Way back on June 25, Ron DeSantis released his first TV ad as he faced off with Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam for the Republican nomination for governor.
His first words in the ad, as he introduced himself to Florida voters: “Ron DeSantis, Iraq war veteran.”
Three months later, DeSantis is the GOP nominee and continues to tour the state, trying to convince voters to choose him over the Democrats’ surprise victor, Andrew Gillum.
Yet, even now, few details have been divulged about DeSantis’ time in Iraq or his responsibilities as a Navy lawyer during the deadliest year of the entire war.
But through an interview with his former commander in Iraq, the Herald/Times has learned more about what the young then-Navy lieutenant did overseas during this turbulent period.
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. But it was costly, and 961 U.S. troops died that year.
Military leaders deemed the surge a conditional success.
“Coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq,” said Army Gen. David Petraeus, then-Commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq , in a September 2007 report to Congress.
It was around this time that U.S. forces had been ordered to let the Iraqis take a greater role in securing their nation that was trying to create its own judicial system.
More than a decade later, the overall assessment of the Iraq War, even with the surge, is downbeat. President Donald Trump this week called George W. Bush’s decision to send military troops to the Middle East the “biggest single mistake” in American history.
The DeSantis campaign didn’t comment on the remarks by Trump, whose endorsement of DeSantis helped him win the GOP nomination for governor.
During the surge, DeSantis served as a senior legal adviser to the SEAL who commanded Special Operations Task Force-West in Fallujah, Navy Capt. Dane Thorleifson.
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. They were mostly military-aged males, some of whom were found with suicide vests while others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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.
Iraqi men were rounded up in raids conducted by SEALs and Green Berets to help take insurgents off the battlefield and gain intelligence, missions that DeSantis helped plan, Thorleifson said.
DeSantis, said Thorleifson, was a critical part of the task force that had about 400 personnel who were conducting raids, doing interrogations and detentions and moving prisoners into the Iraqi legal system.
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.”
The two haven’t seen each other in person or been in contact since the end of that deployment, Thorleifson said.
“But I see him all the time on [Fox News],” added Thorleifson, who retired two months ago after 30 years in uniform and now lives in San Diego and works for a defense contractor. “I am rooting for him.”
DeSantis has made his military service record both in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay a pillar of his campaign, with mailers featuring photos of him in uniform and references to his service as a military lawyer in his speeches.
Veterans who spoke to the Herald/Times said DeSantis’ service record was important, but there were other factors that would do more to sway their opinion about the race between DeSantis and Gillum.
There are more than 1.5 million veterans living in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Although one of DeSantis’ last bills in Congress proposes to provide government funding for veterans to get service dogs, veterans’ issues haven’t been a major part of his campaign so far, nor have they been for Gillum. DeSantis did recently hire a veterans outreach director for his campaign, which could change that.
“Myself, it really doesn’t matter to me what his military record is,” said John Ubaldi, 53, a retired Marine who lives in Tampa and now writes for his own political blog. He is a registered Republican but not a big Trump supporter, he said.
“It’s great he served. I wish more Americans served. ... I’m going to vote for DeSantis for the simple reason Gillum has not shown how he would pay for broad programs,” Ubaldi said.
Retired Army veteran Ellsworth Williams, 56, feels a little differently.
“Everybody has their values; my value is how you view veterans,” said Williams, who also lives in Tampa. He runs a nonprofit, Veterans Counseling Veterans, that advocates for returned vets to get mental health treatment from professionals who also served.
Williams added that DeSantis’ service indicates “he’s going to have a special ear” for veterans’ issues but would like to do more research on both candidates’ record on vets before he makes his decision about who will get his vote. He is not registered with either party.
“You need to point to two or three things you’ve done in your career that shows you’ve helped vets and not just have a bumper sticker,” Williams said. “I’m not that easy.”