Colorado City, Ariz. • During his four weeks of intense Navy SEAL training off the coast of San Diego — staying awake for days at a time while running in the sand, swimming for long stretches in frigid water and packing everything from rubber rafts to comrades — Marty Jessop wondered one thing: Will Ruthie be there when he returns to the mainland?
Jessop said he would have understood if Ruthie Roundy wasn’t around afterward. After all, while they both grew up in polygamous families in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they had little else in common.
Jessop, his father, three mothers and a family that eventually grew to 24 siblings spent Marty’s childhood on the Utah-Arizona line. The clan was “Wild Kingdom” meets “Doomsday Preppers” with a dose of “Sister Wives.” They built a zoo as a pet project for one FLDS authority, then followed another leader’s instructions to prepare parishioners for the apocalypse.
Roundy, her father, three mothers and 21 siblings worked on potato and alfalfa farms in Utah, Idaho and Nevada. It was hard labor — Ruthie’s right thumb was mauled by a conveyor belt — but the Roundy family missed much of the trauma that afflicted those who kept closer proximity to FLDS President Warren Jeffs in metropolitan Salt Lake City and then the Utah-Arizona line.
“Being a mother in Zion was my dream,” Ruthie said, referring to the Mormon vision of a utopia-type place. “I made peace with the idea I would be a 20th wife or a first wife.”
Her father was not sent away from his wives and children the way Jessop’s dad was. Nor was she ever given an ultimatum to choose between her family or her faith — or the SEALs. And now that she was done with the FLDS, Ruthie could date whomever she wished.
On that day in 2012, when Jessop left San Clemente Island and returned to Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, exhausted from the training, he found Ruthie, waiting at the SEAL compound and armed with apple turnovers for his military mates. When Jessop finished his qualification training several months later, she was at the ceremony to pin his SEAL trident insignia on his left breast.
The couple married a few weeks later.
At 31, Marty is no longer on active duty with SEAL Team Seven. He and 26-year-old Ruthie have three children. Petty Officer 1st Class Marty Jessop still serves in a Naval Reserve unit near Las Vegas while working as a flight paramedic and a trauma medicine instructor. He also is training to be a civilian helicopter and airplane pilot. He and Ruthie also sell nutritional supplements through multilevel marketing.
The couple have a home in Colorado City, Ariz., adjacent to Hildale, Utah. The towns collectively are known as Short Creek and the longtime home of the FLDS. The house is across the street from where that zoo used to be. An American flag flies from a pole on the roof.
In a recent interview in their remodeled kitchen in Short Creek, drinking from black coffee cups with the SEAL Team Seven insignia, the couple talked about their military lives and their journeys out of the FLDS.
The exotic animals and life in the outdoors made for what Marty calls a great childhood in Short Creek. His father, Dee Jessop, was close with his great-uncle Fred Jessop, who was also the faith’s local bishop. It was Uncle Fred, as he was known even by the people who weren’t related to him, who tapped Dee with constructing a zoo and stocking it with zebras, ostriches, camels and other animals so the brethren would have some entertainment.
Dee was also close with Warren Jeffs’ family. Marty said his father was picked by the Jeffses to teach FLDS adherents survival skills they could use for what they were told would be the end of times at or near the start of the 21st century.
The lessons included how to harvest meat. Dee took live farm animals, and occasionally an ostrich, to groups of children and butchered the critters in front of them to teach the kids how to do it.
The father also had an interest in special military operations, Marty said, and passed that onto his son. Yet Marty said he and his dad, who died in a fall in 2018, did not get along well.
“He saw a lot of himself in me,” Marty recalled, “and I tried to do all the things that he couldn’t.”
The Jessop family had to sell the zoo in 2005 as Jeffs moved assets to his new ranch in Texas. Marty decided he wanted to help his community in other ways and became an emergency medical technician in Short Creek’s fire department.
Marty maintained his interest in the military. About 2009, he walked into a Navy recruiting office in St. George and said he wanted to be a SEAL. The recruiter tried to steer him toward other naval careers, Marty said, but let him take an application for the elite force.
A few weeks later, an evaluator put Marty through a physical fitness test. He passed. He could go to boot camp and be a SEAL candidate.
A brother was driving him to the recruiter’s office in St. George, from where Marty was to ship out, when Marty got a call from Lyle Jeffs, then the bishop of Short Creek and brother of the FLDS president. Marty said Lyle added the Navy SEALs to a long list of institutions that purportedly had been trying to tear down the church. He warned Marty that if he went to boot camp, he couldn’t return to Short Creek.
“He was worried I’d learn how to gather intelligence and use that against them,” Marty surmised.
The wannabe recruit turned around. Boot camp was out. Navy enlistment shelved. His SEAL dreams dashed.
The decision pushed him into a funk. He joined other FLDS men on a logging crew in British Columbia for a time and then returned to southern Utah.
His partner on an ambulance crew one night berated Marty for contributing to his own depression by refusing to do what he wanted to do. So Marty went back to the recruiter, who had been waiting for his return. He again passed the fitness test.
This time, Marty disobeyed his church leader. At age 22, he was admitted to boot camp.
Fleeing the faith
About that same time, at the end of 2010, the Roundy family was leaving the FLDS.
The family’s exit created hardships, Ruthie said. Some friends and family wouldn’t speak with her anymore, and she wondered how she would reach that dream of rearing a family the way her mother did. She cried a lot in the first year out of the faith.
“I felt like my world had kind of shattered in front of me,” Ruthie said.
