Ex-Florida State Guardsman: Mission was ‘Bait and Switch;’ Recruit reports assault at Camp Blanding

STARKE, Fla. — Action News Jax Ben Becker investigates if recruits were misled when they joined the Florida State Guard which trains at Camp Blanding in Starke.


Florida Governor Ron DeSantis led the effort to bring back the World War II era program with a mission to protect you during natural disasters, but one ex-volunteer said he wasn’t protected and claimed he was assaulted during basic training prior to 120 volunteers graduating in June.

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Governor DeSantis pushed for the State Guard to be re-established in 2022 and to have a separate mission than the Florida National Guard which is deployed by the federal government.

The stated goal was to respond to natural disasters as the National Guard is understaffed, but there are questions over whether the State Guard itself has been a disaster.

In an Action News Jax investigation, Becker spoke to an ex-member of the State Guard by phone. We are protecting his identity because he fears for his safety.

Becker: “So, was it disorganized?”

Ex-State Guardsman: “For Sure.”

Starting July 1, Governor DeSantis and lawmakers boosted the State Guard’s initial budget from $10 million to $98 million with the money going to boats, planes and helicopters, turning it into a military like arm of the state.

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The program - which is looking for its third leader in eight months - now has police powers and can bear arms to protect the borders from “illegal aliens” and “civil unrest.”

But the ex-State Guardsman told Becker that’s not what he and others initially signed up for. He said, “It was a bait and switch.”

The program received thousands of applicants and was made up of young and old volunteers who at times according to the ex-State Guardsman were pushed by either inexperienced or aggressive trainers from the National Guard.

Ex-State Guardsman: “There was a lot of ‘We don’t care about your past. We don’t care about what you have done. You’re an f---ing private. You’re an f---ing recruit.’ 18-year-olds will respond to that but 50-year-old men who’ve with multiple combat tours were not as receptive.”

Just a few weeks into training, a disabled retired Marine Corps. Captain called the Clay County Sheriff’s Office to report he was assaulted by at least two National Guard sergeants who were trainers.

The incident report states it all happened after Florida National Guard Training Officer Lt. Col. Peter Jennison stopped by the barracks and the victim asked questions.

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The report states Jennison pointed to him claiming “So you’re the leader of the group!” apparently referencing one or more members who were criticizing the new organization.

Later in the day, the Marine was ordered by the sergeants to do push-ups, but he refused saying “No, I can’t!”

The deputy wrote in his report that the Marine was 100% disabled and was in pain from a physical fitness test the day before.

The Marine said he was then told by the sergeants, “You need to leave and go home.”

He was grabbed and pushed into a van. The sergeants were not charged.

Becker: “Do you view that as an assault?”

Ex-State Guardsman: “Clearly was an assault.”

The former State Guardsman said there needs to be change, “I think unless they confront the critical flaws that have been identified, and they seem reluctant to do that, I think they are going to have some challenges.”

Under Army training rules, drill instructors are not allowed to touch trainees except in rare situations. It’s unclear if the State Guard falls under this.

It’s also unclear if members of the State Guard are covered by the “Uniform Code of Military Justice.” The federal law is intended to protect the rights of those who serve in the military.

Becker emailed Jennison who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach but never heard back.

The Governor’s office and the Florida National Guard both did not provide comment.

Florida State Guard Statement:

“We are proud of the training that the Florida State Guard soldiers received at the inaugural BOOT Camp at Camp Blanding in June.

The vast majority of soldiers who participated in the program lauded the training and praised Florida National Guard instructors for their professionalism, skill, and dedication.

Since the BOOT Camp we have seen a significant increase in recruitment and positive engagement from Floridians stepping forward to serve their state.

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We encourage you to visit our website to learn more about the Florida State Guard and our mission first commitment to providing humanitarian aid and rapid response during a natural disaster: Florida State Guard | When disaster calls, we answer.