Brandon Webb and Jack Murphy?s media giant may have just crossed the line for the last time.
Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sgt. La David Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, KIA 10.4.17.
The footage from the camera on the American soldier?s helmet is unsteady. It takes a moment for the viewer to realize that the camera is moving because the man wearing it is heaving for breath.
His enemy paces menacingly across the camera?s field of vision, moves closer, and delivers an unmistakable shot. The camera is instantly rendered motionless. Blood pools silently on the ground.
I wish I had never seen it. Not because I am afraid to witness the horrors of combat; not because I now feel the need to scrub the images from my memory (I don?t).
No, I?m horrified because it was none of my business. Those moments captured on film were between that soldier and his God. He did not consent for that film to be made or released, nor did he consent for me to view it. I do not know his wife, or his children, or his mother and father. I am sorry that I violated the sacredness of his final moments by viewing something that was not mine to see.
I wonder if the other 1.4 million viewers of that same clip on YouTube feel the same way. Or the combined 84k viewers of that same clip by additional posters.
I know men who currently serve in a Special Operations capacity. Yes, they saw the video. Long before it was shared online by the Islamic State (ISIS), marked with their signature and dubbed over with a propaganda soundtrack. The men who first saw that video are his brothers, no matter what branch of service to which they belong. I have no doubt that when they did see the footage, it was viewed with appropriate solemnity and reverence. Of course it was. These men face the same threats.
But what of the nearly 1.5 million viewers who helped themselves to a viewing of this clip, which documented last October?s ambush on American Special Forces in Niger that ultimately resulted in the deaths of Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Sgt. La David Johnson?
Ironically ??perhaps ?ironically? is not the best word for what I need to tell you next. It?s worse than ironic. I?ll let you choose your own modifier when I tell you what happened.
See, these men were ambushed once in life. But then, in death, they were betrayed. Betrayed in the worst way possible: by their own brothers.
Brothers who have taken oaths, like:
?I serve with the memory of those who have gone before me. I pledge to uphold the honor and integrity of their legacy in all that I am ??in all that I do.? (Special Forces Creed)
?Never shall I fail my comrades.? (Ranger Creed)
?Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America?s finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life. I am that man.? (SEAL Ethos)
When and where did this betrayal take place? When the American media company SOFREP ??built by former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and former Ranger/Green Beret Jack Murphy ??made the unthinkable decision to push this terrorist propaganda video out for public media consumption.
Yes, you read that correctly. That?s how the video has reached over 1.5 million viewers now. When the original ISIS propaganda video was released, YouTube knew well enough to take it down. When SOFREP made the questionable decision to scrub the video of its soundtrack and replace the ISIS logo with their own branding, YouTube left it up. When I reached out to SOFREP personally through Instagram for justification, this is the response I received:
?We?re a media company. We report everything. The title is clear. It shouldn?t be clicked on if you don?t want to watch it. We cater to far more people than war fighters and spouses. We cater to anyone that wants to know the truth of our military operations. We?ve been on the other end of this video. We know the cost all too well. Now you once again are reminded of that cost.?
I?d like to know who penned this response. Was it Brandon Webb, the former SEAL? If so, I?d like to ask him how catering to ?far more people than war fighters and spouses? takes precedence over his promise in the SEAL Ethos, to ?stand alongside America?s finest special operations forces to serve his country.? Surely promoting an ISIS propaganda video of a fallen special operator?s final moments on this earth does not constitute ?standing alongside? him. Far from it.
Did Jack Murphy write it? I?d like to ask him how robbing dying men of their dignity does not constitute ?failing his comrades,? as Rangers swear in their creed never to do. Most damningly, I would like to ask him how the choice to promote this propaganda video as SOFREP?s own coincides with the Special Forces Creed, which promises ?to serve with the memory of those who have gone before,? pledging ?to uphold the honor and integrity of their legacy.? The action and the value are irreconcilable no matter how you sway it. There is no excusing or explaining this one.
Perhaps the deepest irony of all? It has been reported by Newsweek that Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Maali, the Mauritanian author and expert on Jihadi groups in West Africa who was the first reporter to claim having footage of this attack, chose not to publish anything more than a screenshot of the video. The justification for this choice? The news agency employing al-Maali chose not to publish the video ?out of respect for the families of the slain American soldiers, whose faces are shown.? There is no explaining how the former SEAL and Ranger/Green Beret behind SOFREP could have let their own short-sightedness and greed stand in their way of reaching the same conclusion. Even a foreign news agency could see what dignity needed to be afforded.
