The Navy corpsman and the female sailor who had been assaulted two days earlier were consoling the victim when Grace got to her room. They told Grace that Olson had stopped outside her room twice that night and warned that everyone at the barbecue will get into trouble if the second woman reported the rape, Grace said.
Parlatore, Olson’s attorney, denies that the SEAL chief tried to stop anyone from reporting the rape.
The woman followed the advice of doctors on base who told her she would need to go to Baghdad to be examined and report the July 4 rape. She was told to not take anything off and put her uniform pants over what she already had on.
Grace rode with her in an ambulance to where a helicopter was waiting.
At about 4:25 a.m., Grace hugged her friend, who boarded the aircraft, and then returned to her room.
“I was a wreck, so of course I called my mom,” Grace said. “She told me to block my door, have my gun by my bed and write everything down.”
After the Fourth of July, Grace said she could no longer stay silent about the July 2 assault, even though the woman who told her about the incident with Olson “was adamant that I don’t tell, but I had to. I felt a duty. Her privacy mattered less because our other friend was raped.”
Her only regret, Grace said, is she did not take notes July 2 like she did following the Fourth of July when she had the benefit of hindsight and “went straight to my computer and typed everything up that I could remember, dates, times, who I talked to, all of it.”
Grace said her work environment worsened after the Fourth of July barbecue.
She went back to work hours after seeing her friend off. No one mentioned why a member of the intelligence staff was not at her desk, Grace said.
On July 8, Grace grew concerned that the Navy would try to cover up things and wrote to U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, relaying her detailed notes and naming everyone she knew was involved that night. She told the California Democrat that Olson was sure he would have the power to convince her friend not to report the July 4 assault and that she was concerned that more than 24 hours had passed before the crime scene — the enlisted SEAL’s room — was secured.
“I said to myself, if they try (to) cover this incident up, I’ll tell the New York Times exactly how Eddie Gallagher’s old unit is doing things,” Grace wrote. “Perhaps I should have more faith in my Chain of Command, and I pray that I am not overreacting. However, the more that I think about it, the more I see it is not totally outside the realm of possibility that higher-level leadership will get involved in order to ensure that this quietly disappears.”
Almost a week would go by before it was brought up by the commanding officer, Cmdr. Edward Mason, of SEAL Team 7, who visited the base to discuss it on July 10.
“It was nice to hear someone finally acknowledge that something had happened,” Grace said.
Mason ordered the enlisted SEAL to be examined by a bio forensics specialist, his room swept for evidence, and his weapons locked up. He also had the SEAL and Olson sent home.
On July 11, investigators arrived in Iraq. Two weeks later the entire platoon was sent home after members refused to cooperate with the investigation without having a lawyer present, according to a person who spoke to members of the team. The person, who asked not to be named, said the SEALs were perceived guilty from the start.
Some of the SEALs blamed the female Navy sailors for the interruption in the mission, and the tension made it difficult to do their job effectively, Grace said.
“We were ostracized and that’s a very difficult position to be in when you’re trying to feed people mission information,” she said. “We were treated like pariahs after the July 4th thing, you know, because we were the people that had lied … so that the team would go home.”
In video conferences, Navy brass gave stern warnings that the SEAL teams cannot have any more bad press, Grace said.
Olson was reprimanded and has since lost his Trident pin, the symbol of his membership in the SEALs. Parlatore said the Navy cited his platoon’s drinking and the July 2 allegation. He is appealing the decision. The Naval Special Warfare Command declined to comment due to pending litigation.
The Navy’s top SEAL, Rear Adm. Collin Green, fired Mason, Command Master Chief Hugh Spangler, and Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Luke Im, saying their leadership failures led to a breakdown of order and discipline within two units in Iraq.
Mason and Spangler filed a complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General to demand the independent agency investigate the firings.
Both men, who have since retired, said in the complaint that they were being used as scapegoats because Green was upset over Navy prosecutors losing the Gallagher case. They accused Navy leadership of putting the SEALs at risk when they pulled the platoon immediately out of Iraq.
The inspector general determined there was insufficient evidence from the complaint to open an investigation, said Dwerna Allen, an agency spokeswoman.
Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, supports Green’s actions, his spokesman Cmdr. Nate Christensen said. Green has made changes and “taken a ‘back to basics’ leadership approach to ensure that his community fully demonstrates both professional competency and character in all they do.”
Grace said she underwent therapy because of what happened in Iraq. She left the Navy in February.
“It literally broke my heart because these were people that were my heroes,” she said of the SEALs. “It was going to be the highlight of my career, and what do I learn? That these people would rather, you know, have each other’s backs and cover up a sexual assault.”
LaPorta reported from Delray Beach, Florida.
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.