Wounded Combat Navy Seal Convicted Of Attempted ‘Cat Fishing’ Fights For Military And Medical Disability Benefits
Navy SEAL Aaron Howard never expected he’d go from fighting the enemy on the front lines to battling his own Naval Special Warfare Development Group command (DEVRU). Instead of working and training with his elite team, he said he’s been subjected to cleaning dirty latrines at Naval Air Station Oceana, lost his career and has been ridiculed by his commanders, along with some of the operators who served with him. Now, if his command has their way, he may lose what’s left — his military medical disability benefits incurred as a result of combat injuries.
Military prosecutors had accused Howard– a highly decorated SEAL operator – of posing as two different people, including an expert nutritionist hired by his command. The prosecutors attempted to prove that he posed as the nutritionist in online chats in 2017 with three women he worked with in an attempt coerce them into sending sexy photographs of themselves over text messages. It’s known as catfishing.
According to reports, the women “included two civilians and an aircrew survival equipment man second class.”
Howard’s command convened a General Court Martial but after a five day trial the most serious charges, regarding the request to receive the nude photos under false pretense, were dismissed. The military jury also found Howard not guilty on charges of indecent conduct and there was no evidence, or photographs, suggesting that had happened.
Howard claims, instead, he was targeted by the elite group of warfighters he served with after a transfer because he didn’t fit into their group. Nevertheless, he wasn’t completely exonerated. He had to serve 30 days in confinement on the base and was also reduced in rank to petty officer second class and had to forfeit $500 from his pay for three months after the jury found him guilty of a charge of cat fishing that Howard still maintains was ludicrous because there was no evidence to suggest he had done anything wrong.
The charge Howard was convicted of and the resulting light punishment was minor and members of his command, he said, were enraged that the jury did not kick him out of the Navy with a Dishonorable Discharge. They also wanted lengthy jail time, said one of the members of his legal team, Jeffery Addicott, the Director of the Warrior Defense Project at St. Mary’s University School of Law, who is now fighting for Howard to retain his military and medical disability benefits. In short, the jury gave him what amounted to low level non-judicial punishment – they did not elect to discharge him from the Navy,” Addicott added.
Addicott said that Howard’s multiple combat deployments have also left him with a severe list of combat injuries, including traumatic brain injury, missing facial bones, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He’s been decorated for valor, including a Bronze Star with combat valor and was named Sailor of the Year in 2016. He’s also a trained sniper, explosives expert, and tandem bundle jump master, Addicott said.
None of Howard’s injuries or accomplishments is in doubt. This reporter reviewed some of his medical records, spoke to some friends, family and was contacted by numerous others who reached out to support him. While he was convicted of the most minor charge of ‘cat fishing’ during his Court Martial proceedings, at what point does the punishment far outweigh the crime. More importantly, voluntary service to the nation in war and the injuries that are sustained both mentally and physically need to be addressed and when they are not the situation can develop into something far worse.
Acting on what his defense attorneys characterized as rumor and hearsay, Howard was subjected to a General Court Martial trial in February 2020, “where he faced a stack of criminal counts amounting to 45 years in prison and a possible Dishonorable Discharge associated with allegations that he “cat-fished”– i.e., impersonated another person online in an attempt to receive nude photographs,” Addicott said.
But Addicott noted that “Howard had no prior offenses of any kind or any other allegations of any misconduct whatsoever throughout his entire career.”
“Whether he engaged in misconduct or not, the punishment that the command now seeks is out of line of what he was convicted of during the Court Martial,” said Addicott.” In fact, the jury found Aaron Howard not guilty of all of the serious allegations, electing to convict him of a lesser general offense labeled as “prejudice to good order and discipline” Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 134, with sub charges of indecent conduct and impersonating a person.”
What made matters worse, however, was how he was targeted by his command immediately following the Court Martial proceedings, said Addicott.
Howard’s Life Forever Changed
Howard told this reporter that when his command accused him of falsely ‘cat fishing’ women that those accusations turned his life upside down. He had felt he lost everything.
Howard’s battle inside DEVGRU gives a small glimpse of the secret world inside the elite Naval group, known for its battle-hardened fighters. The operators became famous for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden in a secret mission in Pakistan, in 2011.
The command believed that the General Court Martial would give him a Dishonorable Discharge and put him in prison for many years, when this didn’t happen, he said, they then took the extraordinary step of seeking an administrative discharge using a hand-picked three member board who quickly recommended that Howard be given an “Other than Honorable” discharge, a recommendation which if approved, would remove Howard’s veterans benefits, his disability rating, and his medical benefits.
Addicott said the retribution from the command was over-kill.
*First, the very day Howard finished his 30 day confinement the command formally served him with notification that an administrative discharge board would meet to put him out of the Navy with no retirement or medical benefits whatsoever.
*Second. The command removed Howard’s Navy SEAL Trident in a closed door administrative hearing with little regard for anything he had to present. The command refused legal representation and informed Howard that they intended to “live-stream” the process to the entire community to “shame him.”
