The Billings Outpost

Allegations against Zinke don’t bear scrutiny

POLITICS

BRAD MOLNAR

Ryan Zinke won the Republican nomination for Montana’s lone congressional race in a bitter five-way contest, winning with 33 percent of the vote, a scant 5,100-vote margin. Most of the acrimony was not between candidates, but rather activists questioning Zinke’s political stands.

Was Zinke pro-life enough? Was Zinke pro-gun enough? Where did he stand on various interests’ voting scorecards from his tenure in the Montana Senate? This is standard table-fare for Montana Republican politics.

After 23 years as an officer in the Navy SEALs, Zinke is unlikely to blink under pressure. But what happens when another SEAL comes forward to say that Zinke in misrepresenting his military service record and has character flaws that should keep him out of Congress? Nobody blinks.

Gleaning from the Flathead area’s online NorthWest Liberty News, the activist coalition sent out an article by Navy SEAL Capt. Larry Bailey (Ret.), Zinke’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs instructor, to probable Republican primary voters saying that Ryan has a “defect in moral make-up” because he took SEAL team members on at least one trip and personally made multiple trips to his home in Whitefish, ostensibly to scout for SEAL training areas. Bailey claimed that the scandal included per-diem, airfare and personal use of Navy time because the trips were actually of a personal nature.

On July 14, the Montana Democratic Party through the Freedom of Information Act demanded Zinke’s military records, including all non-redacted fitness reports and counseling forms, the Cumulative Record Of Training, the Background Summary, Officer-Personal Action Requests and Form DD-214 for Ryan Zinke.

In addition, Democrats requested any letters of reprimand related to media reports that Zinke used taxpayer dollars for personal travel while a Navy SEAL.

At a recent town meeting, a car covered with “What is Zinke hiding” placards was parked outside Zinke’s campaign office. According to Zinke staffer Alex Sterhan, a Democratic tracker paid to track and photograph Republican candidate Zinke was seen next to the car.

The challenge by Bailey, and by Republican and Democratic activists, is this: Has Zinke lied about his military service? Or is Zinke, as he portrays on his political biography, a highly decorated combat leader of a high capacity special operations unit with 48 direct actions?

During my interview with Zinke, he stated that it was part of his job to scout training areas and that he often did so in Montana. Further, he claimed that some of the areas he scouted are still being used to train SEALs.

Zinke does not deny that a travel expense from one of his trips was turned down. According to Zinke, no censure was ordered or written. It was handled with a “Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir. Won’t happen again, Sir.”

He said, “I repaid the $211. That was the end of it until this campaign.”

When asked about the big deal he was making over an 18-year-old denied $211 travel claim, Bailey said, “Ryan told me it was $215, but let’s not quibble about $4. I cannot believe that multiple team members’ airfare and per diem could be that little of an amount. I know that Ryan was escorted out of SEAL Team Six over this. For only $211 he should have just been dropped for push-ups in the sun. I’ll make a few phone calls and see what I can find out then will let you know.”

Three weeks later, no new information has been forthcoming though requested multiple times.

The next issue raised by Bailey was that Zinke and others formed a Political Action Committee named Special Operations for America to support Mitt Romney’s presidential bid by highlighting military issues, especially rules of engagement that put military combat forces at risk. After that campaign season, SOFA financially supported Zinke after he resigned as volunteer chairman.

Bailey, when asked if Zinke broke any state or federal laws, or ethics rules, by allowing the PAC to headquarter on Zinke’s property or donate to him after he announced the congressional run, now states, “I don’t think so. I just do not think that it is ethical.”

In Bailey’s article much was made about his viewing Zinke’s heavily redacted DD214 form and asking that he make it public. Zinke showed me his non-redacted DD214. It was a one-page summary of his military career.

When I asked Bailey about it he said, “I screwed up there. I was in error. I thought my entire military career was my DD214. A DD214 is just a summary. I was wrong. Now Ryan finally has something to beat me about the head with.” 

Perhaps most disturbing was Bailey’s statement that Zinke never was a commanding officer of SEALs, that his Bronze Stars were not for combat, and that he had never led men in combat but rather that he only directed theater operations because of the “travel scandal.”

