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How an angry tirade led to the investigation of a top Special Operations general

Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, shown here as the commanding general of the United States Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, was investigated after going on a vulgar tirade on his troops. (Photo by Cpl. Jessica Kuhn/ Army)

Army Lt. Gen. John Mulholland was apoplectic. Seated at the head of a table in a staff meeting, the veteran Special Operations general was furious that a briefing for him at U.S. Special Operations Command did not follow the directions that he and the top officer in the command, Adm. William McRaven, had provided.

In a profanity-laced tirade, Mulholland told the staff members they had “all failed me” as a commander, and they should all go “shoot themselves right now,” according to later accounts of the meeting. He promised that if they tried to brief their work to McRaven he would do everything he could to mess it up.

Mulholland, SOCOM’s deputy commander at the time, added that he knew he was being unprofessional, but they had angered him greatly, according to a retelling by one witness in the room on April 30, 2014. The general added that if they briefed their plans to McRaven, he would commit Seppuku, an honorable way for a Samurai warrior to commit suicide through disembowelment in ancient Japan.

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The outburst at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., is detailed in a Defense Department Inspector General report released to The Washington Post. At least 30 people were present, including then-Maj. Gen. James Laster, a Marine who was SOCOM’s chief of staff at the time. Also present were a one-star Australian general and numerous American colonels. At least two individuals subjected to the tirade later filed a complaint with the Inspector General’s office, and several others confirmed the facts of the case to be true.

The investigation provides a rare window into a difficult day at a highly secretive military command responsible for the most elite forces in the U.S. military. Mulholland previously served as the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and has since become the associate director for military affairs in the CIA.

The U.S. military has a long history of senior officers known for their salty language and fiery personalities. Gen. George S. Patton, a legendary general in World War II, famously peppered vulgarity into a speech delivered to troops preparing to fight the Nazis in France.

But the inspector general substantiated the allegations against Mulholland. The report suggests the Army secretary take some form of corrective action against him, and adds that Mulholland later apologized to the individual who filed the complaint and others in the room at the time. Mulholland also later said there was no excuse for his behavior, the report said.

“By virtue of his grade and position as the Deputy Commander, the 30 attendees were LTG Mulholland’s subordinates,” the IG report said. “Accordingly, LTG Mulholland’s conduct in this single instance, although not indicative of his normal comportment, was inconsistent with expected behavior and that LTG Mulholland failed to treat his subordinates with dignity and respect.”

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Mulholland told investigators that he was angry with the lack of detail in the briefing, which McRaven had requested after expressing dissatisfaction with a related meeting earlier in the month. The operational planning team involved was ordered to develop a plan to integrate 14 foreign liaison officers into SOCOM’s staff planning and execution of operations. The group was eventually renamed the International SOF Coordination Center and put under the SOCOM Operations Division.

Not everyone present at the meeting was happy to see the Pentagon launch an investigation. According to the report, some of those present did not think he crossed a line, especially in an intimate setting of “his guys.”

Laster, who has since become the three-star director of Marine Corps Staff at the Pentagon, said he, too, admonished the staff members. He also recalled that Mulholland grew angrier when lower-ranking officers tried to argue with him.

McRaven retired in August 2014, and was replaced by Army Gen. Joseph Votel.

Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.