*Third. When Howard left the confinement facility the command refused to return his Navy uniform. Only after months of requests by his defense team was the uniform returned to him by a supervisor who dumped a large plastic bag at his feet. Inside was the now coffee stained uniform that had been literally ripped apart by someone in his chain of command.
*Fourth. In May 2020 the command ordered Howard to return to his exact same duty station where he had been falsely charged with the previous misconduct.
Aaron Howard’s Father Fights For His Son
Howard’s father, Phillip Howard, told this reporter that the actions taken against his son are unbearable. He accused his son’s command of behaving like they are “above the law” and said, “they need to be held accountable.”
Aaron’s father said his son faced serious life-threatening injuries in combat and suffered “through facial reconstruction surgeries…loss of hearing and TBI.”
He said he could understand why his son chose to be in the SEALS- “being awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for willing to sacrifice his life for others made us proud because we know the person our son is.
“He will need medical care for the rest of his life,”said Philip Howard. “Watching his command trying to destroy his career, his life and his medical needs”has been another tragedy compounded, he added.
Judicial Punishment Wasn’t Enough For Howard’s Command
It isn’t clear to see why the command is so angry at Aaron. Things are always murky for outsiders but he has people who support him who say the right thing to do at this point in time is to give him his military and medical benefits and let him process out of the Navy through the medical discharge route.
Jonna Barker, an advocate for veterans, who knows Aaron Howard and his story, said for special operators PTSD and other combat-related injuries come with lifelong medical complications.
“These men are taught how to turn it on – taught how to fight, but they are never taught them how to turn it off,” said Barker.
Barker, who served 20 years in the Navy and lives in San Diego said to this reporter that her work is “to help these guys, regardless of bad conduct discharges.”
Barker has advocated for many Navy Special operators, like Howard, she noted the secrecy behind the elite soldiers unit and the difficulty some face when they are shunned. Howard should have his medical benefits because he served his country in combat with distinction, said Barker, who added “that the worst of the charges against Howard were thrown out because there was no evidence of egregious wrongdoing on his part during the trial.”
“These guys don’t always get the treatment that they need for what they’ve been through,” said Barker.
She added, “what they do over there keeps me safe at night and I help them get the benefits they deserve – most of the guys I work with have traumatic brain injury and it’s hard to live a normal life.”
“Many of these men don’t even realize they have PTSD,” she added, saying that Aaron Howard is not an aberration. “These men are taught how to turn it on – taught how to fight, but they are never taught them how to turn it off.”
“He is facing an Other Than Honorable administrative discharge and is now fighting to get his medical benefits which are in jeopardy,” said Barker. “It’s like that and then sometimes for one reason or another they kick them to the curb.”
The Medical Discharge Board
Currently, Howard is still going through the medical discharge board process but his commanders have fast-tracked the administrative discharge board’s recommendation to force him out of the Navy before the medical discharge board finalizes its process, said Addicott.
Howard told me during a phone interview that his command leadership made it impossible for anyone on his team to publicly support him. He said they created a wall of silence. Now, Howard fears, he’ll be abandoned by the very military branch and nation he almost gave his life for defending.
Even though he had friends privately backing him he said “anyone that spoke on my behalf would be treated as a traitor by DEVGRU. ”That’s a difficult concept for Howard to process, he said, considering he never imagined that he would be in the position he’s in.
What Happens Next?
Addicott told this reporter that “Howard is now in a “catch 22” situation.”
He said that because of “Covid-19 concerns slowing his still ongoing medical discharge board to a crawl, Howard’s administrative board recommendation for an OTH discharge will most likely be fast tracked by his command to the final decision authorities – Vice Admiral John B. Nowell, The Chief of Naval Personnel (CHNAVPERS), and Rear Admiral Collin P. Green, the installed commander of the SEALs, who will make determinations on the subject administrative discharge board’s recommendation.”
Vice Admiral Nowell and Admiral Green could not be reached for immediate comment.
However, Addicott said if the pair “choose to approve the administrative discharge board’s recommendation for an OTH discharge, Howard will be forced out of the Navy. If that happens, Howard’s ongoing medical discharge board is halted, a punitive OTH administrative discharge is placed on his permanent record, and this highly decorated combat veteran is left with no support to seek the help he needs for his medical and combat related injuries.”
A retired Army JAG officer himself, who served as the senior legal advisor to the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, Addicott noted that “this is an extreme action to be taken against a decorated combat veteran.”
“Even the VA will not assist military personnel with an OTH discharge,” he said.
Howard is remaining strong and optimistic. Despite facing the loss of his medical discharge board and “all the negative acts of raw retribution by his own command Aaron Howard remains remarkably stoic and fully confident that the Navy will render a just final outcome in his plight,” said Addicott.
Howard told me “I am innocent and know that reason and justice will ultimately prevail.”
“Serving my country has been a supreme honor and I hold no bitterness in my soul for the Navy or my brothers and sisters in arms,”he added.