From messages to marriage
Marty made it through boot camp and the first stage of SEAL training. It was fall 2011 in Coronado during Hell Week, when candidates perform physical tasks 22 hours a day. Sapped, shivering and soaked, he did pushups and other exercises in the pounding surf, ducked simulated gunfire and dodged grenade explosions so close that he could feel the concussions.
Every time he thought about quitting, Marty remembered the FLDS followers — particularly one set of men his age from the Barlow family — who had accused him of abandoning his faith for the SEALs and said he wouldn’t succeed in the training anyway.
“When I thought of quitting,” Marty said, “the thought of proving the Barlow boys wrong kept me going.”
While stationed in California, as 2011 wound down, Marty had a visit from a cousin. The cousin had been talking with Ruthie over messaging platforms. One night, Marty got a text from Ruthie asking how his cousin was doing.
Marty and Ruthie had known each other only in passing growing up. The relationship between Ruthie and Marty’s cousin never sparked, she said, but one with Marty did.
Ruthie said she was attracted to her future husband because he had ambitions beyond farming or construction and growing a family like so many other FLDS men.
“I appreciated that he would say what he thought,” she said, “even if I didn’t want to hear it.”
The Roundy family was living on a farm in southern Nevada. Courtship customs for FLDS followers and families fresh out of the faith can seem old-fashioned. In spring 2012, when Ruthie, then 18, decided she wanted to visit Marty in California, she asked her parents to take her. They agreed.
The first meeting was at a Chinese restaurant in San Bernardino. Marty was 5-foot-7 and about 140 pounds. When he walked into the eatery, he was shocked by how much smaller Ruthie was. She may have been 18, he said, but she looked 15.
Marty shook hands with Ruthie and her parents and joined them for a meal. Two days later, as they said goodbye, Marty and Ruthie hugged.
The texting and talking continued through 2012. Ruthie also made some unaccompanied visits to Southern California.
The couple married Dec. 7 of that year — shortly after Marty finished his SEAL training.
Done with Jeffs
The couple’s first son was born in 2014. The next year, Marty deployed with SEAL Team Seven for the first time.
The unit went to Iraq and advised and assisted local forces in eradicating the Islamic State group across the country. Marty was a medic. While some war movies depict medics as the soldiers who take cover in the back and wait for a comrade to fall, that wasn’t what combat was like for him. He was a fighter first, he said, and might sling his rifle only if he had to treat someone who was wounded.
After Marty returned from Iraq, he decided it was time to learn about Warren Jeffs, who by then was in a Texas prison serving a sentence of life plus 20 years for sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives. Jeffs has forbidden his followers from reviewing any of the evidence against him.
Marty had written the FLDS leader letters pledging his faithfulness even while training to be a SEAL and held onto his belief in Jeffs while overseas.
Growing up, Marty knew one of Jeffs’ daughters, Rachel Jeffs. The two are about the same age. Marty drove to her home in Polson, Mont., to ask his old friend about her dad.
“He [Marty] knew something was wrong,” Rachel said in a phone interview, “and he just didn't know what, and he wanted to hear it firsthand.”
She told Marty what her father had done in Texas and how her father had molested her, too.
Marty said he applied the interrogation techniques he learned from the SEALs and looked for clues in Rachel’s words and body language to see if she was lying. He found none.
Marty had completed Navy SEAL training and a combat tour in Iraq. He had experienced hardships and seen immense suffering. Yet what Rachel Jeffs told him made him so ill he twice had to excuse himself to go outside for fear he might vomit.
“I was angry that my family fell for this,” Marty said of Jeffs’ crimes and coercions.
He was done with Warren Jeffs.
Marty and SEAL Team Seven deployed to Iraq again in 2017. This time, the team focused on removing IS from Mosul.
He calls that deployment “the greatest seven months of my life.” The fighting was more intense than the combat he saw two years earlier, but Marty believes the SEALs accomplished more, driving IS fighters from their last major stronghold in Iraq.
Marty was present for the birth of all three of his children, now ages 5, 3 and 1, but he missed plenty of other family events. Even when he wasn’t deployed, being an active-duty SEAL meant being gone about 270 days a year to train or provide training.
For Ruthie, she found Navy life foreign. She didn’t understand the military, with its rules, acronyms, ceremonies and transient lifestyle.
Most of the other SEAL spouses, she said, grew up with family in the service. The ones who didn’t at least got to watch war movies growing up. In the FLDS, Ruthie wasn’t even allowed to view television.
The other SEAL families and military community in Southern California tried to support Ruthie, she said. That helped, but the offers of comfort brought their own complications.
Ruthie had spent a lifetime interacting only with the FLDS.
“I didn’t know who I could really talk to about it that I trusted,” she said, “and who would understand me.”
Someone would try to make friends by asking where Ruthie was from and about her family, and it inevitably would lead to an awkward conversation about polygamy.
“I wasn’t embarrassed,” she said, “as much as I didn’t know how to explain it.”
The stress on his wife and children is one reason Marty chose to leave active SEAL duty. He and Ruthie have business aspirations. Besides selling nutritional supplements, they speak at marketing seminars, drawing on their own stories about leaving the FLDS and becoming a military family to inspire sellers and entrepreneurs.
There are still conflicts with family members loyal to Warren Jeffs. When Marty’s father died last year, the son wasn’t allowed into the funeral.
When asked if a plural wife might one day be added to their marriage, Marty and Ruthie looked at each other and shrugged.
“It’s crossed our minds lots of times,” Ruthie said. “It would definitely be different than we grew up in.”
For instance, no woman would be assigned to marry Marty, the couple said, and everyone would be consenting, equal parties. Still, the Jessops say, they have no plans to add a wife.