HELENA — Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke recently released some of his military records that show he was a highly decorated Navy SEAL during his 23-year career, but the Montana Democratic Party has called on him to release all of his records.
Zinke, a former state senator from Whitefish, is running for the state’s lone House seat against Democrat John Lewis of Helena, a former aide to ex-Sen. Max Baucus. Also in the race is Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows, a Missoula computer consultant.
The records Zinke provided to the Gazette State Bureau last month show he received two Bronze Stars for combat, the fourth highest military award. He also received four Meritorious Service Awards and a number of other awards.
He provided a copy of his DD Form 214, his certificate of release or discharge from active duty, which summarizes Zinke’s various assignments and awards. It shows that Zinke received an honorable discharge and retired as a Navy commander on Feb. 1, 2008.
Later in 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs evaluated Zinke and rated him 80 percent disabled.
“I was surprised it was that high because I can still run,” he said. “I can swim. It hurts. There are a lot of internal problems that I have. I guess if I would have stayed longer I would have made 100 percent.”
Zinke released copies of four of his Fitness Reports and Counseling Records. These are issued whenever someone is promoted, changes locations or is recommended for promotion. They are like yearly performance evaluations of employees conducted by their bosses in the private or public sector.
These fitness reports included glowing evaluations of Zinke.
In 1998, his superior officer said that Zinke commander “is my number one of seven unrestricted” lieutenant commanders assigned to the command. It added: “He is a must for early promotion and should be groomed for priority senior leadership positions in NSW (Navy Special Warfare)….A superstar, who excels at everything, he will lead and command with distinction.”
In 2000, Zinke’s superior officer wrote: “Superb XO (executive officer) and SEAL. Intelligent. Experienced and motivated. Wealth of joint and overseas exposure…. We must send to War College. Screen for command and assign to a war-fighting position!!”
In 2001, his superior officer wrote: “Select for command now! Widely acclaimed as a top notch leader in naval special warfare. Sterling performance as XO and acting CO (commanding officer) Will excel in command!!.”
In 2004, Zinke’s superior officer wrote, “My number one officer and adviser….Ranks at the top of any list. Light years ahead of his peers in leadership and battle sense. Strongest possible recommendation for immediate promotion to O-6 (captain) and major command.”
(Some records Zinke released are linked to this story online. His campaign redacted some details such as the names of his superior officers and Social Security numbers.)
However, Zinke didn’t provide the State Bureau with any other fitness reports. When asked why, his campaign spokeswoman, Shelby DeMars, said, “I would imagine Ryan has more, but the only ones he has in his possession are the ones that he gave you.” She said Zinke has or has seen only the “competitive” fitness reports when he was vying against his peers for promotions.
The Montana Democratic Party in mid-July submitted a Federal Freedom of Information Request to the Navy seeking a number of Zinke’s records. It later received 19 of Zinke’s fitness reports, but virtually all key information was redacted.
“Ryan Zinke continues to cherry pick only pieces of his record he wants to highlight,” Bryan Watt, Democratic Party spokesman said. “It’s time for him to be transparent with Montanans and release his full records.”
The Democratic Party also sought any letters of reprimand issued to Zinke. In response, the Navy said it couldn’t confirm or deny that such a letter existed. If it did, it “would be contained in a Privacy Act System of Records covering the Navy Personnel Records Systems.”
The Democratic Party last week filed an appeal, seeking any letters of reprimand.
Zinke has said he was ordered by the Navy in the mid-1990s to pay back $211 over a disputed one-way plane ticket to Montana. He took the trip, at Navy expense, to scout out potential SEAL training sites in Montana, but the Navy disallowed the airfare.
“Was it aggressive?” Zinke asked. “Yeah, it was for a junior officer. Probably a little aggressive, admittedly so. I probably shouldn’t have pressed Montana so much, but I’m from Montana so I felt pretty strongly about it.”
Zinke said the Navy never issued him a letter of reprimand over the travel claim. He repaid the money, and that was that.
“It didn’t prevent me from getting promoted,” Zinke said. “It didn’t prevent me from being commander. And quite frankly, I think by any standard, I had a career that only a few were lucky enough to obtain.”
Democratic spokesman Watt said, “The key problem here is that Mr. Zinke seems to think that spending taxpayer dollars for personal use is OK. But most Montanans would take exception. Whether it’s $2 or $200, Zinke misses the point.”
Zinke’s military record has come under attack from another SEAL, retired Capt. Larry Bailey of North Carolina, who wrote a critical letter about Zinke during the primary campaign. Bailey maintains Zinke was forced out of SEAL Team Six and encouraged to retire from the Navy.
Bailey has accused Zinke of making multiple trips from Virginia to his home in Montana, “ostensibly to scout out training sites for his squadron. The truth was that he went to work on some family property, and apparently, on one occasion took two or three other Navy SEALs with him.” These trips not only involved airfare, but per diem and personal use of Navy time, he said.
“To his credit, Ryan, when confronted with his transgressions, admitted his culpability and paid back the funds he expended,” Bailey said. Zinke was “fired from SEAL Team Six for unethical behavior.”
In response, Zinke denied each of Bailey’s accusations.
“That’s absolutely not true, and he knows it’s not true,” Zinke said. “To say that I was fired is once again inaccurate from a person who wasn’t at the command.”
Zinke said he was later promoted to be the mission commander in Kosovo and then acting and deputy commander in Iraq, where he earned the two Bronze Stars.
“To suggest that my career was anything but brilliant is dishonest,” Zinke said.
Retired Master Chief Steve Matulewicz of Virginia said he worked with Zinke in the Navy SEALs at the national mission force, but not when the airfare dispute occurred.
“I would evaluate his service as fantastic,” Matulewicz said. “I can tell you when I served with Ryan Zinke, there were absolutely no issues regarding his leadership or his talents as a SEAL.”
“Eyes on Target,” a 2014 book on the Navy SEALs by Scott McEwen and Richard Miniter, devotes most of a chapter to Zinke.
As deputy and acting commander of Seal Team Six for the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Zinke “led a force of special operations personnel in Iraq in the conduct 360 combat patrols, 48 direct action missions and hundreds of sensitive missions,” the book said.
Zinke “was responsible for killing or capturing 72 known enemies, insurgents and terrorists,” the book said.
In the State Bureau interview, Zinke said, “I’m not a community organizer. “I was a commander at SEAL Team Six. I have a little grit, and I also got calluses on my hands from working.”
He added, “Less than 1 percent of SEALs ever get to be Seal Team Six,” he said. “Of the Navy, 1 percent of the Navy gets to be a SEAL. So you’re talking about percent of 1 percent, and I did two tours on SEAL Team Six, with two Defense Meritorious Medals, and I was a commander.”