Ryan produced several documents that spoke of his combat experience in Iraq and Kosovo. The most explicit was the citation for one of his Bronze Stars dated May 2, 2004. The citation states explicitly that “Commander Zinke” from Feb. 12 to May 15, 2004, provided “unmatched leadership and proven combat execution” and “twice surged forward to provide critical leadership of Operations RESOLUTE SWORD and VIGILENT RESOLVE.”

I asked Zinke if he was on the radio directing the operation or actually leading in combat eye-to-eye with his men. Zinke said, “Eye to eye. I gave orders face to face.”

When asked for more background/clarification about the Bronze Star citation Zinke left a voice mail stating, “Yes, the Fitness Report that you have a copy of talks about deploying to Fallujah and yes I did personally go on patrols. Yes, I did personally determine which group went where and why. That is part of being Acting Commander and Deputy Commander of Special Forces. I was briefed every day, directed missions and when necessary went on patrols.”

When I asked Bailey about this he said, “SEALS kick in doors. That is what SEALS do. If Ryan was near the battle site I am sure that he was in a building somewhere on the radio.”

When asked if he knew anyone in the battle that could back his version of events, Bailey said that he did not but that he was sure Ryan was just a theater commander. Asked why he said the Bronze Star was not for combat Bailey said, “I just read between the lines. There was not a ‘V’ for valor so I assumed it was just for meritorious service.”

According to Wikipedia, and two experts, a Bronze Star can be given for being in a combat zone. The “V” denotes individual heroism, which Zinke is not claiming. Because the actions Zinke was involved in were classified, they cannot be specifically discussed. 

Frank Odermann, a retired navy SEAL who resides in Billings, started SEAL training with Zinke and served with him in SEAL Team One. He disputed much of what Bailey had written.

On the specific question of whether Zinke led men in combat Oderman said, “For obvious reasons I will not speak of specific combat engagements. But Ryan has definitely led men in combat. I was his point man.” 

Steve Matulewicz, a retired Navy master chief/SEAL, also did not give specific combat information. But he did say to the question of “Did Ryan Zinke lead men in actual combat?,” “I must be careful here. Yes, as defined by the DoD [Department of Defense] Ryan did lead men in combat. He led the U.S. National Mission Forces in the first ever, most sensitive, and most successful missions of their type in the former Yugoslavia.”

Matulewicz continued, “We were both operators that coordinated in the planning and briefing sessions. Asked, “As operators did you just direct the theater of operations?” he replied, “Let me rephrase. We were actually considered ‘shooter/operators.’ This was not an administrative role.”

Bailey spent much of his article claiming that Zinke misrepresented his rank and authority in the SEALs by misusing a capital C when describing his rank in his own publications. Zinke’s brochure does use a capital “C” when calling him a commander. It is the first word in a bullet point.

Zinke claims that Chuck Johnson of Lee Enterprises once called him “the” Commander of SEAL Team 6. He said that he called Johnson to clarify that he was “a” commander at SEAL Team 6.

At a meeting of the Midland Empire Pachyderm Club, I heard Zinke make it clear that he was “a” commander not “the” commander. The Bronze Star citation calls him “Commander Zinke” and is signed by Rear Admiral J. Maguire of Naval Special Warfare Command. 

State Sen. Jim Shockley, a 25-year Marine Corps veteran with combat experience, has published a paper discrediting much of Bailey’s interpretations of Zinke’s DD-214 form and Bronze Star. Shockley notes that citations for special operations often do not give details and that many highly dangerous special operations do not include combat but rather rely on stealth and the lack of engagement.

Odermann said that if Zinke ever misrepresented his rank or service record, the fraternal organization of current and former SEALs would blow the whistle loud and clear. That has not happened. I could find no verification of any of Bailey’s allegations nor could Bailey provide any.

Bailey says he retired in 1990, which is six years before the “travelgate” and 14 years before the Bronze Star that is mentioned. It has never been clear where he got his information, or why he published his article just days before the primary with no time to respond. But he has never blinked.

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 August 2014 11:59

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