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Whitefish SEAL awarded Bronze Star

Posted: Thursday, Aug 03, 2006 - 09:54:45 am PDT
Whitefish Pilot

Chandler Melton / Whitefish Pilot
U.S. Navy Cmdr. Ryan K. Zinke, his wife, Lola Zinke, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer listen to the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Whitefish Lake Golf Course July 27. Schweitzer presented Zinke with the Bronze Star Medal, the fourth highest medal awarded to members of the military, for his service during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When U.S. Navy Cmdr. Ryan Zinke joined the U.S. Navy SEALs, his superiors told him that his participation was voluntary and he could leave whenever he wanted to.

He stayed for 22 years.

"If you do make it, you don't want to leave," said Zinke, who grew up in Whitefish and has family here. "The trail of sweat and tears is pretty long."

At the Whitefish Lake Golf Course last Thursday, Zinke was presented with the Bronze Star for his service as the Acting Commander for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, Arabian Peninsula. Presenting the award was another person with ties to Whitefish -- Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Schweitzer, who heard about Zinke's accomplishments during his recent visit to Iraq, pinned the small bronze star with a scarlet, blue and white ribbon on Zinke's lapel in front of a crowd that included Zinke's family and friends, who supported him while he was on active duty.

"I am what Whitefish has made me," Zinke said during the speech.

In a letter from U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Maguire that was read to the audience, Zinke is credited with 360 combat patrols, 411 personal events with sources, 180 coalition force coordination meetings and 110 coalition support team operations. He is credited with killing or capturing 72 anti-coalition force personnel.

In an interview after the ceremony, Zinke said the SEALs play a small but important role in the United States' conflicts.

"Everyone understands that if the SEALs fail, it is an indication that our finest have failed, and that has strategic implications," Zinke said, noting that with only about 2,100 SEALs, other branches of the military, such as the Army and the National Guard, are responsible for most of the heavy lifting.

Zinke grew up in Whitefish and graduated in 1980 from Whitefish High School. He was a football standout whose photo is on the hall of fame in the foyer. After graduating, he studied geophysics at the University of Oregon and was a four-year letterman for the Ducks football team. After college, he took a geologist position for six months, but a run-in with the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier dramatically changed his career path.

Zinke said the captain suggested he become a Navy SEAL. Zinke, who said he's always challenging himself, signed up for Officer Candidate School and enlisted in the BUD/S course -- Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school -- where 80 percent of participants fail.

Now 44, Zinke said he's "the old man" of the group. As he moved up the chain of command, his administrative responsibilities increased. He is currently the Commander of the Naval Special Warfare Advanced Training Command, a title similar to being dean of the SEAL grad school that provides training in advanced combat skills, explosive breaching techniques and air/dive operations for SEALs and selected allies.

He still gets his boots dirty. While in Iraq, Zinke went on numerous missions in Fallujah and other hot spots.

"I was surrounded by really good people," Zinke said.

Zinke expects to retire in January 2008, but he has somewhat of a legacy going in the Navy.

Despite his reservations, Zinke's daughter, Petty Officer Second Class Jennifer Detlefsen, 22, became a Navy diver and married a Navy SEAL.

"If you're going to join the Navy, do something you like and do something special --and don't date SEALs," Zinke joked.

Zinke has two other children with his wife Lolita -- Wolfgang, 11, and Conrad, 8. Besides spending more time with his family when he retires from active duty, he plans on developing a veterans peace park here in Whitefish that will be a tribute to the valley's vets.

"There's no veterans park that looks at Whitefish veterans' contributions to peace," he said.

He said he would like to place near the cemetery where it could serve as a bike path terminus connecting Grouse Mountain, State Park and the Whitefish Lake Golf Course to the rest of the town.

He said his motivation for the idea came from watching World War I, World War II and the Korean War veterans parade down Second Street on Memorial Day.

"There's a 1,000 untold stories," he said.