Carl Higbie survived almost a decade of perilous service in the Navy SEALs, fighting through close calls in combat and multiple tours overseas, before a book proved his undoing.
Higbie knew there might be repercussions when he decided to publish a book, despite the fact that several other SEAL memoirs had come out well before his. But he never expected that his exemplary service would suddenly count for nothing while the Navy, in an unprecedented act of retribution, downgraded his discharge from “Honorable” to “General” months after he had left the military.
After decades in the shadows conducting clandestine operations, the Navy SEALs have stepped into the limelight in the past few years as a series of memoirs and Hollywood movies have publicized the exploits of the once secretive community. The Navy’s response to the publicity has been mixed, openly courting it when it suits their aims—in one case reportedly requiring active duty SEALs to participate in a film “Act of Valor,” to drive up recruitment, but punishing those who step out of line.
Such was the case when Special Operations Petty Officer 1st Class Carl Higbie was railroaded out of the Navy SEAL community for publishing a book that disclosed no operational secrets, but expressed harsh criticisms of the US Military and political establishment. Higbie has suffered more than just the stain of having his service characterized as less than honorable; he is disqualified from using the GI Bill or other veterans’ benefits while the matter is being settled.
Higbie and his counsel, Guy Reschanthaler, are actively fighting to restore Higbie’s Honorable Discharge. Reschenthaler and Higbie first met while Reschenthaler was a Navy JAG officer defending one of the three Navy SEALs falsely accused of physically abusing Ahmed Hashim Abed, following his capture in September of 2009. Abed, the alleged mastermind behind the 2004 attack on Blackwater security contractors in Fallujah, Iraq had been sought for years before the SEALs finally caught up to him.
Higbie served as a witness for the defense in the 2010 trial that ended with the three SEALs eventually being exonerated of all charges. Compelled by what he saw as the injustice of the prosecution and a smear campaign against the SEALs, Higbie began to write down his observations. But his indignation at the military and political culture began earlier, during his second deployment to Iraq. On the SEAL’s second deployment to Iraq a friend of his on an Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or EOD, team was killed while transporting an IED that could have just as easily been blown in place, but for the demand of higher ups enforcing an obsolete Standard Operating Procedure that required the ordinance be brought back to base and blown up there.
It was these two incidents, the trial and his friend’s death, that inspired Higbie’s book, Battle on the Homefront: A Navy SEAL’s Mission to Save the American Dream.
“After [he] got killed.” says Higbie, “I wanted to scream. It was just so dishonorable. But during the  trial, that’s when I actually put pen to paper.”
SEAL memoirs have come into vogue lately, though not all feedback has been positive. Mark Owen’s No Easy Day, which presents a detailed account of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound as revealed by the triggerman himself, certainly ruffled a few feathers in the SpecOps community.
Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor is now a major motion picture with Mark Wahlberg playing the role of Luttrell. In the book, Luttrell rails against the Rules of Engagement, or ROEs, which he says hinder the SEALs’ ability to adequately defend themselves in such remote areas.
Higbie makes similar claims about the ROE, but unlike Luttrell who has become something of a celebrity while avoiding censure from the Navy— in Higbie’s case, his book cost him his Honorable Discharge.
According to his counsel, Higbie is the only service member ever to have had his discharge downgraded after his release. “I’ve practiced military criminal defense since 2008. I’ve never seen the Navy downgrade a discharge after the military had already awarded a characterization of service. I’ve asked attorneys who have practice a lot longer than I have. they’ve never heard of this. I’ve asked defense attorneys and prosecutors in the Navy. they’ve never seen this. I researched the topic. I found nothing. Frankly, we’re all amazed that Carl’s Command pulled an unheard of legal maneuver that violates Navy procedure, protocol and precedent.”
Over a two year period, Higbie says that he tried multiple times to run his manuscript up through his chain of command but that, despite his attempts, none of his superiors ever reviewed it officially.
When his requests for review were met with silence, Higbie went even further according to a statements he made to the website Rangerup, and “ran the manuscript through a gauntlet of non-SEAL JAG lawyers and senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials to ensure that his writing did not violate any operational security or other Dept. of Defense regulations.” But, despite his attempts, Higbie couldn’t get a response from his superiors. “They saw the fact that I was legally allowed to publish this book,” Higbie say, but “people didn’t want to review it and be held accountable for its release.” Hibie’s account is echoed by his counsel who told Rangerup that, “he continually tried to have the public affairs officer look at it,” but never got it through because “they were icing the book. The Navy went out of their way to make sure his First Amendment rights weren’t being upheld.”
In early April of 2012, two years after he completed his manuscript, Battle on the Homefront was published by Ameriman, LLC based in Riverside, CT. On that same day that the book was released, the backlash began. After ignoring his requests to review the book for two years his leadership adopted a newfound haste and responded to its publication, Higbie says, by warning him in writing that he had committed “possible ethical violations.”
What ensued after the book’s release and the initial letter, according to Higbie, was nothing short of hazing. For the first time in his nearly eight-yearlong career he began receiving administrative reprimands, or Page 13’s as they are called in the Navy, for uniform violations, and other minor infractions rarely ever enforced in the elite SEAL community where loose grooming standards are the norm.
The blowback culminated in a Trident Review Board- a hearing comprised of high-ranking SEALs from both the enlisted and officer ranks. During the board many of Higbie’s compatriots who he says privately shared his concerns about SEAL leadership and their willingness to “throw good SEALs under the bus,” according to Higbie, came forward and spoke out against him.
Although clearly dismayed by the ordeal, Higbie believes the Trident Review Board was really a show trial. Their decision to revoke his top-secret security clearance was, he says, “made at a much higher level.”
After a lengthy struggle with his command, Higbie decided he’d had enough and signed an early-out release on July 8th, 2012, which terminated his enlistment contract a few months prior to its original completion date. In so doing, he had to pay back part of his reenlistment bonus.
The DD-214 CERTIFICATE OF DISCHARGE OR RELEASE that Higbie signed clearly states, “HONORABLE,” in block 24 of the document, under CHARACTER OF SERVICE.
“If it didn’t say ‘Honorable,’ I wouldn’t have signed it.” Higbie says.
In block 28 of the same document, under the reason for discharge, it says, REDUCTION IN FORCE.
However, early in September of 2012, after he’d been out of the Navy for nearly two months, Higbie received in the mail a DD-215, a correction of discharge form, containing troubling new information. In block 24 of the new form, under CHARACTER OF SERVICE, it now read GENERAL.
Captain Denton, the commanding officer who authorized the new discharge cited a Page 13 Higbie had received for “potentially inappropriate political speech” months earlier. But Denton had never actually met Higbie or served as his commander having arrived at the SEAL team after Higbie left.
In an effort to rectify what he sees as glaring inefficiencies and an overall failure of leadership in Washington, Higbie has announced his candidacy for Congress in Connecticut’s’ 4th district. The author of this article had already begun investigating the allegations that Higbie’s discharge was a punishment for lawful ideas expressed in his book, before learning of his political aspirations.
If Higbie’s discharge was a form of retribution carried out against a SEAL for expressing unpopular ideas, it will set a dangerous precedent unless his record is amended to reflect his honorable service. Among veterans there has always been an understanding that reputation— the character of one’s service—is sacrosanct. In elite communities like the SEALs, that code of honor is fiercely guarded and among those who have sacrificed and risked their lives to earn it, nothing is more devastating than its loss. Allowing the Navy to rewrite history and retroactively tarnish the honorable service of a Navy SEAL, if true, sends the message that any SEAL, any troop, is fair game for political payback.