A member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 will spend 30 days in the brig after a panel of his peers found him guilty of attempting to catfish a woman, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokesperson Beth Baker said Friday.
Special Operator 1st Class Aaron Howard also will be reduced to petty officer second class and forfeit $500 from his pay for three months, Baker told Navy Times.
Military prosecutors originally accused the highly decorated Howard of posing as two different people, including a nutritionist hired by the command, to entice three women into sharing sexy snapshots of themselves over text messages — popularly called catfishing — in summer 2017.
The women included two civilians and an aircrew survival equipmentman second class.
But charges of indecent conduct and requesting and receiving the nude photos under false pretense involving the petty officer were dismissed and the military jury also found Howard not guilty on charges of indecent conduct and that he requested the snapshots from a female civilian under false pretense, Baker said.
Howard’s civilian defense attorney, Michael Waddington, said no nude photos were presented as evidence during the four-day trial at Naval Station Norfolk.
Howard’s military defense counsel, Marine Capt. Douglas Germano, said the prosecution sought a sentence of 18 months behind bars and a dishonorable discharge. Germano said he was glad that the jury recognized Howard’s service to his country by delivering a verdict that will allow him to seek a medical retirement.
Reading a prepared statement before his sentencing, Howard, 34, indicated that he needed medical care for the hidden wounds of war, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, hearing loss and traumatic brain injury.
He also spoke about being “punished and humiliated since the investigation began," including being sent to Naval Air Station Oceana where his duties included scrubbing toilets.
“The leadership banded together and formed a wall of silence,” Howard continued. “Anyone that spoke on my behalf was considered a traitor to DEVGRU. My friends confided in me that if they stepped forward, then they were no longer welcome at the command. This hurt me more than anything.”
It's the latest imbroglio to embarrass the SEALs, the elite special operators once lauded as “silent professionals” who eschewed the shenanigans that snagged headlines.
In pretrial motions, Waddington alleged that the case against the operator was tainted by unlawful command influence — a problem plaguing the Navy’s criminal justice system, according to a comprehensive review released last month by the sea service.
A Navy lawyer who assisted on Howard’s defense team was removed from the case last summer after a conflict of interest arose, Waddington previously told Navy Times.
According to an Oct. 2 motion seeking to dismiss the case, that attorney, Lt. Joseph Dowdalls, would have had to testify as a witness, as well as against his chain of command, over assertions that leaders pressured him to show restraint in the case.
Waddington also alleged in earlier motions that the case against Howard was tainted by superiors who called him an “idiot” who “cannot be trusted” after he hired legal counsel in early 2018 and that the team’s senior leaders discussed details of the SEAL’s case during a mid-2018 all hands call.
“At this meeting, it was put out that SO1 Howard was guilty and SEALs should not help with his case,” according to an Aug. 2 motion.
The Navy will launch an oversight committee to make sure the changes are carried out.
Howard joined SEAL Team 6 in 2014 and was named its Sailor of the Year two years later.
He received a Bronze Star with Valor device for heroics on the battlefield for exposing himself to small arms fire so teammates could evacuate two critically wounded members of an unnamed partner force during a Sept. 29, 2016, combat mission to ferret out a high value target deep into enemy territory in an undisclosed country.
Howard’s case is the latest to spotlight the often shadowy world of special operators but it won’t be the last.
A court-martial trial is slated this spring for Chief Special Warfare Operator Tony DeDolph, who is accused of killing a Green Beret in Mali.
An internal probe obtained by Navy Times earlier this year revealed lax drug testing and cocaine abuse among SEAL Team 10 members.
In July, SEAL Team 7′s Foxtrot Platoon got yanked from Iraq and sent home to Naval Base Coronado following a boozy Independence Day celebration that sparked allegations of sexual assault, fraternization and misconduct.
Team 7′s entire senior leadership was fired later by Naval Special Warfare Commanding Officer Rear Adm. Collin Green.
Green has become the target of several probes by the Department of Defense Inspector’s General for his role in their termination, plus the alleged mistreatment of Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher.
In October, four Naval Special Warfare Command service members also were busted in Okinawa, Japan for allegedly boozy and boorish behavior.
A sentencing date has not yet been set.
That incident remains under investigation, Lt. Matthew Stroup told Navy Times.
This story has been updated to reflect that the prosecution asked for a dishonorable discharge.