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Battling Seals
By Martin Kaste
December 14, 1999
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Governor Ventura's office confirmed that Ventura was never a member of the elite Navy SEALs, but he says he did train to be a SEAL, and that his membership in the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams was practically the same as being a SEAL. But a former SEAL and journalist in San Diego says the UDT's were notthe same as SEALs during Vietnam, and he says Ventura is taking credit for the valor of others.
More on the SEALs
Read more about Navy SEALs on the U.S. Navy's official Web site about the unit. You can also see a list of requirements to be SEAL-certified.

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THE GOVERNOR'S NAVY PAST resurfaced in the last few days after an article in the San Diego "Reader" accused Ventura of "pretending" to be a SEAL, the legendary elite Navy frogmen whose name stands for "Sea Air Land" teams. The article cites evidence that Ventura was in the Underwater Demolition Teams, the UDTs, a separate group that saw less combat, and took fewer casualties.

Ventura's spokesman, John Wodele, confirms Ventura was in the UDT's, and he says the Governor has never tried to convince people otherwise.
Wodele: If you travel with the governor and spend any amount of time with him, he is very forthcoming and accurate in terms of his relationship with the United States Navy. He talks about the fact that he was in the Underwater Demolition Team. In fact, he has corrected me in the past.
Ventura's speeches and interviews reveal a man who rarely says, point-blank, "I was a SEAL." Instead, he refers to his Basic Underwater Demolition and SEALS training.
Ventura: I can always look back to my Navy SEAL training when the going gets tough!
Or he talks about other idiosyncrasies common to both SEALs and UDTs.
Ventura: Hoo-yah?
Eichten: Yeah.
Ventura: That's a greeting. That's an inner-circle greeting of all navy frogmen and navy SEALs and all special forces in the navy community.
He also lets other people call him a SEAL, without correcting them.
Interviewer: You had been a Navy SEAL before becoming a wrestler. What's the difference between the kind of body of a Navy SEAL and a wrestler?
Ventura: Oh, much much different. I view it this way: When I was a wrestler, I could pick up buildings. When I was a SEAL, I could scale them.
Still, at other times, Ventura seems to tip-toe around the distinction. The chapter in his autobiography entitled "Navy SEALS" emphasizes the rigors of SEAL training, which the UDT's shared, and it implies he was a SEAL by describing proud SEAL traditions such as not wearing underwear. But he does not unambiguously claim to have been one of the SEAL elite.

Even the vanity license plate on Ventura's Porsche hedges the issue, it reads: UDTSEAL.

Spokesman John Wodele says it's acceptable for Ventura to use SEAL as short-hand for what he was, especially since the UDT's and SEALs merged in 1983, after Ventura left the service.

The Vietnam SEAL veteran who wrote the San Diego Reader article says the distinction does matter. Bill Salisbury says SEALs took bigger risks, and experienced worse casualties, than the UDTs.
Salisbury: We know what it's like to be in Vietnam as a SEAL. We know the terror you have to face day-in and day-out. And for somebody that spent most of his time floating around on a ship in the South China Sea to call himself a SEAL, we don't take that very well.
Ventura makes frequent reference to the ardors of SEAL training, but he does not talk about what kind of combat, if any, he saw in Vietnam. His standard line is that he's sworn to secrecy, a position Wodele echoes.
Wodele: Specific duties and responsibilities that he had while in Southeast Asia are something that was classified in nature, and not to be talked about.
Holman: Ha! There's so many books written by SEALS; if that were the truth. That's just so bogus.
Jim Holman, also a Vietnam combat veteran, is the editor of the San Diego Reader.
Holman: I mean, look up "SEALs" on Amazon or Bibliofinder, and you'll find tons of books by SEALs telling all their secrets.
Holman says the Salisbury article has whipped up an emotional reaction in San Diego, a Navy town with many current and former special-forces members. He says some have written angry attacks on the reporter for criticizing Ventura, but others share his feeling that Ventura has appropriated a mystique that doesn't belong to him.
Holman: He's not a stupid guy, he understands the distinction, and he understands the difference it makes in politics, and he's had plenty of chance you use to sort of make the precise distinction, in his book and in the Playboy interview. he's had a long time to talk about it and had all these chances to write about it.
Besides angry letters to the editor in San Diego, the question of Ventura's military record is beginning to add to the already tumultuous atmosphere inside the national Reform Party. Internet news groups are buzzing with it, and Donna Donovan, the press secretary for the anti-Ventura national leadership, called the Reader last week to get more information on the article. Salisbury says he has not been a political tool, but he does predict the Perot faction will take notice.
Salisbury: Ross Perot is a graduate of the Naval Academy, and whatever else you might think of him, he has a strong sense of honor and integrity, and smoke is coming out of his ears about this business of Ventura claiming to be a SEAL.
If this issue turns into another weapon in the Reform Party's intramural struggles, Ventura may well end up regretting one of the closing lines of the SEALS chapter of his autobiography:. It reads, "We're a proud organization. If anyone tries to pretend they're a SEAL, God help them."