NSFW: Meet Marine sniper-turned-‘Naked and Afraid’ star Justin Governale
“You can’t break me, I’m a hard motherfucker."
Justin Governale is about to blow up.
It’s Valentine’s Day when I reach Governale by phone to talk about his upcoming appearance on ‘Naked and Afraid’, the long-running survivalist reality TV show. The former Marine scout sniper is preparing for a big date: he’s performing at his first sold-out show at the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club in San Antonio, Texas, later that night, and when he answers his phone, he’s out shopping for a new pair of brown shoes for the occasion.
“I need to look good tonight, dude,” Governale told me, his voice a rapid-fire stream of near-unintelligible patter. That’s not to say he’s unintelligent though: At 36, he’s done a lot in his life so far — earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, started a fruitful career in growth marketing, earned his black belt in Jiu Jitsu, traveled to 38 countries, and experienced a significant amount of healing along the way. Now he’s performing in front of 300 people at a beloved San Antonio nightclub, and he couldn’t be more excited. “That’s kinda badass, y’know?”
Governale’s march from the battlefield to the stage and screen hasn’t been an easy one. Born in El Paso, Governale moved to Laredo when he was 3; his parents split soon afterward, and he found himself growing up with a single mother struggling to make ends meet. In fact, he didn’t get his first bed until he was 11 years old.
“There’s some bitterness about sleeping on floors all my childhood … I didn’t know that wasn’t normal. All your friends have beds and rooms, and the older you get, you start to realize, ‘oh, that’s not normal.’”
Governale’s mother grew up in Mexico “super poor,” as he put it, one of 11 brothers and sisters. “Her parents’ logic was ‘let’s just have more kids so we can work them in the strawberry fields and we can make more money,’” he said. But she was proud to earn her American citizenship, a pride rooted in the deep-seated belief that the United States is, in fact, a land of opportunity.
“Whenever shit gets tough in life, I think back to my childhood,” he told me, attributing his strength and resilience to the challenges he experienced growing up. “You can’t break me, I’m a hard motherfucker, I’m a strong motherfucker … you may beat my ass, but I’m not giving up. I don’t know man, that’s where I get my strength.”
Governale was a sophomore in high school when the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks occurred and immediately knew he wanted to fight. He enlisted in the Marine Corps the summer after graduating and entered boot camp in September 2004, where he found his can-do attitude in the face of trying circumstances prepared him well for life in the U.S. military.
“When they thrash you in the Marine Corps, you just have to smile and take it,” he recalled of his time in boot camp. “Anybody who ever thrashed me, they’re like, ‘you fucked up and need to learn your lesson, we’re gonna be here all night’ and I’m like, ‘negative, Corporal, you’re married you won’t be here all night,’ and they would just laugh. That was me … I could go on for hours.”
“It’s a mentality. It’s either, ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘I’ll be a tough motherfucker.’”
Governale deployed to Haditha, Iraq with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in September 2005, landing in the country almost exactly one year after he entered boot camp. His first patrol was an eventful one: it was the first time, but not the last, that he’d get blown up.
He wasn’t supposed to be on that patrol, but when they called for volunteers, he didn’t hesitate. They loaded onto the floor of an unarmored 7-ton truck with quarter-inch steel on the sides, and sandbags on the floor. It was 2005, and the Marine Corps didn’t have fully armored vehicles for everyone yet.
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The explosion occurred at the tail-end of the patrol after several near misses. The vehicle’s first run-in took place at the beginning of the patrol, with a “baby” explosion after crossing a bridge.“Welcome to Iraq,” Governale recalls a fellow Marine with more time in-country telling him.
But five hours later Governale found himself almost bored. This actually isn’t so bad, he recalled thinking before the roadside bomb hit, plunging his world into darkness.
He regained consciousness seconds later. As he describes it, coming to after you get blown up by an IED is “a process.”
“I’m unconscious; I can smell, a unique smell, like sulfur,” he said. “I wake up and for a second, I’m convinced I had a dream where I joined the Marine Corps and went to Iraq, but really it’s not time for school yet and I have a few more hours to sleep. Then I realize we hit a bomb.”
“The first thing you do when you wake up is pat your body and pat your balls,” he added. “The second thing you do is grab your rifle.”
What stands out for Governale isn’t coming to, but seeing his friend and fellow Marine, Tony Green, seizing alongside him. “My next thought was, ‘I’m 19. I’m a teenager, not even old enough to drink alcohol,’” he said.
The Marines MEDEVACed everyone who was injured and switched the trucks out, and Governale finished out the patrol as if nothing happened. “Marines are gangsters, bro.”
For his injuries, he was awarded the Purple Heart, the oldest military award still awarded to U.S. service members. Governale thought it was cheesy. “I had blood in my ears, big deal.”
