Senate Candidate Tells Different Story of Navy Discharge Than His Book Does

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Matthew Brown/Associated Press
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Matthew Brown/Associated Press

Tim Sheehy, the Navy SEAL running to unseat Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester, has repeatedly told voters he was “discharged” from the military for medical reasons, owing to wounds sustained in service.

But the Republican’s own autobiography, published just last year, says otherwise; he wrote that he became disillusioned with military personnel policies and left of his own accord after being injured in a training accident.

“This line of inquiry is disgusting,” Sheehy’s campaign said in a statement, claiming there was no inconsistency.

But the discrepancy is the latest to dog Sheehy, 38, who has described himself as a “war hero” on the campaign trail.

Audio obtained by The Daily Beast reveals that in February, at a Bozeman Public Library event to promote his autobiography, Sheehy said: “After I got wounded the final time, I got discharged.”

In March, he told a podcast host he “proudly served multiple tours overseas,” including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “got wounded and injured a handful of times, so eventually was medically discharged from the military.”

And in a November episode of the First Class Fatherhood podcast, Sheehy said: “So finally, they said, ‘Hey, you’re at the end of the road, you know, you’ve got shrapnel in you, you’ve got a bullet in you, you’ve had a head injury, you know, you’re out of here.’”

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But in the pages of Mudslingers: A True Story of Aerial Firefighting, his memoir, there’s a different narrative.

Published as “An American Origins Story” by Permuted Press, Mudslingers focuses mainly on how Sheehy started and ran Bridger Aerospace, his company based in Montana. But it also recounts his military career, from the U.S. Naval Academy to his years as a SEAL.

“I had been shot and wounded by shrapnel and IEDs,” Sheehy wrote, also describing a firefight in Afghanistan in which he was shot in the arm and other violent incidents including a mistaken U.S. Hellfire missile strike on his SEALs team.

But Sheehy also described an accident while training on submarines off Hawaii in late 2013 in which, he says, he suffered a case of decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends.

“As it turned out,” Sheehy wrote, “the decompression sickness had left me with a tiny hole in my heart. It could have been much worse. I felt fine. I was alive, healthy, and seemingly unencumbered by any long-term injury.

“But I was, in the eyes of the Navy, damaged goods.”

Tim Sheehy

Tim Sheehy published his memoir last year.

jbsmitty/Wikimedia Commons

According to Sheehy, he was told he would need “a period of recovery and evaluation… before I could return to active duty,” a period that could last a year, two years or more, after which it was possible he might not return to active duty.

Given the option of a “staff tour”—meaning desk jobs, possibly at the Pentagon, White House or U.S. Naval War College—Sheehy decided he was “no longer interested in following that path if I could not know I could return to operational status. If I couldn’t be out in the field, leading from the front, then it was time to consider doing something else. I had put in my time: I was free to go if I wanted.”

Sheehy added that he and his wife, Carmen, a U.S. Marine, were disillusioned with the American campaign in Afghanistan and had “kind of grown frustrated with the military.”

“What we hated was the military’s constriction of your life and your path,” Sheehy wrote. “The fact that the trajectory of your career was not determined by your merit, but rather by a giant 1950s-era corporate promotion system… by all sorts of other extraneous shit—all the garrison crap and ass kissing.”

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Sheehy also cited frustration with “social initiatives” under the Obama administration and a dislike of “corporate analysis of the military.”

And so, after sustaining combat injuries and a heart problem sustained in training, but having by his own description been told a return to combat was possible, Sheehy quit the SEALs.

“If it’s possible for a life-threatening injury to be considered a blessing,” he wrote—clearly referring to his submarine accident and heart problem and not combat wounds—“then maybe that’s what this was: a forcing of our hand, an opportunity to reexamine our lives.”

And so he left to set up Bridger Aerospace, the company that fueled his entry to Republican politics.

Jon Tester

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., whom Tim Sheehy is trying to unseat.

