We 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.”
McDonald 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?