It’s a Friday night. I’m heading into McP’s, the Coronado pub where Navy SEALs hang out. McP’s was recently in the news because Prince Harry turned up with his buddies while he was helicopter training in the desert, and because of something that may or may not have happened seven years ago.
It was a night of celebration and mourning at McP’s in October 2006 — celebration because it was during the SEALs’ annual get-together, mourning because family members and comrades were having a wake for Michael Mansoor, a SEAL who threw himself onto an exploding grenade in Iraq to save the lives of fellow SEALs.
One of the SEALs present was Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Another, at least according to Kyle, was Jesse Ventura, former SEAL, professional wrestler, and governor of Minnesota.
What happened next is the subject of a lawsuit in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The questions at issue: Was Ventura at McP’s that evening? Did he insult the memory of a SEAL killed in Iraq? And did Kyle then deck him?
Kyle claims he did in his book American Sniper, which came out in January last year.
Ventura denies it ever happened. He is suing for damages and to force the publishers to excise the claim from the 2012 book.
In 2006, Kyle was not yet known beyond his circle of fellow SEAL team members. But after he left the service in 2009 and published his book in January 2012, he became an instant celebrity. American Sniper is still on the New York Times best-seller list.
So why would a bona fide warrior have to invent a story about popping an ex-governor, if it weren’t true?
In 2006, Ventura was riding high after his term as governor. He had two bodyguards with him wherever he went. Kyle had three years to go with the SEALs, wasn’t famous, but was on his way to making history, with 160 confirmed sniper kills out of 255 claimed, and four combat tours in Iraq and elsewhere.
Also: in 2006, Kyle was still alive. On February 2 of this year, a troubled Marine and fellow veteran from Iraq apparently shot and killed Kyle during a “therapeutic” target-shooting afternoon in Glen Rose, Texas. (A trial has yet to take place).
A year earlier, Governor Ventura filed a defamation lawsuit against Kyle for the claims he made in American Sniper about the confrontation. After Kyle was killed, Ventura decided to continue with the suit. He added Kyle’s widow Taya as a substitution for her husband in court. Ventura’s lawyers argued, “It would be unjust to permit the estate to continue to profit from Kyle’s wrongful conduct and to leave Governor Ventura without redress for ongoing damage to his reputation.”
On July 19, Arthur Boylan, U.S. chief magistrate judge for the federal courts of Minnesota ruled that Taya Kyle, as executor of her husband’s estate, can act as a “substitution” for her deceased husband, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In other words, the trial can proceed.
So, did it happen? That’s why I’m here.
I’m not hoping to find SEALs who were here that night, but maybe a bartender who might remember what folks here said about it.
No such luck. One of the two bartenders tells me the official response: No one among the staff knows whether such a confrontation occurred. Period. Have a nice day.
In a section of Kyle’s book with the heading “Punching Out Scruff Face,” he wrote about confronting a “celebrity” over disrespecting SEALs, the war, and the president (George W. Bush) that night in 2006. “Scruff Face,” Kyle wrote, served in Vietnam, spent his winters in Baja California, was against the invasion of Iraq, and described 9/11 as a conspiracy; the description matches Ventura.
Kyle later admitted on The O’Reilly Factor that he had been referring to Ventura.
As reported in the New Yorker, Kyle said he overheard Ventura talking loudly that night about why he opposed the war in Iraq. Kyle said he asked Ventura to keep his opinions to himself, partly out of respect for relatives in town for the wake for Michael Mansoor. When, according to Kyle, Ventura said that “we deserved to lose a few guys” over there, Kyle punched him, and Ventura “went down.”
It was after the O’Reilly broadcast that Ventura filed defamation charges.
“He never hit me. I don’t even know who he is,” Ventura told Piers Morgan on CNN. “This never happened. [This lawsuit] has always been about clearing my name and getting back my reputation. I was accused by this gentleman of committing treason; that’s very serious. In fact, it’s a capital offense in the military. It’s not about money; it’s about my reputation.”
Is Ventura uncomfortable suing Kyle’s widow?
“No,” he told Morgan, “because an insurance company is paying for the whole thing, anyway. It’s the insurance company of the book publisher. I have to sue her just because she is now the estate, since [Chris Kyle] passed away.”
The best insights into both men come from ex-SEAL Bill Burbank, a cheery, burly occasional visitor to McP’s and veteran of 17 years in the SEAL teams, with deployments from Grenada to Lebanon, and a survivor of many SEAL reunions in Coronado.
“I guess most SEALs might think there could be some truth to Kyle’s allegations,” he says. “I’ve known even admirals to get punched by their subordinates, once they’re out, retired. ‘You were a bum when you did this.’ Then a little fist-fight, a little punch on the jaw. I’ve seen that happen in the beer line at reunions. They tend to drink a lot at those functions.
“Also, I know one of our guys who was in the battle of Ramadi [in Iraq] when Chris Kyle was there. He said [Kyle] had been in the battle of Ramadi and also the Battle of Sadr City. Kyle was attached to a sniper unit. He was doing over-watch for several platoons. That means he was giving back-up cover for, like, SEAL Team Six, SEAL Team Three, SEAL Team One, SEAL Team Five. That’s why he got so many shots in. He was tripling up on his exposure. My buddy tells me Kyle was more of a ‘shoot first’ kind of guy, and then check later if [his victims] had weapons or were carrying anything [lethal]. He said [Kyle] would shoot guys for carrying ammunition or pretty much whatever. But all the casualties that our guys were taking in both of those [actions] were hard on him. He observed those people getting killed. So, someone in McP’s saying those things about the war being wrong and so forth could easily get to him.”
And, yes, Ventura was a braggart, especially with a few beers in him, Burbank says. “Jesse Ventura is so erratic, anyway. He’s an erratic character. And if you’re going to look at his participation in [our wars] versus Chris Kyle’s participation, Chris Kyle eclipses him by 10,000 percent. Jesse was just a grunt in a SEAL team for one tour.”
And yet, Nicholas Schmidle in the New Yorker reports that Kyle made claims of derring-do back home that are scarcely credible: that he shot two would-be carjackers, that he set up atop the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and shot dozens of armed residents. Police have no records of these claimed vigilante episodes.
“Look, the pressure to keep on being the hero is there, even for a bona fide hero like Kyle,” Burbank says.
Is it possible Kyle fabricated his Ventura story to impress his admirers?
“It is. I think he could have embellished some stories. Even though he didn’t really need to, with his record.”
What does Burbank think about Ventura insisting on pursuing the lawsuit even now, after Kyle has died?
“That’s not very kind or generous, to sue the widow of a dead Navy SEAL. He’s saying things out of school that he didn’t have to. He’s in the wrong. He’s already transgressed against his brother. We have that brotherhood thing going in the teams. I’d tell him just to drop the case.”