The explosion that earned him the Purple Heart wasn’t his last brush with death during that first tour: he was blown up twice more in the following two months. The second time was also with Green, the Marine who seized during the first incident; the two marked the occasion by high-fiving over the body of a third unconscious Marine.
Green was in a different vehicle on the same patrol when Governale hit his third roadside bomb three months into his tour. The driver of the Humvee and their section leader were both injured in the blast, but Governale turned into “a wild man,” as Green recalled.
“He jumped out of the Humvee and just started screaming at the top of his lungs, calling everyone a bunch of pussies,” Green told me when reached by phone one day in late February. “He was like Lt. Dan [from ‘Forrest Gump’] on the top of the ship’s mast during the storm.”
Three IEDs in six months is “enough for anyone,” and Governale had taken three in just three months, Green said. “It was just adrenaline overload.”
Despite this, Green recalled that Governale always seemed to maintain his cool around his fellow Marines, among whom he earned the nickname ‘The Comedian’ for his propensity to crack jokes and make the best out of any situation.
His ability to inspire others through action is the most enduring quality about Governale, Green said. “He doesn’t make excuses, he owns his actions, and he continues to motivate others.”
“There’s no quit in him,” Green added. “He has this ‘no quit’ mentality that got him through the toughest the Marine Corps has to offer, the Scout Sniper school.”
Governale left Green’s platoon to become a Marine Scout Sniper in 2006, something he’d aspired to ever since he watched a pair of snipers literally stack bodies during his first deployment. And while he didn’t elaborate much on his remaining two years in the Corps following his graduation from sniper school, he intimated that he saw “some real dark shit.”
“It’s dark, but it’s real,” he said. “I feel like we give [civilians] these generic responses because the public doesn’t really want to know what we do, the PC answer. But the Marine Corps isn’t a PC thing. It wins wars, dude, and these are the moments that get left untold.”
“Did it fuck me up? Yeah, it fucked me up,” he added. “I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about this since then.”
By 2007, Governale had discovered a new outlet for his boundless energy: mixed martial arts. He previously told Task & Purpose that during his second deployment, this time as a sniper with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, he bonded with a combat-tested noncommissioned officer named Cpl. Sean Stokes who made him promise to check out his MMA gym at the end of his deployment.
Stokes was killed in action during that deployment. Governale kept his promise. He started training on their ship on the way home.
Governale separated from the Marine Corps in 2008 as a corporal and moved to southern California, where he immediately joined an MMA gym and struck up a rapport with a coach who had previously known Stokes.
If he was ‘The Comedian’ to Marines like Green, then Governale became known as ‘The Therapist’ in the MMA ring to his opponents. And although he doesn’t boast the most brag-worthy record (7 wins and 9 losses), MMA proved to be therapy itself for the Marine veteran.
“It’s my life. It definitely changed me,” Governale told us of MMA in 2015. “I feel like MMA is the perfect transition for people to continue the warrior lifestyle … It’s soothing I think, even if you get beat up because you continue to strive as a warrior.”
In the intervening years, martial arts has remained a fixture of Governale’s life, with his last professional fight this past August. When we spoke, he was two weeks out from earning his first-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu.
“When I spoke to you last, I was at the peak of my fighting career. But talk to me in 2023 and that’s not the case,” he said. “I trained last night and submitted a couple of times. It keeps the ego in check. It makes it hard to be an asshole if you train. Anybody mean on the street’s never had their ass beat … if you get your ass beat, you’re not so insecure.”
Despite his love of MMA, Governale now finds himself moving in another direction. “It doesn’t mean that you give up what you’re working on or stop progressing forward,” he said. “I’m moving forward with comedy and ‘Naked and Afraid’ … I’m shifting.”
Governale credits comedian George Anthony with helping him turn his Marine Corps nickname into a real-world fledgling career as a stand-up comic. In 2021, Anthony invited Governale on his podcast and encouraged him to go to a nearby comedy club and “talk about some shit you think is funny.”
He told a story about serving in the Marine Corps during ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his first bit was about the irony of serving during that period. “Serving in the Marines made me gay because Marines are the gayest bunch out there,” Governale laughs. “Three years later, I’m about to do a sold-out stand-up comedy show.”
For a man whose life has been as varied as Governale’s, the prospect of putting it all on the line for ‘Naked and Afraid’ doesn’t seem too daunting. And while Governale couldn’t say much about the outcome of the upcoming season, he spoke about pushing himself to his limits for the series’ survivalist challenges.
“I just had to be myself. I was just Justin Governale, naked,” he said. “Surviving in an austere condition with one tool? Let’s find out. I mean, who else gets to say they’ll experience that.”
“I’m not a quitter, bro,” he says, dead serious. “I will literally die before I fucking quit.”
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