To recruit and train members of a civilian military force under his control, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has hired a company that specializes in combat training and lists as one of its instructors a former U.S. Navy SEAL accused of war crimes.
Previously unreported records reviewed by the Times/Herald show the state has agreed to pay Stronghold SOF Solutions up to $1.2 million to recruit, vet and train volunteer members of the Florida State Guard, the World War II-era force that DeSantis revived last year to respond to emergencies.
The Florida company trains police and military members on tactical shooting, explosives and urban combat and is owned by a former Army Green Beret who supports the Republican governor’s presidential campaign. The governor’s office, the State Guard and the Florida Department of Military Affairs, which oversees the agreement, didn’t respond to questions about the training services.
The state’s civilian force was initially sold as a unit that would help Florida’s overworked National Guard respond to emergencies within the state. Since then, its scope has been expanded to allow the State Guard to respond to emergencies anywhere in the country, and some members have been granted the ability to make arrests and carry weapons.
The mission statement of Stronghold SOF Solutions evokes a wide-ranging militaristic purpose.
“We preserve the warrior culture by honoring its traditions, we prepare the future warfighter by delivering innovative training solutions, so we protect those who cannot do it themselves,” the mission statement reads.
In promotional videos, Stronghold SOF Solutions highlights training that teaches individuals how to use drones, explosives and precision shooting. The company, based in Destin with a training facility in DeFuniak Springs, touts having trained various special forces units, including Army Rangers and police officers. Its facilities include a shoot house, various firing ranges, an airfield and a targetry.
A state database shows the agreement with Stronghold was approved this year during a state of emergency issued by DeSantis, a move that could have allowed the state to waive procurement and vetting requirements for vendors. The company has also done work with the U.S. Department of Defense this year, records show.
It is unclear how many State Guard members have been recruited, vetted and trained by the company, if any, but a state database shows a payment of $300,000 last month for work related to the State Guard.
Records show the state has also authorized spending more than $217,000 on ammunition for the State Guard.
Who are the trainers?
After announcing the revival of the State Guard two years ago, DeSantis dismissed critics who warned he’d use the group as his own “secret police.” Members of the State Guard were activated for the first time after Hurricane Idalia this year, distributing supplies and cleaning debris from the storm.
But during its first training at Florida National Guard headquarters in June, military veterans quit over its militialike focus.
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While that training did not include how to handle weapons, Stronghold SOF Solutions specializes in training for “the warfighter and law enforcement officer.”
The company says all of its staff have served in special operations.
Fellow SEALs reported that Gallagher, their platoon leader, shot civilians and killed a captive Islamic State fighter with a knife during a 2017 deployment to Iraq. (Gallagher was also charged with contempt of court for allegedly threatening those who reported him.)
In 2019, he was found not guilty in a military court of all charges but one: posing for a photo with the dead Islamic State fighter. Trump relished Gallagher’s notoriety and overturned his demotion by the Navy.
It’s not clear whether Gallagher has a role in training State Guard members. Neither a company representative nor DeSantis’ office would answer questions about his involvement.
But Stronghold’s website advertises: “Train with Eddie.” Last year, he attended a training session of several Tallahassee police officers at Stronghold’s DeFuniak Springs training facility, a decision the city’s police chief defended amid criticism from members of the city commission.
The CEO of Stronghold — Calvin B. Graves, also known as Brandon Graves — is a supporter of the governor’s presidential campaign. On social media, Graves repeatedly shows support for DeSantis’ stances on social issues, like banning female transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports.
He has also praised DeSantis for how he says he would treat potential looters: “You loot, we shoot.”
“Leadership: reminding would-be criminals that we do not play the looting game in Florida,” Graves posted on X, formerly Twitter.
A specialized unit in the making
The partnership with Stronghold marks a shift in how Florida is finding and training volunteers for the State Guard, which has struggled to get off the ground since its launch.
Last month, DeSantis announced the organization’s third director in the last year, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mark Thieme. The previous director quit halfway through its first training class in June. Several military veterans who went through the training told the Times/Herald that their Florida National Guard instructors were incompetent and the training slapdash. One volunteer, a Marine Corps veteran, called the local sheriff’s office and reported he was battered by the instructors when they forcibly shoved him into a van after he questioned the program and its leadership.
Originally pitched as a 400-member organization, it’s been expanded to 1,500, but the organization has failed to find and train volunteers to meet its goals. Its training class graduated 120 recruits, who are now referred to as soldiers. Its next training class isn’t expected until next year.
The June training class consisted of people who applied through an online portal or who were asked to apply by other volunteers. Members who attended the training have told the Times/Herald that the State Guard did little vetting.
Stronghold is required to recruit and vet the candidates, records show.
DeSantis’ Department of Military Affairs, which oversees the agreement, would not clarify whether the training Stronghold is offering State Guard members is geared toward a specialized unit that under Florida law has the ability to make arrests and carry weapons.
Those who are in that unit — added a year after DeSantis revived the State Guard — must be certified law enforcement officers and meet certain employment requirements that include being a U.S. citizen without felony convictions.
Not much is known about how DeSantis intends to use the unit, a component that few — if any — state guards in the country have. But the governor’s office has indicated it could help “law enforcement with riots and illegal immigration,” among other emergencies.
The State Guard’s training in June was overseen by the state’s adjutant general, James Haas, who was appointed by DeSantis. When asked about the agreement with Stronghold, Haas referred the Times/Herald to Thieme, the new director.
“I really am not involved with that,” Haas said this week. “We provide services, but he actually reports directly to the governor’s office.”