The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in central Harney county, Oregon spans almost 200,000 acres and is billed as one of the “premiere sites for birds and birding” in the United States. It has wetlands, uplands, meadowlands, rolling hills and, now, as of Saturday, a small contingent of armed men occupying its headquarters building.
Some of these men have military backgrounds, a fact seemingly played up by the prevalence of military apparel circulating in images posted online.
“A lot of our research on these guys turns up evidence that they usually fail at their military careers and for some reason they like to get back in the camo and strut around with devices and awards they didn’t earn,” said Jonn Lilyea, one of the moderators for This Ain’t Hell, a veteran watchdog site. “Especially if they can openly carry their guns, too.”
One of the occupiers, Jon Ritzheimer, announced his participation in the takeover in a tearful YouTube video posted on Friday. Ritzheimer is a staff sergeant and former Marine reservist with two combat deployments to Iraq as a “motor vehicle operator,” according to personnel records that were requested and subsequently posted online by This Ain’t Hell.
Ritzheimer never earned a combat action ribbon—a personal award denoting that the recipient was fired upon by the enemy, either by small arms or indirectly, according to information released by the Marine Corps to The Washington Post. He was, however, given a certificate of commendation for engaging three suspected insurgents after an improvised explosive device struck a vehicle in his convoy in 2005. Ritzheimer gained significant notoriety last year after sponsoring a contest in Arizona where participants were supposed to draw the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
According to Oregonlive.com, two other men in the refuge are Army veteran Ryan Payne and Blaine Cooper. Cooper was once identified as a Marine in an interview in 2014, according to Lilyea, one of the moderators for This Aint Hell, but shortly after released a statement denying that he had spent any time in the service. According to Lilyea, Cooper’s records show that he was enlisted to join the Marines in what is called the “Delayed Entry Program,” or DEP, but never attended bootcamp. The DEP is a program available for all branches that gives enlistees up to a year from their enlistment to show up for initial training.
Payne, on the other hand, served time in the Army as an infantryman and was involved in the Bundy Ranch standoff. He left active service in 2006 after deploying twice to Iraq, according to parts of his service record released by the Army to the Washington Post. During the Bundy standoff, Lilyea says that Payne told reporters he had served as an elite Army Ranger but after some digging by former Rangers, Payne was found to be, in fact, not one. Payne served time in a military intelligence battalion and earned a number of commendation medals for doing so. He is also the recipient of the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Ritzheimer, Cooper and Payne could not be reached for comment.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.