It was a hot day on a Texas ranch in 2010, and Chris Kyle — the man who would one day become the most famous veteran in America — was about to “make an ass of himself” in his first meeting with Governor Rick Perry.
“There was a minute when a photo was about to be taken that he just did something hysterically funny,” says Taya Kyle, widow of the Navy SEAL now known nationwide as the “American Sniper.” She’s cagey about exactly how her husband ribbed Perry, but can’t stop herself from laughing at the memory.
Instead, the governor just laughed at the teasing, and the two quickly became close friends. “He thought, ‘Good! I’m not looking for somebody to kiss my backside. Just be real with me,’” Kyle says Perry later explained to her. “I felt like maybe that’s where [Perry and Chris] really connected. They were just these two guys that were going to keep it real.”
It’s a sentiment repeated over and over by the high-profile former warriors backing his presidential run — with Perry, what you see is what you get. From Taya Kyle to “Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell to Medal of Honor winner Michael Thornton, America’s best-known veterans and their families are taking to the campaign trail to rally support for the former Texas governor in 2016. Though these famous surrogates express admiration for his conservative, small-government policies, what attracts them to Perry is his character, humility, and compassion for suffering soldiers. And in a GOP primary where foreign policy is sure to loom large, their support may prove a potent weapon.
When Perry launched his campaign at an oversize aircraft hanger in Dallas, Texas, earlier this month, Marcus and Morgan Luttrell, brothers who both served in the Navy SEALs, stood right behind him. Marcus — whose book, Lone Survivor, turned him into a household name — struggled with the pressures of normal life after returning from a grueling tour of duty in Afghanistan. Well before he was famous, the Perry family brought him into the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, where by all accounts they treated him like their own son. “Governor Perry taught me how to be a good man,” Luttrell told the Washington Post.
To Perry’s left was Taya Kyle, who says the governor and his wife helped her pick up the pieces after her husband’s death at the hands of a mentally ill veteran he was trying to help. “Mrs. [Anita] Perry is somebody I have called in tears,” she says, and Perry himself will often text her, “How you doin’, girl?” Kyle says the governor once invited her family to stay at the governor’s mansion, where he hung out with her kids and played with the family’s dog while she and Mrs. Perry went on a shopping jaunt to Walgreens.
Next to Kyle stood Michael Thornton, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor winner who helped found SEAL Team Six. A friend of Perry’s for more than 20 years, Thornton says the former governor has “always been out there for the veterans” — pushing through policies like free parking at airports and expansive tax benefits for ex-soldiers living in Texas. He recalls a time he invited Perry to Fort Bliss, an Army base in El Paso. “He said, ‘All you officers get away, I just want to talk to the enlisted guys,’” Thornton says. “He was always thinking about how he could better the lives of these young men and women.”
On Kyle’s other side was Dan Moran, a decorated former Marine Corps captain who suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body during a 2006 battle in Iraq, and now runs both a successful consulting firm and the veteran’s charity Hope for the Warriors. “I’m just blessed that when I was wounded, he was there for my family,” says Moran of Perry. He calls Perry a friend, a “big brother,” and a mentor. “There’s a lot of great people, as you look at the current Republican presidential slate, but to me there’s only one true public servant, and that’s Governor Perry,” he says. “Its just part of his makeup, part of his DNA.”
That’s an opinion the Perry team is quick to echo. Jeff Miller, Perry’s campaign manager, says no one moment precipitated the governor’s tight bond with the men and women who served. He portrays it as a legacy of his father’s service as a tail gunner in World War II, strengthened by Perry’s own tour of duty as an Air Force pilot. “Governor Perry is close with the veteran community because he is one of them,” Miller says.
Perry’s route to the White House is perhaps even more fraught now than it was in 2012. His poor showing in last cycle’s presidential debates weighs heavily on his current prospects, and the latest polls show him running slightly behind Donald Trump.
But this time he has some Hollywood heroes behind his campaign — Kyle and Luttrell respectively featured in the blockbuster films American Sniper and Lone Survivor. And Pete Scobell, a former Navy SEAL and another ardent Perry supporter, led the raid against the Somali pirates who hijacked an American ship, an operation later immortalized in the movie Captain Phillips.
‘Governor Perry is close with the veteran community because he is one of them.’
Miller says the fact that some of the governor’s friends became household names is a testament to how many veterans’ lives he’s touched, and insists that Perry was never looking for publicity. “None of the veterans he is close with were famous when he befriended them,” he says. Marcus Luttrell’s book was in the process of being released when the Perrys took him in, and the governor’s friendship with Chris Kyle started two years before his own book was published.
Perry has more going for him than simple star power, though. As one of just two in the GOP field with military experience, his ability to attract veteran voters shouldn’t be underestimated. “Chris used to say, ‘How can you be a commander-in-chief and have never served?’” Kyle says. “That, to him, was just odd.”
“I think any man or woman who’s running for the Office of the President of the United States should’ve served in the military,” says Thornton. “They’ve got to understand what they’re putting these young men and women into when they go to war.”
And unlike Senator Lindsey Graham (R., SC), a fellow Air Force veteran, Perry has experience as a chief executive — something his military supporters say is key given the decisions he will have to make at home and abroad. “Being an executive leader is a lot different than giving a speech on the Senate floor,” says Moran. “We’ve tried having a good orator and speaker without executive experience as president, and that hasn’t worked out too well for us.”
Thornton, who now lives in Texas but grew up in South Carolina, says Graham has been in Washington too long. “Up there, working across [party] lines, sometimes you lose sight of what you’re supposed to be fighting for,” he says.
“I always have to laugh when people get into office that have really had no experience,” says Kyle. “Why is it so much about what somebody says, instead of just what they’ve actually done?”Perry’s veteran backers say he’s different from the competition in another way, describing a sense of humility and authenticity that’s rare for a national politician. “He’s always been down to earth,” says Thornton, who likes to rib Perry for eating “steak and lobster” in the Air Force while he was “living in a grass hut” in Vietnam. “Down to earth, good ol’ Texas boy, is all he is.”
“I guess maybe it’s hard for some people to relate to, because I think some people would come with such reverence for somebody’s position, or whatever, that they wouldn’t be so casual,” says Kyle. “But Chris was making jokes with [Perry] from Day One.”
“When I look at politics today, and I think about what bothers me most, it truly comes down to smoke-and-mirrors crap and people saying things and not believing them,” she continues. “I really yearn for genuine. I yearn for someone who really means it. Who is less about themselves.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.