Tom Williams/Getty

In April, as Sheehy’s campaign to unseat Tester warmed up, The Washington Post reported that the version of Sheehy’s departure from the Navy in his autobiography differed from a résumé he submitted to the Montana legislature in 2021 that said he was “medically separated from active duty due to wounds received in Afghanistan.”

A spokesperson for Sheehy told the paper: “Sheehy was honorably discharged from the Navy after being declared medically unfit to continue to serve as a Navy SEAL.”

But that statement is also contradicted by Sheehy’s own written account: He says he chose to leave the Navy rather than complete a spell of desk jobs before a possible return to active duty.

Sheehy has mentioned his submarine accident while campaigning but the account does not quite square with what he writes in his book.

Last November, Sheehy told the Pursuit, a Montana podcast, “I’d been wounded a couple times overseas and then on one of our dive missions there we had a malfunction with our mini-submarine… and I got the bends pretty seriously and it popped a hole in my heart and I had to go in the chamber for about 10 days and get recompressed. And that that was kind of the final injury after getting shot, getting shrapnel and IEDs and everything. ‘You’ve got one too many holes in your body now, you’re done. Time to move on.’”

In its statement to The Daily Beast, Sheehy’s campaign did not explain the discrepancies between what he has said on the trail and what he wrote in the book, but insisted “there is no discrepancy in how Tim describes his military career finally coming to an end after almost a decade serving in some of the most dangerous places in the world like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

“Tim Sheehy served our country as a Navy SEAL—earning the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in the process. Tim was honorably discharged from the Navy after being declared medically unfit to continue to serve as a Navy SEAL,” the statement continues.

“While we understand liberal reporters at The Daily Beast may not understand what it’s like to put a uniform on and risk their lives to take out the bad guys who wish to harm America, Tim Sheehy knows what it means to put service and sacrifice first.”

The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sheehy’s discharge.

The truth of why Sheehy left the military is not the only mystery his move into politics has raised.

As The Daily Beast reported in April, Sheehy’s claims to have grown up in “rural Minnesota” do not square with his actual childhood in “a multi-million-dollar lake house in Shoreview, Minnesota, a quiet Twin Cities suburb just north of St. Paul with a population of roughly 27,000.”

The Daily Beast has also called into question Sheehy’s claims to have “bootstrapped” his company from meager beginnings by noting that in Mudslingers, he disclosed a $100,000 loan from his parents.

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In campaign appearances, and in his autobiography, Sheehy has discussed the wound to his right arm which he says he suffered in a firefight in 2012. At one December event, in footage posted to social media and first reported by the Post, he said: “I got thick skin—though it’s not thick enough. I have a bullet stuck in this arm still from Afghanistan.” He retired in October 2014. The following year, he was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for sustaining a combat wound.

But in April the Post published a baffling story of how in 2015, Sheehy told a ranger in Glacier National Park that he accidentally shot himself—and was fined $525 for illegally discharging a weapon.

Sheehy told the Post he fell while hiking then made up the story about accidentally firing his gun because he wanted to protect old service mates from possible investigation over the wound suffered three years earlier, possibly from friendly fire, but not reported to superiors then.

“I guess the only thing I’m guilty of is admitting to doing something I never did,” Sheehy told the Post. He also said the fine he paid “was a small price to pay to make sure that a whole team of really great Americans didn’t get dragged through the mud over this.”

The Post subsequently obtained a statement in which Sheehy asked the National Parks Service for “leniency with any charges related to this unfortunate accident,” because of his “ongoing security clearance and involvement with national defense related contracts.”

As the November elections approach, Republicans hoping to retake the Senate have put considerable faith in Sheehy’s challenge to Tester, 67, a farmer-politician in office since 2007 but a rare Democratic senator from a western state.

Polling shows a tight race between Tester, a political moderate, and Sheehy, who describes himself as “a strong conservative who believes America’s best days are ahead.”

Sheehy’s differing versions of why he left the military stand to add to issues on which he will face tough questions.

In its own recent report, The New York Times chose a headline that pointed to Sheehy’s biggest challenge: “Montana’s Senate Race Could Come Down to One Question: Do I Trust You?”

— With reporting by Riley Rogerson

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