I recently prepared a presentation for a group of lawyers on a case I had concluded representing a retired Navy SEAL, and—was trying to think of what value it might have to them other than just hearing a war story. I came up with two objectives for myself.
First: My wish for them—and for every lawyer—is that you have the opportunity to represent someone you really care about. I have been lucky enough to do that more than once. But my representation of retired Navy SEAL Mark Owen is a perfect microcosm of what caring for your client does to the character of your representation.
I care deeply about this guy. My son accuses me of having a bro-mance. Guilty as charged. I am a team player. And one of the things I love about Mark and about the SEALs is their loyalty to team. The team comes first, a concept we don’t find much in modern American life. And, as you will read below, there sometimes is a lack of loyalty within the SEAL community—or at least within the Command of the SEALs.
Many of you have read Mark’s books, No Easy Day and No Hero. For those of you who haven’t, let me introduce him. He is a retired Navy SEAL who graduated from Bud’s Class 226 in December 1999. His class voted him the “Honorman” – a title like MVP, voted on by the class for the man who helped the entire class get to graduation. After Buds, he served on SEAL team 5 for several years and was picked by Command to apply for the Navy Special Warfare Development Group—what we know as SEAL Team 6. He qualified for SEAL Team 6, and he became a Team Leader in Red Squadron. He served for 13 years, with 11 deployments and received a Silver Star, five Bronze Stars with V for valor, a Purple Heart, a Defense Meritorious Service Award, a Joint Commendation Metal with V for Valor, a Navy Commendation Metal with V for valor, two Presidential Unit Citations, and 13 Sea Service Deployment ribbons.
He was a Team Leader on the raid that resulted in the rescue of Captain Phillips and he was the Team Leader on the Bin Laden raid. He was in the Black Hawk that crashed in the Bin Laden compound. He was the second man through the door of Bin Laden’s bedroom.
Following the Bin Laden raid, he saw it being politicized, with everyone claiming credit and trying to profit from the operation. He retired and decided to write a book (No Easy Day) about the raid from the perspective of the SEALs who could not speak for themselves.
He didn’t write the book to brag about himself. If you have read his book, you know that he didn’t try to glorify himself or take personal credit. His book is about the team (unlike several other SEAL books we could mention). And he didn’t write the book to profit from his SEAL service, although the book was the top-selling book, fiction or non-fiction, the year it was released. In the forward of his book, he announced that sale proceeds from the book would be donated to charities serving the families of fallen SEALs. Because of the events I’m about to describe, he was never able to keep that promise.
I met Mark in July 2014. By that time, he had been in a shit-storm for almost two years since the book’s release in September 2012. Rumors swirled through the internet that he had written the book to profit from the sacrifice of other SEALs, notwithstanding his promise to give all the money away. Fox News revealed his true identity (Mark Owen is a pen-name) and he and his family were on an Al-Qaida hit list. Department of Defense was threatening to sue Mark to take away all income from the book-which they later did. Department of Justice had him under criminal investigation for treason. And worst of all, Command turned their backs on him- Adm. McRaven told him to lose his number. The one criticism that most pissed me off was that SEAL Command accused him of violating “the warrior code.” McRaven could write a book, Panetta could write a book, CIA could help with Zero Dark Thirty, hell, Chris Kyle could write a book, but Mark is the one who violated the warrior code?
So why this shit-storm? He hired a lawyer to help him with his book and that lawyer told him he had no obligation to submit the manuscript to a pre-publication review and even advised him not to do that review. Once the government sent him a letter about the book, Mark put all the income into an escrow account and ceased to promote the book. Our job was to sue the lawyer who gave him this bad advice and to help him in his negotiations with the government.
I won’t bore you with the details of four years of litigation and our representation of Mark. I will tell you that I expected his former lawyer, an ex-JAG Corps Army officer with Special Operations experience, to be a standup guy and acknowledge his mistaken advice (that “team player” side of me hoped for this). But he and his law firm tried to blame Mark for their own negligent advice. After going through three different law firms and wasting $1 million off a diminishing insurance policy, they finally settled with what was left of the depleted insurance policy and Mark was able to pay his bills and his debt to the government. But there was no money left for the families of fallen SEALs.
I said I had two objectives, so here’s the second one. In addition to being a TEAM kind of guy, I am totally a hero worshiper. I grew up in Shamrock, Texas, paying a quarter on Saturday afternoons to go to the Texan theater to watch movies where Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy or Gene Autry fought to defend people who couldn’t defend themselves. I worshiped those cowboys and wanted to be like them. Not to be a bad ass—bad guys can be bad asses. No, I wanted to be someone’s hero, someone who protected others, someone friends could count on. Like Mark!
Mark is one of those guys I worship. And in discussions with him, I made it clear how much I respected him and why. He looked at me for a minute and then said, “Don’t you realize you guys are my SEAL Team 6?”
Now, let me add quickly here that I know this sounds like I am trying to glorify myself. I hope I am not. If I am subconsciously trying to pat myself on the back, at least you can know that I am aware of the issue.
No, the reason I tell that story is to illustrate my second lesson from Mark. I always seem to undervalue what we lawyers do. I see the value of everyone else and want to be like them, but I often fail to appreciate how important what we lawyers do is. I forget how our clients view us. So, my second objective with this blog, in addition to wishing for you to have clients that you genuinely care about, is to confirm that I recognize the value of what you do for them. In the world of pursuing justice for the injured and protecting the falsely accused, we are the SEALs. And I am proud to be with you on that team.