“When you see the things that I’ve seen, I went to war for this country, I’ve seen the ugliest, dirtiest part of humanity. I’ve been in combat, and I never want to go back again, but I’m telling you what, I will, to save this country. If it has to be against its own citizens, it will happen. And there’s a million people like me. And you won’t stop us.”
—Carlos Zapata, August 2020
It’s been nearly a year since Carlos Zapata delivered the rant heard ‘round the world, or at least in every Red County across the United States. The gruff-talking former Marine 1st Lieutenant threatened to turn the lethal skills he learned in the U.S. military upon the civilian population if the Shasta County Board of Supervisors didn’t end all COVID-19 restrictions, sparking off a local right-wing political movement to remove three of those supervisors that’s still burning
Since then, Zapata’s claim that he’s been in combat has been repeated in countless newspaper articles and podcasts from the Redding Record Searchlight, to the Los Angeles Times to Alex Jones to The Buff Show. Sometimes, he’s referred to as a “combat veteran.”
In fact, it was after I labeled Zapata a combat veteran in an article earlier this year that A News Café reader, local Navy veteran and Shingletown native Michael Miller, said he suspected, based on the lack of the Combat Action Ribbon, that Zapata’s claims of combat service were either embellished or fraudulent
The reader’s ascertainment was based on the photo of Zapata seen above in full dress uniform alongside fellow Marine Nathan Mendes. Missing among the many ribbons and medals adorning Zapata’s chest was the Combat Action Ribbon. To qualify for the CAR, according to Wikipedia:
“For a military member to be awarded a Combat Action Ribbon evidence must establish the member engaged the enemy, was under hostile fire, or was physically attacked by the enemy. The service member must have demonstrated satisfactory performance under enemy fire while actively participating in a ground or surface engagement.”
Two other readers took up an interest in the topic, and one of them filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Zapata’s military record, known as a DD214. Zapata’s DD214 arrived last week and the reader provided ANC with a copy.
Sure enough, according to his DD214, Zapata did not earn a Combat Action Ribbon while enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves and the Marine Corps from 1997 to 2007.
He earned the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Marine Corps Reserve Medal.
But no Combat Action Ribbon. No CAR.
Even if he didn’t earn a CAR, Zapata clearly served in Iraq for one seven-month deployment in 2006, when Iraq was designated as a combat zone.
Should he have said, “I’ve been in a combat zone” at that Board meeting one year ago, instead of “I’ve been in combat”?
My attempt to extract answers from Zapata on Facebook Messenger went well at first. I figured he might respond if I played a strong hand, and he did.
“Greetings Carlos,” I wrote. “Believe it or not, a couple of months ago, some local folks were looking at your photo in full Marine dress and noticed you lacked a Combat Action Ribbon. They went through the trouble of filing a FOIA for your DD214, which they received yesterday and passed on to A News Cafe. Having read your DD214, I can confirm you have not received the CAR. This calls into question the many, many times you’ve claimed to be a combat veteran who’s seen the worst of it all. If you had, certainly you would have been awarded the CAR. Do you stand by your claims of being a combat-seasoned Marine? What battles did you fight in? Why don’t you have a CAR? Were you in combat and didn’t get the credit? I assure you, if you have some explanation for this it will be listened to.”
Zapata responded an hour or so later.
“I was deployed in 2006 to Fallujah,” he replied. “If you read my DD214, you will see that it was a combat deployment. The requirements for a CAR are to receive and return fire. Being in a combat zone almost definitely guarantees half of that requirement. I don’t know that a day went by that we did not get mortared, rocketed, or shot at. I worked in an IO [information operations] cell. You can verify that.”
The DD214 does not specify the type of Zapata’s deployment nor that he was in information operations nor that he was in Fallujah. According to the DD214, Zapata’s primary specialty was Low Altitude Air Defense officer, or LAAD. Armed with shoulder-launched missiles, these soldiers provide support against low-flying aircraft—of which Iraqi insurgents had none. Zapata continued:
“Being a combat veteran deployed to a combat zone does not guarantee you a CAR. I’m very proud of my service to this country and I have nothing to hide or mislead about. As an officer, I had great opportunities to see the war through different lenses at different levels. I am equally as proud of those I served with.”
Then the conversation went sideways.
“You’re trying to diminish my service while I have never embellished or really talked about my experience is sickening and really fucking low,” he wrote. “Korea was not a combat deployment. Please show me where I have claimed to be ‘combat seasoned.’”
I told him “combat seasoned” were my words describing the impression his viral rant has made during the past year.
“I did my job and damn well,” he replied. “Do you want to talk about how I lost much of my hearing when a 122mm rocket landed in front of me? No CAR for that.”
That’s true. Injuries aren’t recorded on DD214s, so I can’t validate Zapata’s hearing loss. But getting your ears blown out by a missile explosion doesn’t count as being in combat, as far as the CAR is concerned.