The name ?SOFREP? means, essentially, ?Special Operations Forces Report.? But as one active duty SEAL with whom I spoke for this article put it, ?their own title implies that they represent SOF [Special Operations Forces], but clearly no SOF representative would disseminate that video. So what are they, really? Two disgraced, greedy former operators who unscrupulously profit from things like this.?
All that can be concluded is that SOFREP is neither what it seems nor what it purports to be. The dark secret about SOFREP, which isn?t a secret at all inside the Special Operations community, is that it?s a media company which Brandon Webb built by exaggerating claims about his own service in order to build status and notoriety for himself among the civilian public. It?s not a difficult thing to do when most of your work is classified and the people who are in a position to call you out on it are sworn to silence. Webb can say and publish pretty much anything he wants; the people who can show him for what he really is are too busy with the incessant training, traveling, deploying, planning, fighting, and who-knows-what else, to occupy themselves with Webb?s foolishness.
But the civilian world buys into it hook, line, and sinker. This isn?t an indictment of SOFREP?s civilian followers, because who are they to know any different? They are buying the media picture of the Special Ops mystique that they are being sold. They?re hungry to feed a fantasy, and Webb and his compatriots are happy to dish it out. Dish it out at any cost, by the way, and not without controversy. The controversies do abound, and plentifully. From Webb?s exaggerated claims about his own combat experience to his checkered and contentious history with the wives of fallen SEALs he has featured in his books, his story is plagued with conflict.
Former teammate Chris Osman has gained quite a public following himself by working to debunk Webb?s false persona at every turn. While Webb has done his level best to exploit his own media connections in order to drag Osman?s name through the mud, I was actually referred to connect with Osman through an honorable and trustworthy active duty source who can?t be cited. That source, who?s spent upwards of 15 years in the SEAL teams and is currently preparing for a 10th deployment, told me that Osman would speak the truth on behalf of all his brothers who faithfully uphold the SEAL ethos, that ?I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.?
Chris Osman has known Brandon Webb for 20 years. They went through BUD/S together, served together, and were snipers in the same platoon in Afghanistan ? all of which, and more, Osman can document. When I spoke to Osman, he reflected that the greatest offense, by far, is the assertion the SOFREP team made to me that they?ve been on the other end of this video.?
They most certainly have not, if Brandon Webb?s military career is any indication. Osman?s words: ?I can tell you for a FACT that Brandon Webb has never been shot at in his entire life. Nor has he ever fired his weapon in combat. He?s not even seen anyone die while he was on active duty, to my knowledge. None of his platoon mates were ever injured. When he says he?s on the other end of the video, that?s a public persona that they?re trying to put out there ? that they?re these combat veterans. But it?s all a scam.?
Webb knows he?s persona non grata in the SEAL community, Osman assured me. That?s why he knew better than to attend the funerals of the men who gave their lives on Extortion 17 in 2011. While Webb went on, in 2015, to publish the book ?Among Heroes: A U.S. Navy SEAL?s True Story of Friendship, Heroism, and the Ultimate Sacrifice,? which featured bios of many of the men of Extortion 17, the truth was that even some of the families were disgusted by this move. According to retired SEAL Jimmy Hatch, one gold star wife confided in him her disgust ? that ?her husband, when he was alive, had actually told her he couldn?t stand Webb. She was never contacted by Brandon Webb [for the book], she?s furious and offended, and she?s not the only one who feels this way,? Hatch told the Virginian-Pilot.
Webb?s exploitation of the SEAL team mystique, built mostly upon others? legacies of honor and hard work, is the most disgusting and shameless part, Osman emphasizes. ?Brandon Webb is the Bernie Madoff of Special Operations,? he points out. ?SOFREP is nothing more than a scam perpetuated on people with a fascination in Special Operations who don?t realize what they?re actually buying into. You know what ?SOFREP? should stand for?? Osman asked me, ?Special Operations Failures Relentlessly Exploiting Our Profession.?
