The Defense Department identified on Monday the two Navy SEALs who were lost at sea and died this month during a nighttime commando raid on a small ship carrying weapons components bound for Yemen.
Active-duty and veteran SEALs said it appeared that the men might have sunk quickly before they could be rescued, and that the circumstances of their deaths raised questions about the planning and conduct of the raid. An official investigation is pending.
Special Operator First Class Christopher J. Chambers, 37, and Special Operator Second Class Nathan Gage Ingram, 27, were lost on Jan. 11 when SEALs in two stealthy combat speedboats, shadowed by helicopters and drones, boarded a dhow, a type of small wooden cargo ship, in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia.
As the two men tried to climb a rope boarding ladder in rough seas, one fell into the ocean and another jumped into the water to attempt a rescue, according to defense officials who were briefed on the incident. Both SEALs were quickly lost in the waves.
A joint search operation by naval forces from the United States, Spain and Japan spent over a week searching more than 21,000 square miles of ocean for the missing SEALs. The Defense Department declared on Sunday that the men were presumed dead.
They were assigned to SEAL Team 3, based in Coronado, Calif.
“We extend our condolences to Chris and Gage’s families, friends and teammates during this incredibly challenging time,” Capt. Blake L. Chaney, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 1, said on Monday in a statement. “They were exceptional warriors, cherished teammates and dear friends to many within the Naval Special Warfare community.”
The boarding mission resulted in the seizure of Iranian-made ballistic-missile and cruise-missile components that the Defense Department said were intended for Houthi militants in Yemen. The 14 members of the dhow’s crew were taken aboard a Navy ship and the dhow was sunk, according to a statement by the Pentagon’s Central Command.
It was the first time that U.S. forces had seized Iranian weapons being sent to the Houthi militants since they began launching attacks in November against commercial ships in the Red Sea.
Special Operator Ingram, originally from Texas, became a SEAL in 2021 and was on his first deployment, according to Navy records. Special Operator Chambers, from Maryland, had deployed a number of times since becoming a SEAL in 2013, and had been in combat against Islamic State militants.
Their families could not be reached for comment.
A message that was sent to active-duty SEALs by a SEAL officer a day after the two men were lost, and that was obtained by The New York Times, said the younger SEAL had slipped from the ladder and his more experienced platoonmate went in after him. The message said a third SEAL had also fallen during the boarding, and hit the SEALs’ speedboat before going into the water. That SEAL was quickly rescued, but the other two were lost.
The details of the accident have puzzled many current and former SEALs, according to Eric Deming, a retired SEAL senior chief who performed similar missions.
The Navy has used destroyers to repeatedly intercept ships hauling weapons bound for Yemen in recent years without incident. Why, Mr. Deming asked, did the SEAL task force commander decide to board a slow-moving dhow at night in dangerous seas, rather that wait for better conditions?
It is standard for SEALs on boarding missions to wear flotation devices and locator beacons, he said. If those safeguards were being followed, and Navy speedboats and helicopters were in the immediate area, Mr. Deming asked, how could two SEALs have been lost?
“To a lot of us, this doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Something else must have gone wrong.”
Mr. Deming, as well as several active-duty SEALs who shared their views on the raid but were not willing to be quoted directly, suggested that the two men might have been carrying so much gear that they sank quickly despite wearing flotation devices.
The SEALs said that standard operating procedures required Navy speedboats to rescue SEALs in the water; they questioned why one SEAL would have jumped off a boarding ladder after another.
Navy Special Warfare, which includes the SEALs, declined to comment, saying the incident was still being investigated.
“The specifics of what happened will be thoroughly investigated,” a spokesman said. “Until then, it would be inappropriate to speculate on the details of the incident, as well as making assumptions as to what led our sailors to go missing.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.