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Ron DeSantis leans into his military service as his 2024 campaign seeks altitude

DeSantis is the only veteran in the GOP presidential field, but even those who admire his service aren’t sure that it will help him beat Donald Trump.
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Fielding a foreign policy question last month from a voter in New Hampshire, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opened with a biographical tidbit that’s often overshadowed by his laser-focus on social and cultural issues. 

“I’m the only veteran running out of all these candidates,” responded DeSantis — who in the 2000s served as a Navy lawyer at the Guantánamo Bay detention base in Cuba and later deployed to Iraq — drawing applause at the town hall-style forum.

“I’ll be the first president elected since 1988,” he added, “who’s actually served in a war.”

DeSantis then launched into a broader answer, returning to his military career only when directly asked about it later. 

Though it’s a part of life that distinguishes him from former President Donald Trump and other rivals for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, DeSantis has reached for it sparingly in his first eight weeks in the race — usually as a perfunctory aside or impersonal transition to his more prosaic policy proposals. There have been fleeting moments: a “Top Gun”-themed video from his 2022 re-election bid, a guest bartending gig at a Nevada VFW hall and an occasional line about how he could have made more money as an Ivy League-educated lawyer but wanted to serve his country instead. 

Now, as DeSantis struggles for traction in his White House run, his campaign is telegraphing a new strategy that will feature his Navy service much more prominently in messaging on the trail and in TV ads.

Ron DeSantis.
Ron DeSantis served as a Navy lawyer at the Guantánamo Bay detention base in Cuba and later deployed to Iraq.U.S. Navy

“We’ve found,” the campaign wrote in a confidential memo to donors activists obtained last week by NBC News, “that when voters hear about the Governor’s bio principally as a Dad and as a veteran — they like him and are open to hearing more about him.”

But even those who appreciate DeSantis’ service and want to hear him talk about it more are skeptical it will help reverse his sagging fortunes in a field dominated by Trump. And there are early signs that DeSantis is uncomfortable or unwilling to talk about his experiences in any way that cannot be shoehorned into his traditional stump speech.

“Having veteran status has a small advantage, I think, with any candidate in any race,” said Russ Duerstine, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a right-leaning advocacy group that endorsed DeSantis for governor in 2018 and is expected to issue an endorsement in the presidential race. “I would fall short of saying it’s a game-changer.” 

As DeSantis reminded his New Hampshire audience, no combat veteran has been elected president since George H.W. Bush nearly 35 years ago. Sen. John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was central to his campaign as the GOP nominee in 2008. Several other veterans ran in the last three presidential cycles. But with the exception of Pete Buttigieg in his bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020, none made much of an impression by emphasizing their service.

“The standard question is, ‘Gee, isn’t it important to be a veteran?' And the answer is, ‘Yes, it is,’” Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor and Army veteran who waged a long-shot and low-polling bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, said in an interview.

“But I’m going to give you a better answer,” added Gilmore, who served as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the Trump administration. “Is that the most important issue that’s going to decide the nomination? Is that the most important issue that’s going to decide the presidential election? And the answer is: Not yet.” 

The campaign’s first effort to put DeSantis’ military experience front-and-center came Tuesday during a news conference in South Carolina, where he unveiled a “Mission First’’ military plan. The speech was notable not for the new ground DeSantis covered but, rather, for how it essentially applied his culture war themes to his vision for fighting actual wars. He framed his message around attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion practices and critical race theory — or DEI and CRT, as they’ve become known in the shorthand of political combat.

A DeSantis administration, he vowed, would remove the “woke” from the military, and in doing so address recruitment challenges that the armed forces have faced in recent years. Enlistments have declined, but military experts have cited other factors, from obesity, drug use and criminal records reducing the pool of eligible recruits to Covid. 

One South Carolina Republican who is unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns later expressed disappointment with the overall content of DeSantis’ speech.

“His military service should be the top theme going forward,” said the Republican, who was granted anonymity to share candid observations. “Yet this major ‘plan to restore the military’ didn’t sound personal, and could just be ... someone else talking woke platitudes. ... This is just like his basic stump speech with ‘in the military’ added.”

Duerstine acknowledged enlistment and morale issues, blaming “broken promises on health care and these endless wars” that began under previous administrations.

“We endorsed him as governor in ‘18 because of his stance on health care choice in Florida, and how that impacted veterans in his state,” Duerstine said. “So I am glad that he’s focused on the military. Where he lands with this DEI and CRT, it’s too early for me to guess.” 

Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, a progressive advocacy group, said military service matters to voters but characterized the policy issues that DeSantis frames around it as out of the mainstream.

“When your ship is sinking, you’re going to try anything,” said Soltz, who like DeSantis is an Iraq War veteran. “He sees some opportunity here to reset on this. He’s picking these divisive social issues that help him with his base. So does this stuff work? Maybe with the far, far right.” 

Dan Bean, DeSantis’ commanding officer when they served as prosecutors in the Navy reserves, asserted that the emphasis on culture wars is relevant to the mission.

Flying people for abortions or paying for transgender surgeries, I think those are all unfortunate distractions,” said Bean, referring to two Pentagon policies that have drawn criticism. “People can be free to make those choices, but that’s not something the military should be involved in.”

Bean, a Jacksonville lawyer who appeared in a pro-DeSantis ad last year and said he supports the governor’s presidential campaign, added that he believes the governor needs to open up and share more of his military experience. 

“I think it sets him apart,” Bean said. “He’s becoming more personal. I think the American public wants to see that. I also think they want to know more about him.”

In a joint interview with her husband that aired Thursday on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends,” Casey DeSantis acknowledged that “there are truths that they [voters] don’t know — that he served in the United States Navy, that he was a JAG officer … got the Bronze Star for meritorious service.” In the same interview, the governor made a passing mention of his service when drawing a contrast with Trump, saying that his experience as a military officer instilled in him a unique discipline. 

The personal moments remain rare, though. An exception came toward the end of last month’s town hall in New Hampshire, when Phil Taub, a private equity lawyer who runs a veterans charity, asked for DeSantis’ thoughts on how to address high suicide rates among veterans. DeSantis briefly opened up, winding up to a compassionate answer by recalling his arrival in Fallujah, Iraq, in the summer of 2007, “assigned to Navy SEAL Team 1 as part of the surge of troops.” 

“I think at the time, it wasn’t necessarily appreciated that, if you came back and your limbs were fine, and there were no visible wounds of war, that somehow you were fine,” DeSantis continued. “And those are not wounds that we understood as much as we should have.”

DeSantis also wove in some standard talking points — a rant against Big Pharma, his opposition to Covid vaccine mandates — before mentioning policies he has pushed for in public office, including a bill he introduced in Congress to provide federal grants to pair service dogs with veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers Act, or PAWS Act, passed after DeSantis left the House.

The suicide rate of those who participated in privately funded programs was “infinitesimal,” DeSantis said. “I mean, they didn’t have a perfect score, but they had darn close to that.”

Taub, in an interview after the event, said he appreciated DeSantis’ response. 

“He didn’t hit on every point,” said Taub, who supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. “But he showed me that he understands the issue.”