Famous Veteran: Jesse Ventura

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura speaks at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
In this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura speaks at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. (Jim Mone/AP File Photo)

Jesse Ventura is a multifaceted celebrity and limelight lover who has written books, served as a governor, acted for cinema and wrestled professionally.

Born James George Janos in 1951 in Minneapolis and known as "Jim" in his early life, he was the son of two World War II veterans. His father -- a city maintenance worker with a strong distrust of President Richard Nixon and pretty much all politicians -- had been a soldier. His mother was an Army nurse who served in North Africa and continued her nursing career as a civilian.

In elementary school, Jim wrote in an essay that he wanted to be a professional wrestler. A tall, lanky youth, he joined the swim team at his public high school. By the time he graduated in 1969, the Vietnam War was underway.

Jesse Ventura Military Service

Ventura enlisted in the U.S. Navy as the Vietnam War was winding down. He joined the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) after graduating from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) school.

His 100-man unit, called Underwater Demolition Team 12, was based in Subic Bay in the Philippines and "sent platoons on operations to Southeast Asia, the Korean peninsula, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere," according to a 1999 article in his hometown Star Tribune newspaper.

He served with the unit from March 1971 to December 1973.

Ventura frequently references his military service in public, and a lawyer from San Diego criticized him for faking his claims of being a Navy SEAL. Although Ventura never completed the extra 26 weeks of training to become a SEAL, the UDTs were broken apart and combined with the SEAL teams after Vietnam.

Ventura claims that UDTs simply refer to themselves as SEALs due to the restructuring.

Despite his membership with the UDT unit, and despite the fact that his work was dangerous and demanding, Ventura never actually saw combat during Vietnam.

Because it was a relatively quiet time in the conflict, unit members had plenty of time for partying and leisure. Ventura played basketball and was a big fan of bar-hopping and meeting women.

Ventura later said he extended his stay at Subic for an additional tour, a time that ended up being "the most wild, happiest and carefree of my life," he later wrote.

He received the Vietnam Service Medal, an honor that was awarded to about 8 million service members between 1965 and 1973 for spending any time at all in Vietnam or surrounding regions during the conflict.

Jesse Ventura Wrestling Career

After Ventura left the Navy, he worked at various odd jobs, bought a Harley, reportedly joined the Mongols motorcycle gang and took classes at a local community college for about a year.

A former teacher recalled Ventura as a thoughtful student who earned nearly all As and who was engaged in classroom discussions without being domineering.

He eventually drifted toward bodybuilding and wrestling.

Capitalizing on his bad-boy image, he adopted the stage name Jesse "The Body" Ventura. He came up with "Ventura" -- Spanish for "luck" -- after seeing the word on a map of California.

In 1975, he married Theresa "Terry" Masters, a 19-year-old Minnesota farm girl he met while he was working at a biker bar. They have two children, Tyrel and Jade.

In the early 1980s, Ventura moved to the World Wrestling Federation. There, in a foreshadowing of his later political rabble-rousing, he tried unsuccessfully to organize workers into a union.

Standing a towering 6 foot 4, he bulked up dramatically as he lifted weights for hours and, he later admitted, taking steroids for a time. He became a flamboyant personality in the wrestling world, building a successful career in single and tag-team matches.

With his loud and brash persona, he would do just about anything for attention, including bleaching his hair blond, or wearing a feather boa and pink tights, during his WWF days.

When blood clots in his lungs cut his wrestling career short, he moved on to match commentary. The gig was a natural for Ventura, with his talent for talking.

Later in the decade, he gained notice for appearing in bruising action films such as "Predator" and "The Running Man."

Jesse Ventura as Governor

Once Ventura left the WWF, he ran for mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. "Had enough? Mad enough? Vote Jesse Ventura," was one of his campaign slogans.

Riding his populist appeal, he defeated the incumbent and served from 1991 to 1995. He capitalized on his military service and tough-guy image, making it a priority to cut crime in the town.

He then spent some time as a shock jock for an all-sports radio station in the Twin Cities.

He gave up his radio gig to run for governor of Minnesota in 1998 under the Reform Party. At age 47, despite his mayoral stint, he was still considered a political neophyte. But his no-nonsense image and populist appeal galvanized voters, particularly those under 40.

During his campaign for governor, he capitalized on his military service and frequently wore Navy SEAL T-shirts. His car boasted a SEAL vanity plate with the slogan: "Mess with the best, die with the rest."

Still, he was vague about his actual military service, making statements about having been "in the combat zone" despite never seeing combat during Vietnam.

He stunned political pundits by winning the gubernatorial race.

Although a millionaire, he strove to appeal to the working class and cultivated an image as a blue-collar outsider. At the time, he and his wife owned a 32-acre ranch with nine horses.

"Business as usual is over," Ventura declared after winning office. "Things are going to be different around here."

He served as Minnesota's governor from 1999 to 2003 and declined to run again, citing the negative effects of constant media attention on his family. Talk of a White House run fizzled out, at least for the time being.

Jesse Ventura Books and 'Conspiracy Theory' TV Series

While remaining a celebrity, Ventura pursued a quieter life by writing books and hosting the television series "Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura."

In 1999, his autobiography, "I Ain't Got Time to Bleed: Reworking the Body Politic from the Bottom Up," was published.

In 2011, he co-authored "63 Documents the Government Doesn't Want You to Read," which claims to prove "the official spin on numerous government programs is flat-out bullshit." The book covers several military topics, including John F. Kennedy's plans to pull out of Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Nazis, military experiments on troops, Gulf War illness and the post-9/11 war on terror.

He followed up by writing or co-writing several more books designed to appeal to Americans suspicious of political cover-ups or just opposed to government overreach. Ventura's topics included the JFK assassination, elections, the criminalization of marijuana, the Sept. 11 terror attacks and more.

Where Is Jesse Ventura Now?

In 2017, Ventura settled a defamation case against the estate of the late "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL, after a five-year legal battle. The monetary amount was undisclosed.

In his book, Kyle recounted an incident in which he punched a man -- later identified as Ventura -- in the face over remarks about the Iraq War. Ventura called the story "fake news."

In 2018 and 2019, Ventura said he wouldn't rule out a 2020 bid for president, a coy demurral that allowed him to bask anew in media attention. He floated the idea of pushing for the Democratic and Green parties to combine to defeat Donald Trump.

"Donald's a friend of mine; I just liked him a whole lot better when he was a real-estate mogul," Ventura said in 2018 before taking a dig at Trump's lack of military service.

In 2022, Ventura appeared at the '80s Wrestling Con in New Jersey.

As of 2023, Ventura hosts the Independent Streak Podcast with his son, Tyrel, and publishes an internet newsletter on Substack called Jesse Ventura's Die First, Then Quit.

Billed as commentary on "the worlds of politics and pop culture," his new outlets cover familiar ground for the superstar: everything from conspiracy theories and elections to marijuana legalization and Wrestlemania.

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