Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Under Fire in Stolen Valor Controversy

Robert_A._McDonald_Official_PortraitWe have another stolen valor controversy this week. This time it involves Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald who was recorded telling a homeless man in passing that he was a member of the “special forces.” People are calling for his resignation. However, as someone who has written a great deal about Stolen Valor, I disagree that this is a serious case of misrepresentation or that McDonald should resign. He did not have stolen valor. He has more than enough. What happened in this case was a mistake but there is still a difference between a venial and moral sin . . . even in cases of valor.

I have previously criticized past prosecutions for stolen valor (here and here) as a threat to the first amendment. Such cases are deterred through social stigma and simple research, as it was here. However, this case does not really fit well as a stolen valor controversy.

McDonald was in Los Angeles to highlight efforts of the VA to track down and provide housing for homeless veterans. He was shown stopping and talking to a homeless man who mentions the Special Forces. McDonald responds: “Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces.”

82_Airborne_Patch.svgRanger_Tab.svgMcDonald never served in a special forces unit. However, after graduating from West Point, he completed Army Ranger training and was a graduate from that school. The technical distinction is between Special Ops like the Rangers from Special Forces like the Green Berets. Moreover, McDonald ended up serving with the 82nd Airborne Division. The 82nd is one of the most respected and famous fighting unit in American history.

So he graduated from Special Ops with the Rangers and served with the 82nd Airborne. Is that the same as Special Forces, no. However, this is not some pathetic Walter Mitty who buys medals on Ebay and struts around like a Soviet General. McDonald walked the walk and served in an elite fighting unit.

My concern is that the response resembles the controversy over Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda, the 25th Chief of Naval Operations, who was a legend in the service as the only C.N.O. to have reached that position from the enlisted ranks. He committed suicide after being accused of wearing unearned “Combat Vs” on his Navy Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal indicating valor in combat.

McDonald later told reporters that he misspoke while trying to “connect” with a homeless veteran. He apologized for the statement and he should. However, the irony is that I consider graduating from the Rangers school and serving in the 82nd to be as significant as being part of a Special Forces unit. It is a different type of service but it is an elite service record. Of course, I would be buried at the Ranger school if I tried to complete that course.

McDonald strikes me as a strong leader with a proud record of service. Ironically, this controversy bears some resemblance to the scandal involving Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who claimed on repeated occasions that he served in Vietnam when he had been in a Marine Reserve unit that was never sent overseas. However, McDonald did serve in an elite unit and did graduate from Ranger school.

In the end, we have to accept that people make mistakes. In today’s saturated environment with cameras and recordings, people will overstate or exaggerate but we need to keep perspective. McDonald did not have to boast about his career and should have said Special Ops rather than Special Forces. That should not be a case for a force resignation.

What do you think?

49 thoughts on “Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Under Fire in Stolen Valor Controversy”

  1. Ken Rogers …. I’m not discrediting his credentials, they sound impressive and thought out. Well worth consideration. As part of the US Army in one form or another for many years, I just don’t consider the USA highly militarized, and in fact believe we are very short of fighting forces in a dangerous world….and over loaded with contract employees and bureaucrats. I respect your opinion because you base it upon a soldier’s experiences and interpretations of our state. My purview is that the DOD has become overly bureaucratic, with too many very senior ranks, and too few working & fighting ranks. Our enemies know this and IMO that is why they don’t fear us very much….they long ago figured out how to handle our enclave strategy, and one noted General, Vo Nguyen Giap of the PAVN, explains it clearly in his memoirs.

    Movies like “Platoon” are gross misrepresentations of both soldiers and our policies. It was 90% BS. Oliver Stone also had Vietnam experience but obviously saw it through very distorted lenses.

    If you paid attention to my question here, asked twice and unanswered, you should have realized I don’t think McDonald made a gross error, if any error. I cited a soldier I know as an example. He wears the officially authorized Special Forces unit patch, of the unit he is assigned to and deploys with, on his shoulder under his Airborne tab…but has not (yet) gone through the SF “Q” course. Thus he does not wear the SF tab above the Airborne tab. The question again: what should he call himself or say about his service let alone who he is serving with at present?

  2. Aridog writes,” ‘Bacevich’ ” is but one of the 2.5 million of us who served in Vietnam. His opinion should be taken accordingly. Exactly as mine should be taken.”

    I’m afraid there’s a little more to the respective gravitas of your opinions regarding the militarization of the US than your both having served in Vietnam, Aridog.

    “He [Bacevich] graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, serving in Vietnam from the summer of 1970 to the summer of 1971. Later he held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment; the United States; and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.”

    If someone with Bacevich’s education, teaching/research experience, and military training writes a book entitled *The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War*, I suggest that it’s worth serious consideration, even (or especially) if one is oblivious to the facts of a bloated “defense” budget that comprises 39% of the world’s total spending on weapons of war; 17 secretive intelligence agencies with a combined budget of $75 billion annually; the militarization of US law enforcement; military tribunals; the Patriot Act; the National Defense Authorization Act providing for indefinite military detention; the “war” on drugs and other social problems, which has done enormous damage to civil liberties; lack of soldier worship as the “third rail” in US politics; military jet flyovers and military ceremonies at US athletic contests; the glorification of the military in blockbuster Hollywood films such as *Platoon*, *Apocalypse Now*, *Top Gun*, and *American Sniper*; and in TV programs from “Band of Brothers” to “24.”

    In view of the above, the triviality of VA Secretary McDonald’s “offense” should be blindingly obvious.

  3. Ken Rogers….”Bacevich” is but one of the 2.5 million of us who served in Vietnam. His opinion should be taken accordingly. Exactly as mine should be taken. If you think the 0.5% enlistment is indicative of militarization, I cannot help you. Kyle said a lot more than you quoted, and his view of war was that of a sniper and recon team member. Have you ever lived that life? If not, how do you know what he was thinking? He served in Iraq, which I managed to avoid….although I was on the list for deployment to Afghanistan at age 63. What he said was de rigueur back in the day, but not how we felt inside ourselves. It was a personal experience, one of the 2.5 million I cited. Take it as that and relax. If you think any of us enjoyed “killing” per se, you are confused. Or just plain wrong. We are perhaps the least militarized in our last 60+ years. I saw some very ugly things, but I somehow only manage to relate things like my time with some kids playing baseball. Think about it.

  4. Darren,

    No, I wasn’t aware that “…this website only allows two links per comment.”

    Thanks for letting me know.


  5. The truth to the story is set out in a blog called He told the guy he had a special op. He went on to say that they removed his gonads and gave them over to the homeless in need charity. That was all he said. There are special operations going on in hospitals every New York minute. This was about one of them.

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