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. Aridog writes: “Evidence of pervading American Culture? Does the 0.5% to 1% (in some calculations) of Americans who enlist in all services indicate that to you? Why?”

    In addition to reading General Smedley Butler’s book *War is a Racket* (1935)
    http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html#c1, I also encourage you to read Colonel Andrew Bacevich’s *The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War* (2005, 2013), or at least the reviews of it:
    http://www.amazon.com/New-American-Militarism-Americans-Seduced/dp/0199931763/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1424973622&sr=1-3

    “Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic…. He has thus earned the right to a hearing even in circles typically immune to criticism. What he writes should give them pause…. His conclusion is clear. The United States is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness, and war, or planning for war, is the exemplary (and only) common project.”–Tony Judt, The New York Review of Books

    Aridog also writes: “Chris Kyle was not a lone wolf sent out to run amok, he was part of a reconnaissance team that goes ahead of the main body of infantry to protect them and relay information back to them….and actively to inform them as they move forward about potential ambushes and other threats.”

    Chris Kyle wrote, “I love war.” And “When you’re working with Army and Marine Corps units, you immediately notice a difference. The Army is pretty tough, but their performance can depend on the individual unit. Some are excellent, filled with hoorah and first-class warriors. A few are absolutely horrible; most are somewhere in between. In my experience, Marines are gung ho no matter what. They will all fight to the death. *Every one of them just wants to get out there and kill. They are bad-ass, hard-charging mothers.”* (emphasis added) And, “But I wondered, how would I feel about killing someone? Now I know. It’s no big deal.”
    goodreads.com/work/quotes/16845778-american-sniper

    I could provide additional quotations demonstrating Kyle’s brutalization, his willingness to participate in the illegal and immoral invasion of another country, and his relishing the opportunity to kill Iraqis in order to protect the lives of his fellow invaders and occupiers, but it would be overkill.

    Suffice it to say that Kyle’s lethally macho mindset blossomed and was nourished, aided, and abetted by the culture of militarism in the United States, aptly embodied in Madeleine Albright’s question to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
    webwm.com/kosovo/h/mad.htm

    Ms. Albright apparently didn’t remember her US military history: americanhistory.about.com/library/timelines/bltimelineuswars.htm

    1. Ken Rogers

      You might not have been aware of this but this website only allows two links per comment. I modified your comment at 2:03 to dereference the extra links so that it would work.

      If you wish the readers to review more than two links, you can do so through additional comments.

  2. Just for the record, the friend I mentioned who flew early “Wild Weasel” flights eventually resigned his commission and became a financial advisor and stock broker in Texas and lead a very normal life, never mentioning his experiences other than to those close to him, most of us who knew better than to ask many questions. He never thought of himself as a “hero” nor would he accept that praise if offered to him. He was a Financial guy, period. Most who knew him never thought otherwise. This exploitation of military veterans by salacious praise and designations is more the media and definitely not the military folks themselves.

  3. Ken Rogers said …

    Isn’t this brouhaha over McDonald’s choice of words at bottom simply yet more evidence of the mindless militarism pervading American culture?

    Evidence of pervading American Culture? Does the 0.5% to 1% (in some calculations) of Americans who enlist in all services indicate that to you? Why?

    And you didn’t answer my question, asked twice on this thread.

    If anything the Military-Industrial Complex Eisenhower referred to has been replaced by the Military-Service Contractor Employee Complex where we hire basic services out to the lowest bidder or the favorite bidder. The effect is that our military cannot deploy large numbers of any service, except perhaps the Navy with USMC expeditionary forces, without the hired help for period longer than a week or two…and even then they require relatively prompt back up. Is that a pervasive militarism?

    Is every member of the US military a hero by virtue of his having been trained to kill people, and those who have undergone the most brutal and brutalizing training even *more* heroic by virtue of their enhanced brutalization in the “elite” services?

    From that I think you’ve never served in any service or branch. Correct me if I am wrong. I can be wrong…military service is quite personal in nature and the opinions among vets vary widely. For the record I tend to cringe just a bit when I hear the word “hero” or the phrase “Thank you for your service” simply because I don’t think I did enough compared to so many other vets I know. Otherwise, yes, anyone who steps up and enlists has the makings of a “hero”, but it is funny how few of us feel that we were or are today.

    The services, particularly the US Marines and US Army are not “brutalized” or just “taught to kill”…the ideal is to control a situation where you do not need to kill anyone, except when attacked or to protect others, frequently local national civilians. You do learn how to kill when necessary, as the nature of the job(s) require. You are taught to work as a team, not for yourself and as a fight ensues your view narrows to a pin point focus of protecting the guy on your left and right….and that mindset forms a solid chain for defense or offense as the circumstances require. Chris Kyle was not a lone wolf sent out to run amok, he was part of a reconnaissance team that goes ahead of the main body of infantry to protect them and relay information back to them….and actively to inform them as they move forward about potential ambushes and other threats. Because recon guys are often forward of the MLR and more or less alone, it does take a fair amount of courage. Kyle’s story was not a “war story”, it was a relating of one man’s personal experiences…as men like Robert O’Neil and Jeff Kyle, have said publicly, and several severally wounded or traumatized veterans I know will all tell you.

