On Wednesday night, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had an important message for those watching him participate in the first Republican debate of the presidential primary season.
“I learned in the military—I was assigned with the U.S. Navy SEALs in Iraq—that you focus on the mission above all else, you can’t get distracted,” DeSantis said. “So Republicans, we’ve got to look forward and we’ve got to make sure that we’re bringing the message that can win in November 2024.”
DeSantis moved on without further explanation, leaving some observers extremely impressed. Others, however, were far less moved.
“He was never a Navy SEAL,” Billy Allmon, a former member of SEAL Team 1, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a misleading statement.”
DeSantis again said during the debate that he “deployed to Iraq alongside U.S. Navy SEALs,” mirroring the backstory shared by a campaign surrogate earlier this month on a podcast hosted by former Trump counsel-turned-co-defendant Jenna Ellis. During the show, DeSantis campaign surrogate Carly Atchison described her boss’ path through life in deeply inspirational terms.
DeSantis grew up blue-collar, then worked his way through Yale and Harvard Law, Atchison said. But rather than using his pair of Ivy League degrees to “make six-figures doing whatever, after 9/11 he raised his hand and said, ‘I want to serve my country.’”
So, Atchison continued, “He went out to Coronado, he trained, and was deployed, ultimately, with SEAL Team 1, in some of the most dangerous parts of the world at the time—Fallujah and others. Served his country out of this need for service. Then he went on to run for Congress. He obviously became governor, and now he’s running for president of the United States because he wants to reverse the decline of this country.”
The next day, Atchison appeared on another show, again lauding DeSantis over his decision to forsake a life of riches for a hitch with the SEALs. He “trained at Coronado with the SEALs, and he was ultimately deployed to Iraq with Navy SEAL Team 1,” Atchison told host Bill Mitchell, emphasizing that DeSantis spent time in “some of the most dangerous parts of the world.”
That’s “just the kind of person he is,” Atchison went on, before launching into a rundown of DeSantis’ poll numbers and complimenting his “bold, conservative leadership.” A day later, Atchison gave another interview, again describing the way DeSantis “went out to train in Coronado and was ultimately deployed with Navy SEAL Team 1 to Iraq… He earned a Bronze Star.”
In fact, DeSantis was a Navy lawyer, known in military parlance as a JAG. And in 2007, three years after his commission, he did serve as a legal adviser to a SEAL commander in Iraq. His role was to ensure the SEALs and Army Green Berets in the region abided by the rule of law and that captured enemy troops were treated humanely, in line with the Geneva Conventions.
“He did a phenomenal job,” Capt. Dane Thorleifson told the Miami Herald in 2018.
Nonetheless, while it may be technically true that DeSantis deployed “with” or “alongside” a SEAL team, which was based in Coronado, California, Allmon, who went through SEAL training in 1970 (SEAL Team 1; BUD/S class 58), sees the governor’s narrative as something more akin to a lie by omission.
“I mean, I could go onboard the USS Constellation for a tour, and I can then go around saying, ‘I was on the USS Constellation,’ and just leave it at that,” Allmon told The Daily Beast. “And people would think, ‘Hey, he was on the Constellation.’ It just leaves an open forum, and he should have clarified it a lot better.”
Don Shipley, another former SEAL (SEAL Teams 1 and 2; BUD/S class 131), has made a second career out of exposing fakers. He told The Daily Beast that he has “verified Ron so many times, for so many people,” and that he doesn’t think DeSantis is trying to purposefully mislead anyone. Yet, like Allmon, Shipley noted the distinct lack of follow-up by DeSantis to clarify his service.
“With DeSantis, ‘I was with SEAL Team 1,’ well, it’s the truth,” said Shipley. “But without going into a lot of detail, people [naturally] think, ‘Ah, you were a SEAL.’”
Still, in certain instances, a JAG can be more valuable than additional firepower, according to Shipley.
“They deploy with SEAL teams to keep them out of trouble,” he said. “[DeSantis] wasn’t a shooter, he wasn’t a door-kicker—but they do get some weapons training… [H]e deployed with Team 1 to keep them out of trouble… There’s a saying, ‘If you can take an extra shooter with you, or you can take a lawyer, take the lawyer.’”
DeSantis’ squishy descriptions of his “SEAL” service can be equally irritating for American vets who served in other branches of the service. Former Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a former Air Force pilot who continues to serve as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, said on Thursday that he has “had people tell me that DeSantis was a Navy SEAL.”
“It bothers me,” Kinzinger told The Daily Beast. “I deployed to support SEALs, Delta, etc, and never once have [I] tried to pretend I was one. And never once said I ‘deployed with the SEALs.’”
Reaction online to DeSantis’ SEAL story was swift, with radio host and former Navy pilot Kai Ryssdal tweeting, “I was on the Navy Staff at the Pentagon with a Navy SEAL. So I, too, am a Navy SEAL.”
“He was just a fucking Navy lawyer, never a SEAL,” former Navy officer Scott Mettler posted. “The SEALs were merely his clients.”
“An actual text from [a] right leaning civilian last night. They think he’s a SEAL,” another vet tweeted.
And in response to Kinzinger, Allmon tweeted, “Let me assure everyone that DeSantis was NEVER a U.S. Navy SEAL! Adam, though we may disagree on political issues, I thank YOU for your Honorable Service to our country! God Bless you and keep you safe.”
DeSantis also spent time during his JAG career stationed at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was an assistant urinalysis coordinator.
Some former SEALs weren’t even aware until a couple of years ago that DeSantis served at all, and his name was not well-known in the SEAL community, Kevin Kent (SEAL Team 5; BUD/S class 200) told The Daily Beast. Kent said he has not heard “anything positive or negative from the community,” and doesn’t know “of anyone that feels like [DeSantis] is stealing valor or banking on the [Naval Special Warfare] community.”
A little embellishment here or there by someone who may have been “SEAL-adjacent,” such as a support technician or, ahem, a JAG, “usually starts out being harmless, and then it snowballs and you just can’t stop,” according to Shipley. “Not everybody in a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt was a Dallas Cowboy, but when you’re wearing a SEALs shirt in Walmart and somebody walks up to you and asks if you were a SEAL, nine times out of 10 they’ll say no. But that tenth time, they say yes—and they like the reaction they get.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
With additional reporting by Zach Petrizzo and Jose Pagliery