Leaked audio reveals Navy SEAL accused of extremism using Proud Boys slogan
A San Diego Navy SEAL took to the messaging app Telegram Sunday to make a series of claims about the Navy "playing ball" after he was cleared in an investigation into his alleged extremist affiliations, audio provided to KPBS shows.
Chief Special Warfare Operator Bryce Henson concludes his comments by saying, "proud of your boy," the slogan of the Proud Boys hate group.
Henson was featured in an October Los Angeles Times investigation into the far-right groups behind the coordinated conservative effort against LGBTQ+ rights in schools.
In November, KPBS reported Henson was under investigation by the Navy after allegations he was affiliated with extremists. Henson spent more than a year traveling around Southern California participating in rallies and various city council and school board meetings speaking out against culture war topics-du-jour such as critical race theory and LGBTQ+ rights.
A Naval Special Warfare spokesperson in Coronado said the SEAL command is aware of the new allegations.
"We are aware of a Naval Special Warfare Sailor allegedly making claims regarding a recently completed command investigation," said Cmdr. William Tisdale in an email. "NSW is committed to upholding the highest standards of honor and integrity, and we take this matter seriously. In line with our policies, we cannot comment on the specifics of any ongoing investigations or personnel matters."
In the memos, Henson says his chain-of-command wants the best for him and will allow him to serve out his last two years before retirement.
He signs off on his last memo saying "proud of your boy," the Proud Boys' slogan and the name of a Disney song from which the group's name derives.
KPBS accessed the Telegram channel before it was removed Monday.
The entirety of the audio referenced in this story is attached in a single file at the end.
Members of the Proud Boys have engaged in street violence across the country and helped organize the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.
The Proud Boys played a key role in the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, according to the U.S. House Select Jan. Sixth Committee. The group's former leader, Enrique Tarrio, was convicted of seditious conspiracy in the plot to overturn the election last year and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Heidi Beirich is the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She said the term is used almost exclusively in Proud Boys circles.
"I've never seen anybody use the term 'proud of your boy' in any other context than around Proud Boys," Beirich said. "It's pretty much an inside-baseball kind of phrase that you wouldn't be aware of unless you were tightly connected to this group where it's an in-joke."
Beirich said the phrase "proud of your boy" is usually used in the context of Proud Boys-related activity.
"(Members of the Proud Boys) tend to end all their sentences with 'proud of your boy, proud of my boy.'" Beirich said. "When somebody does something they like — which usually involves violence when it comes to the Proud Boys — they will say things like 'proud of your boy.'"
Henson says in the recordings someone "tipped him off" about the investigation and KPBS' reporting before it was published.
Photos and videos from several rallies showed Henson on the front lines alongside members of the Proud Boys and other extremist groups.
The Navy's investigation was finished in mid-January, according to a Navy official with knowledge of the case.
In recordings, Henson says he made a deal with his commanders.
"So now I had to sell out, and the deal is with work I am not allowed to post, I'm not allowed to be active, I'm not allowed to do anything," Henson says in the recordings. "If I do that, they're going to close out my investigation and clear me within the next two weeks."
Henson helped organize and attended Saturday's "Take back our border" rally in San Ysidro. In the recordings, he says it was his "last op," or operation.
"I'm done, it's over for me, that was the last op," Henson says. "I had to sell out. I have little children and I gotta go two years for my retirement ... they just want me to go underground and ride my two years out."
The recordings are peppered with allusions to Christian Nationalism and war.
Extremism researchers told KPBS members of the Proud Boys were in the channel but that could not be independently verified.
However, Henson calls his audience "brothers" and invokes a slogan members of the hate group are known to use.
"God is with us my brothers — we are on this path for something big that we can't comprehend right now," Henson says. "This place is going to get intense ... so God bless brothers, and — proud of your boy."
Henson did not respond to a list of emailed questions about the Telegram channel, why he used a Proud Boys slogan or whether he is a member of the hate group.
Instead, he said he's been defamed.
"I am a proud father of young children who has defended parents like me who are smeared, defamed, and attacked by people who want to talk about sex to our children without our knowledge or permission," Henson wrote in an email in response to KPBS' questions. "We are Americans who are black, white, Asian, Latino, Muslim, Christian, gay, straight, Republican, and Democrat. We are not anti-LGB, not anti-trans, and are here to pronounce in unity that our taxpayer public education system should not be hiding things from parents about our children."
Beirich said she's concerned.
"I'm horrified to hear that a Navy SEAL would be close to or possibly a member of a group like the Proud Boys. This is an organization whose almost entire leadership was sent to prison for involvement, or for conspiracy related to the events of January 6, (2021) in Washington D.C. Members have long rap sheet(s) of various kinds — this group is misogynistic, white nationalistic, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ+, the list goes on. They are rightly considered a hate group by many organizations in this country."
She said the audio should put the Navy on high alert.
"This should send flares up the chain of command," she said. "It's very dangerous, really, to have someone with the kinds of skills that SEALs have working with an organization that is known for street fighting, violence, and insurrection. The fact that nothing has been done up to this point is a reminder of where the military (doesn't) always fit in the bill on these issues."
In the recordings, Henson complains his address might be known to activists and that he's ready to kill.
"If someone comes on my property I'm gonna get a CONUS kill, believe that," Henson says. "In self defense."
CONUS is military jargon for the Continental United States.
The Navy's investigating officer, a SEAL "team" guy, according to Henson, cleared him of extremism accusations.
A Navy official with knowledge of the investigation told KPBS Monday that Naval Special Warfare Center's investigation found that while Henson engaged in threatening behavior, his conduct did not violate Pentagon rules against participation in extremist activities by service members.
But in his Telegram memos Henson says the investigator called him off-the-record to tell him he didn't think he was an extremist.
"It was God who made that connection," Henson says in a voice memo.
Henson says the call was about a gesture he made when he bought a memorial plaque for a SEAL killed in a skydiving accident to place on Mt. Soledad. The investigating officer, according to Henson, knew the SEAL.
"He did tell me, he said 'I already find you not an extremist but I will also, I will never forget what you did, brother,'" Henson says the investigator told him.
Henson says he's been leveraging his large social media following and political connections to minimize any discipline the Navy might impose.