I truly wanted to talk to Zapata about that, but it was not to be. He gave me his cell number and I called him the next day. His message box was full, but he called me back. For some reason, Zapata’s discharge status is redacted on the DD214, but his performance in the service appears to be commendable. I asked him if he got an honorable discharge.
“Of course,” he said.
Then Zapata went off the rails.
I tried to agree with him that he personally hasn’t talked up his military service, that it’s more a function of his viral video being played over and over, “I’ve been in combat, I’ve been in combat,” along with journalists (like me) calling him a combat veteran, over and over.
According to the Marine Times, an increasingly vocal contingent of ground combat Marines has been criticizing Marines who lack Combat Action Ribbons, to the point where commanders have been forced to remind everybody that they’re all marines
As a veteran myself, my personal opinion on the matter is that Carlos Zapata served in a combat zone and is therefore a combat veteran. Some hardcore Marines and other purists might disagree with that, but I don’t think most people will.
But I never got to tell Zapata that. I’m pretty sure Zapata didn’t hear any of this as he raged at ANC’s publisher and me for writing too many stories about him and the right-wing Red White & Blueprint recall Frankenstein he has brought to life. I tried to explain he’s newsworthy. He wasn’t having it.
“There’s gonna be mother fucking trouble if you write an article doubting my service!” he yelled, before hanging up.
I won’t lie. It rattled me. But I didn’t call the FBI. This time.
No One Is Doubting Carlos Zapata’s Service
“Upon his completion of the credential program [at Simpson University], Carlos was accepted to the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia as an Officer Candidate where he entered service as an Officer of Marines. During his tenure in the Marines, Carlos served as a Platoon Commander, Battery Executive Officer, and as an Information Operations Officer at Camp Pendleton, California. Carlos is a graduate of Officer Candidates School, Basic Officer Course (The Basic School), Low Altitude Air Defense Officer Course and the LAAD portion of Weapons Tactics Instructor Course. Carlos is a veteran of the Iraq war where he served for eight months in Fallujah, Al Anbar Province.”
This goes to show Zapata hasn’t embellished his service in the past. Almost all of the above information is confirmed by Zapata’s DD214, with the exception of postings such as platoon commander, battery executive officer and information operations officer, all of which were performed at Camp Pendleton but aren’t listed separately on the document.
The DD214 states that Zapata was assigned to the 3rd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion based in San Diego. According to a history of the battalion, it provided base defense to Al Asad Air Base from August 2006 to February 2007. This contradicts Zapata’s claim that he served in Fallujah, Al Anbar Province during that time period.
If the name Fallujah rings a bell, that’s because it was the site of two major battles between insurgents and U.S. armed forces, an Iraqi uprising in 2004 and the ISIS uprising in 2014. Zapata was not present for either of those battles.
According to the DD214, Zapata spent six months and 22 days in foreign service, not eight months. We can chalk that gaff up to a rounding error. Before he hung up on me, he said he was providing operations support on expeditionary missions throughout Iraq staged from Camp Fallujah. He said he was performing “psy-ops.” This could certainly be included in his training as a LAAD officer.
Zapata said now-retired U.S. Marines four-star General James “Mad Dog” Mattis asked him not to leave the service in 2007. Zapata hung up before we got to talk specifics, but looking at his DD214, it’s certainly possible Mattis, if such a meeting ever occurred, would encourage someone with Zapata’s skillset to stay in the Marines.
Indeed, perusing Zapata’s DD214, it’s hard to connect Zapata the formerly disciplined Marine to today’s hot-headed, say-whatever-the-fuck-I-want civilian version. You don’t start from the lowly rate of E-1 basic marine and warehouse clerk and rise to the officer ranks by losing your cool and shooting your mouth off all the time. That’s how you get kicked out.
Zapata did a year on the recruiting trail in California in 2003 then completed his LAAD training in 2004 to 2005, finishing off his enlistment with his first and only deployment to a combat zone, Iraq, in 2006. That same year he added Martial Arts instructor to his training record—an occupation he would later pursue with some success.
When he left the service on June 1, 2007, he had three years and five months of active service in the Marines, plus one year and nine months of active-duty service, and five years and seven months of inactive duty in the Marine Corps Reserve.
No one can take those years of service away from Zapata.
But considering his behavior during the past year, which has seen him berate women, threaten journalists, spread pseudo-science about novel coronavirus, toss a drink at an African American man and later call him a monkey and threaten an entire country with “blood-in-the streets” violence, we all have the right to question why Zapata appears to have lost any sense of honor he may have gained while honorably serving in the U.S. Marines.
But thank you for your service, anyway, Carlos Zapata.
Aug. 1, 2021 update: After this story was published, the writer discovered Carlos Zapata continued in the Marine Corps Reserves after being discharged from active duty in 2007. In the reserves he gained the rank of Captain (O3) in 2011 and Major (04) in 2014. Zapata said he is no longer in the reserves.