How successful has SOFREP?s exploitation been? There are numbers to consider. On instagram alone, SOFREP has 93k followers. A one year Team Room subscription to SOFREP is $9.99 per month; $99.99 if you pay for the year up front. Even if only half of those followers are subscribers, consider the numbers. That?s between roughly $4.5 and $5.5 million annually. That is an insane amount of money.
Now consider the financial needs of charitable organizations that directly benefit the Special Operations community. For every $5,000 donated, the SEAL Future Fund will provide support for secondary education to a transitioning Navy SEAL. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF) is also focused on education, promising a full ride, all expenses paid college education to the children of all fallen special operations personnel. SOWF additionally provides $3,000 emergency grants for family members to quickly fly overseas to meet wounded loved ones at their bedside. The Navy SEAL Foundation, Green Beret Foundation, Lead the Way Fund, and Wounded Warrior Project are other noteworthy organizations that provide a broad range of similar services that actually support service members and their families.
Think about what this picture would look like if SOFREP?s entire following channeled their fascination with the world of Special Operations into something positive and productive. Not everyone can fight at the tip of the spear, but everyone can find a way to serve in a supportive role. Investing time and money in a media organization of questionable integrity brings little to no social impact of discernible value. Giving of one?s time and money to organizations that do good is a very tangible positive.
When I reached out to SOFREP, they told me, ?This is what war looks like?If you don?t like the video, don?t watch it. But let it serve as a stark reminder of what we face.?
As a civilian who?s found her calling serving in a relatively minor supportive role to the greater and far more admirable efforts of fellow patriots, I?d like to suggest an alternative.
There is no need to view ISIS propaganda videos of American soldiers being brutally slain in order to understand the harsh realities of war. For a ?stark reminder of what we face,? as SOFREP characterized the video, one need look no further than the testimonies of the gold star families that our fallen warriors leave behind. The young mothers and beautiful children. The proud, patriotic, heartbroken moms and dads, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends. Osman shared with me an earnest plea offered by the sister of the soldier so savagely killed in the film, which speaks more volumes than viewing the clip ever could:
?I just want to let everyone know if you have not seen the video my brother?s helmet cam video has been released it is the actual video from his helmet no animation completely raw and live. I?ve had several people message me to warn me about it and I will not be watching it. I have talked to my father, my father did see the video and he advised me not to watch it. With that being said I?m going to ask that if you see it please report it I have several people working on getting it taken off Facebook right now so if you see it please report it and please try to get it taken down I have a young niece that does not need to be seeing this she does not need to see her father died like that it?s bad enough she has to live with everything else she does not need to see the camera footage from his helmet so I?m asking from our hearts.?
Is there really any more that needs to be said?
These families? sacrifices are the starkest reminder that any of us should ever need to divert our attention from worthless pastimes like hanging around in SOFREP chatrooms or playing Call of Duty. War is not entertainment, nor is is it sport. And the fantasy of service is easily replaced by the reality of actual service, even in a minor or tangential capacity. Every bit helps.
Some actionable suggestions:
For those wishing to cancel their SOFREP memberships and divert their funds to a worthwhile charitable organization, please consider some of the following:
SEAL Future Fund www.sealff.org
Lead The Way Fund www.leadthewayfund.org
Special Operations Warrior Foundation https://specialops.org
Navy SEAL Foundation www.navysealfoundation.org
Green Beret Foundation www.greenberetfoundation.org
SEAL Legacy Foundation
Wounded Warrior Project www.woundedwarriorproject.org
2. Stand Up.
Please also visit www.youtube.com and report the SOFREP videos as content which Promotes Terrorism. Let YouTube know that these videos were originally removed from YouTube when they were watermarked as ISIS propaganda, but they are now circulating again after SOFREP?s choice to disseminate them.
[Edited 15:54 3.8.18]: Please sign the petition to have the videos removed from YouTube.
Write to your senator. Tell them that SOFREP has shared ISIS propaganda footage of American soldiers in peril on YouTube, and ask them to take action. To do so, visit www.senate.gov, and then click on Senators>Contact to find yours. Or write to them all, as at least one industrious reader has now done.
Some members of the Special Forces, Ranger, and SEAL communities are making efforts to have Brandon Webb and Jack Murphy disavowed from their related Associations, should readers wish to lend voice to these efforts.