Ron DeSantis’ official photo as a Navy ensign. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Facebook photo. DeSantis on the campaign trail for Florida’s November 2022 gubernatorial election. Ron DeSantis’ Facebook photo. Composite by Coffee or Die.
Ron DeSantis introduced himself to Florida voters in the 2018 governor’s race as “Ron DeSantis, Iraq War veteran.” But somehow, over the years, thousands of Americans have mistakenly wondered: “Was Ron DeSantis a Navy SEAL?”
Interest in DeSantis’ Navy service has been circulating the internet since Floridians elected the former sailor as governor four years ago. According to search engine data, Americans first googled “Was Ron DeSantis a Navy SEAL?” in November 2018.
DeSantis did serve in the Navy. On his campaign website, an entire page is dedicated to his Navy career. It includes a video and references to his time “advising Seal Team 1.” The section is a reference to when DeSantis deployed to Iraq as a SEAL team advisor.
A photo of the Florida native standing in front of a “bone frog” mural has been circulating the internet for years. SEALs are known as “frogmen,” and the bone frog has become a tribute to fallen teammates.
DeSantis seems to have first posted the photo of himself with the bone frog backdrop to Facebook in 2012 during his successful run for Florida’s 6th District in the US House of Representatives.
A photo of Ron DeSantis standing in front of a bone frog mural. Ron DeSantis’ Facebook photo.
DeSantis did deploy with SEALs in 2007. Presumably, the photo was taken then. But DeSantis himself was not a SEAL.
DeSantis deployed to Iraq as legal counsel to a SEAL commander during the 2007 surge of US troops.
After graduating from Yale University in 2001, DeSantis earned a law degree from Harvard University. While there, he earned a commission in the US Navy’s JAG Corps.
From 2004 until 2010, DeSantis served on active duty in the Navy as a JAG, judge advocate general. JAG officers are attorneys with knowledge of civilian and military law, from the Uniform Code of Military Justice to international laws of war.
Sectarian militants were killing about 3,000 Iraqis per month in 2007. Roughly 30,000 US troops were deployed to the country during “the surge” to quash insurgencies, boost security, and stabilize Iraq.
Army Special Forces assigned to Special Operations Task Force-West Hadithah engage a mission in their area of operations in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom on Aug. 31, 2007. US Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Eli Medellin.
During his deployment, according to the Tampa Bay Times, DeSantis advised Capt. Dane Thorleifson, the SEAL commander for Special Operations Task Force-West in Fallujah, Iraq, on the legality of special operations missions in the region.
In the photo of DeSantis with the bone frog backdrop, the letters “TF-W” are in view, likely short for “SOTF-W,” or Special Operations Task Force-West.
DeSantis’ time with the SOTF-W came during the so-called Al Anbar Awakening. This period is remembered as one of the most violent phases of the war. US troops conducted near-nonstop operations against insurgents in Al Anbar, a province in western Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division occupied the territory.
In the lead-up to the 2018 election, the Florida Phoenix obtained public records related to DeSantis’ military service. The news outlet reported that DeSantis served in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula “on or around 2007 and 2008.”
According to the Florida Phoenix, DeSantis’ duties were “special operations, special reconnaissance, intelligence and foreign internal defense operations.”
Special Mission Platoon instructors show students how to move on line when entering a room in Habbaniyah, Iraq, on Dec. 15, 2007. SMPs are an elite Iraqi army unit that has received training from Navy SEALs. US military photo by Sgt. Robert Brown.
As the only lawyer with the task force, DeSantis made sure detainees captured by SEALs during their missions were treated humanely. He also ensured that interrogations complied with the Geneva Conventions and US military law.
According to Thorleifson, the Green Berets and SEALs rounded up roughly 100 Iraqi men during DeSantis’ deployment. US troops captured the men to gain intelligence and to remove insurgents from the fight.
“I respected him a lot as a JAG. He was super smart, articulate, resourceful and a positive part of the staff,” Thorleifson told the Tampa Bay Times. “I relied on him heavily.”
At times, DeSantis also had to work hand in hand with the newly stood-up Iraqi judicial system, Thorleifson said. That meant DeSantis would sometimes hand detainees off to Iraqi officials for prosecution.
“He did a phenomenal job,” Thorleifson said. “It was a pretty complex time, with Iraqi sovereignty starting to take hold.”
Special Mission Platoon students practice moving as a two-man team through an open room during night conditions in Habbaniyah, Iraq, on Dec. 15, 2007. US military photo by Sgt. Robert Brown.
DeSantis primarily served as a prosecutor in the early years of his military service, according to the records obtained by the Florida Phoenix. When the military court-martials a service member, judge advocates serve as lawyers during the trial.
But the records also described DeSantis as a “scheduler/administrative officer” for Joint Task Force Guantanamo, or JTF-GTMO. The task force has overseen the controversial detention camp for prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 9/11.
Opened in January 2002, the detention center at Guantanamo housed hundreds of detainees. The prison has its own courtroom where trials are held for inmates. A Navy spokesperson told the Florida Phoenix that JAG officers assigned to Guantanamo performed legal support duties.
The Florida Phoenix reported that DeSantis received roughly 10 awards and decorations during his active Navy service. Chief among them, he received the Bronze Star medal for meritorious service from October 2007 to April 2008.
That period seems to line up with the Florida governor’s deployment to Iraq. Coffee or Die Magazine reached out to DeSantis for a copy of his Bronze Star citation but didn’t receive a reply.
DeSantis was elected to Congress in 2012 and then became the governor of Florida in 2019. He was reelected to the job in November 2022. He still serves in the Navy Reserve as a lieutenant commander.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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