When Florida Gov. and 2024 GOP presidential primary contender Ron DeSantis is stumping on the campaign trail, his standard speech doesn’t delve into the details of what he did as an attorney in the United States Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in Iraq.
Instead, rather than focus on his status as the only military veteran among the dozen declared Republican hopefuls, DeSantis stresses why he joined the Navy in 2004 and how it influenced the rest of his life.
He talks about being “a middle-class kid who did every kind of odd job you could imagine,” working his way through Yale, where he was the captain of the baseball team, to graduate in the spring of 2001 with a degree in history and a teaching job at Darlington School, a private prep in Rome, Georgia.
He talks about how his goal was to eventually earn a law degree at Harvard that would have opened doors at prestigious law firms with prodigious salaries.
He talks about that September 2001 day that changed everything.
“When the towers fell, it changed my outlook,” he told Piers Morgan in a March TV interview, a line he has repeated in various forms and settings while campaigning. “I kept telling himself, ‘I should be willing to do something.’ That is when I decided to start looking into other career choices.”
DeSantis was in his second year at Harvard Law School when he was commissioned an ensign in the Navy in 2004. He was stationed as a newly minted JAG prosecutor at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, was dispatched to Guantanamo Bay in 2006—what he did there will be a general election campaign issue if he wins the GOP nomination—and then deployed to Iraq as legal advisor to SEAL Team One.
He doesn’t elaborate on what he did in Iraq in 2007, during the surge and the Battle of Fallujah. He doesn’t claim to have been in direct combat, like the SEALs he provided legal cover for. He doesn’t say much about it at all and doesn’t boast about the commendations and medals he received, including a Bronze Star.
But some question how a Navy lawyer earned a Bronze Star without being in combat. Among those who’ve asked The Epoch Times to explain how that happened is a former Army infantry officer who led night patrols in the DMZ between North and South Korea, whose father earned a Bronze Star on the same ground three decades earlier.
He didn’t see combat, despite several close calls, but his wariness is typical of many military veterans when politicians’ resumes feature medals and commendations from their days as officers in the armed forces.
Especially, apparently, when it comes to the Bronze Star.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD), the Bronze Star Medal (BSM) is awarded for “heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.”
There are essentially two types of Bronze Stars. Those issued with a ‘V’ denote valor in combat. DeSantis has a Bronze Star without the combat valor ‘V.’ His is for comprehensive “meritorious service in a combat zone” without a specific cited action.
Only the Medal of Honor, individual branch Distinguished Service Crosses, and the Silver Star rank above the Bronze Star with a ‘V’ in terms of esteem and recognition.
The medal was established by President Franklin Roosevelt via executive order in 1943 as the “ground medal” following the 1941 creation of the “air medal.”
Therefore, many assume—even veterans—that the Bronze Star is an “Army medal.” But it can also be presented by the Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Civilians and foreign nationals serving with U.S. forces are also eligible.
According to the DOD, 395,380 Bronze Stars were awarded in WW2, 30,359 in the Korean War, 719,969 during the Vietnam War, including 170,626 with the ‘V’ for combat valor, and 102,345 during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including 2,459 with the ‘V’ for combat valor.
Since the ‘V’ distinction was added in 1962, only one in 40 recipients have qualified for the Bronze Star with the V device.
There have been several controversies since the 1990s about how different branches issue Bronze Stars with the Air Force, in particular, drawing criticism for being too liberal in doling 246 out—186 to officers—for actions in Kosovo.
Of the 246, only 16 were ever actually on the ground in a combat zone. Five were issued to officers who never left their base in Missouri. From there on, DOD determined only those who were actually on the ground in a combat zone could receive the medal.
In 2012, the Air Force again drew heated inter-service criticism when it issued two airmen who worked in finance for a medical unit deployed to Afghanistan Bronze Stars for meritorious service.
Among the many military leaders who have received the award is WW2 Army Gens. Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, and WW2 and Korea Marine Corps Gen. “Chesty” Puller. Others include former Army Gen. and Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Marine Corps Gen. and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Jim Mattis, and former Army Gen. and CIA Director David Petraeus.
Journalists and writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Galloway, and New York Times publisher Julius Ochs Adler have received the Bronze Star.
Notable performers and actors have been awarded the medal for actions while serving in the military, including Eddie Albert, James Arness, Henry Fonda, Rod Serling, George Kennedy, Glenn Miller, Mickey Rooney, Lee Van Cleef, and Oliver Stone.
Professional athletes such as former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, former Brooklyn Dodgers slugger Gil Hodges, and former Arizona Cardinals Safety Pat Tillman, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004, have earned the Bronze Star.
Other notable recipients include current First Sea Lord of the British Navy Sir Ben Key; the late Beau Biden, a former Army attorney; Dale Dye, a career Marine who served in Vietnam before launching an acting career; and former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.
Among past political leaders who earned the Bronze Star are Sens. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala,), Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), John Kerry (D-Mass.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Those now serving in Congress who have been awarded the medal include Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas),Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Brian Mast (R-Fla.) and Mike Waltz (R-Fla.).
If there is a parallel to DeSantis’s service as a JAG in Iraq, it is Graham’s service. He retired as a colonel in 2015 from the Air Force after serving 33 years, primarily in the reserves.
In 2014, he was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service as a senior legal adviser to the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2009-14, overseeing the detention of military prisoners.
There was controversy when Graham accepted his Bronze Star for meritorious service without a combat ‘V,’ earned while he was a U.S. Senator and high-ranking officer doing reserve duty nowhere near the sound of gunfire.
But there should be no such fuss over DeSantis receiving the same medal as a junior officer working with special forces often in challenging if not dangerous places, retired Navy Capt. Larry Bailey of Stolen Valor told The Epoch Times.
Bailey, a former SEAL commander, said Stolen Valor, “an ad hoc group” that exposes claims of exaggerated military service, has not fielded any questions about DeSantis’s Bronze Star, and that it is what it is—an award for meritorious service in a combat zone.
“I have heard nothing at all about his [medal] being under scrutiny,” he said. “It appears his service was ‘meritorious duty.’ That appears to be what it was.”
Waltz, a former Army Green Beret—the first ever elected to Congress—earned four Bronze Stars, including two with ‘V’s for combat gallantry. He has no problem with DeSantis receiving a Bronze Star for “meritorious service” because that appears to be exactly what his service was.
“I’ve seen no reason” to question his service, Waltz told The Epoch Times. “That was a decision by his commanding officers, who gets what awards,” so his commanding officers and the SEALs he worked with thought he earned the medal.
DeSantis is “not new to politics,” so the matter has been raised before, he said, especially when he was first running for Florida governor in 2018, noting it was not a campaign issue then and should not be an issue in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.