DeSantis’ Military Service as Navy Lawyer for SEAL Commander

At the first Republican presidential primary debate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his military experience, saying he “was assigned with U.S. Navy SEALs in Iraq” and “deployed to Iraq alongside U.S. Navy SEALs.” That’s accurate: He was a Navy lawyer who advised a SEAL commander.

Viewers who weren’t listening closely might have gotten the mistaken impression that DeSantis himself was a Navy SEAL, and in an interview with the Daily Beast, one former SEAL criticized DeSantis over the comments.

We’ll simply lay out the facts to clear up any confusion.

During the Aug. 23 debate, DeSantis said: “I learned in the military, I was assigned with U.S. Navy SEALs in Iraq, that you focus on the mission above all else, you can’t get distracted. 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 of 2024.”

Later, when asked whether there should be some required military service for everyone in the U.S., DeSantis responded: “I think it should be voluntary. I’m somebody that volunteered to serve, inspired by Sept. 11 and I deployed to Iraq alongside U.S. Navy SEALs in places like Fallujah, Ramadi, and it’s something that I think has taught me. You know, when you go in that type of environment, anything you have, your personal agenda, you check it at the door. You go there and it’s about focusing on the mission above all else and guys come together and they get it done.”

DeSantis earned his law degree from Harvard and then served in the Navy as a lawyer, or a JAG (Judge Advocate General). His military personnel records, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request and posted online by journalist James LaPorta, show that he served on active duty from September 2005 to February 2010, and he was stationed in Iraq with Seal Team 1 from 2007 to 2008.

The Miami Herald in 2018 reported on DeSantis’ time in Iraq, saying he “arrived in the fall of 2007 as part of ‘the surge’ of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, whose mission was to quell insurgencies that turned cities like Fallujah into bloody battle zones.” DeSantis was “a senior legal adviser to the SEAL who commanded Special Operations Task Force-West in Fallujah, Navy Capt. Dane Thorleifson.”

The Herald contacted Thorleifson, who praised DeSantis’ work.

Miami Herald, Sept. 21, 2018: DeSantis was responsible for helping ensure that the missions of Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets in that wide swath of the Western Euphrates River Valley were planned according to the rule of law and that captured detainees were humanely treated, said his commander at the time.

“He did a phenomenal job,” Thorleifson, 55, said of DeSantis in a Herald/Times interview. “It was a pretty complex time, with Iraqi sovereignty starting to take hold.”

During this period, task force troops rounded up about 100 detainees, said Thorleifson. …

It was up to DeSantis, the lone lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG), to not only assure that the men were treated humanely and interrogated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and U.S. military regulations, but to make sure that, when warranted, they were handed off to the proper legal authorities in Iraq for prosecution in that country’s nascent judicial system, Thorleifson said. …

Thorleifson described DeSantis as “one of my very close counsels that as we developed a mission concept of operations, he made sure it was legal. I respected him a lot as a JAG. He was super smart, articulate, resourceful and a positive part of the staff. I relied on him heavily.”

DeSantis earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service for his time in Iraq. During his military service, he also was stationed at Guantánamo Bay as a lawyer, as a story published in the Tampa Bay Times explained earlier this year.

We reached out to DeSantis’ campaign for this story, but we haven’t received a response.

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