    When the term “elite” is used it means the few who step up for greater risk among the many more of those who otherwise perform as “grunts” or light infantry. Even the Air Force needs to forward recon men or women who can spot threats and direct air attacks…there is no easy job in recon. The Navy flies forward observation aircraft for the same purposes, and those planes and crews are at higher risk as well because they are frequently alone in or small groups that have little means to defend themselves. The “Wild Weasels” from Vietnam through today are among those forward air observers, but the “Weasels” do have offensive capability…originally to lock on to a radar beam and fly straight down it to hit a battery target…a friend of mine was a among the first to fly those missions, in “Super Thuds” aka F-105’s long ago. He was always forward of the main forces….a job to be “bait” in short, potentially suicidal. Yes, for ward recon personnel, in the air or on the ground, are among the elite because few can do it. Given our forces are now at post WWII levels (after the draw down) I’d say militarism is hardly our primary focus today.

    YMMV….as is your right to feel. Just be a little more accurate and inclusive when you express it.

  4. Elizabeth Warren was in on Cherokee Nation raids and has 4 scalps on her belt.

  5. Isn’t this brouhaha over McDonald’s choice of words at bottom simply yet more evidence of the mindless militarism pervading American culture? Is every member of the US military a hero by virtue of his having been trained to kill people, and those who have undergone the most brutal and brutalizing training even *more* heroic by virtue of their enhanced brutalization in the “elite” services?

    Do the at least twenty-two (22) US military veterans who commit suicide on a *daily basis* also provide evidence of the “heroism” of military training and service to the Military-Industrial Complex?
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/21/us/22-veteran-suicides-a-day/index.html

    I sincerely hope and pray that military-worshipping Americans don’t have to learn the hard way that, as two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner General Smedley Butler put it, “WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
    http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html#c1

  6. No answer to my question at 11:48 AM? Is the guy I described “in” Special Forces (authorized to wear the arm patch for his unit) and deploys with them?

  7. ronni – It is my understanding that politicians are trying to ram home Net Neutrality to combat a problem that isn’t there with a solution that won’t work.

    Plus, it is estimated to drive small carriers out of business with the onerous regulation, which will reduce competition. Look at what less competition did to the airline industry.

    It’s just another way for government to get more intrusive. The Wild Web brought such an explosion of ideas. Some good, some nonsense, but the communication of information as unprecedented. So of course the government wants to jump right in.

  8. Hon. Professor Turley,

    I am writing to you to ask you about the net.neutrality plan Obama is hustling through without any transparency, which is in violation of the protocols for doing so that indicate it should be made available at least 30 days prior to a vote to be viewed and reviewed by Congress and the public as it’s very important due to it’s nature because it involves free speech and free press. Is it unconstitutional and if so, is there any recourse because the Republicans are folding again just as they did yesterday on the immigration plan?

    In my opinion, there seems to me and many other people that this fighting between the parties is just a horse and pony show for our benefit because in all reality, both parties want this power and the immigrants.

    Thank you for your time and my wife and I love your articles on recent events, they are compelling and educational.

    Regards, George and Ronni Mandell 279 Captain Thomas Blvd 1st floor West Haven, Ct. 06516 (203) 745-1251

    ps: losing hope that the Republic will survive as it’s being attacked from so many directions at once, we just can’t keep up with it all.

  9. Karen,

    I went through 2 week of SF training by SF commander orders to my CO. Same guy who spotted me in SF mess hall. Learned neat POW interrogation trick used by Indians.

    Strip captive naked, stake arms and legs to ground near fire ants. Put honey or jelly on captive. Wait for fire ants. Captive talks right away, no water boarding needed. Get good information. Lots of information.

  10. I despise Stolen Valor, but in this case it does seem to be a simple mistake.

    I’ve known Army Rangers. They are hard core. One went through POW training. They made the guys wear pajamas, drink a huge bowl of water, and then they nailed them in a box so tight that they had to have their knees up by their heads. For 3 hours. That was just one of the highlights. They tried to break you to teach you how to withstand it.

    A friend told me that the planes are like cattle carts. He hurled himself out of the plane just to get some room. And the chutes are small for rapid descent to minimize exposure to enemy fire.

    When he got out of the military, a friend used the benefits to go to college. It was drilled into him that in a classroom, you had your right hand ready to right, your left hand on your thigh, and you focused your full attention on the teacher at all times. The civilian teachers had to tell him to stop doing that and relax – he was making them nervous.

  11. So.. has anyone found Saddam’s WMDs.. ?
    Is anyone still looking for them..?
    ZZ7ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ZZ7ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

  12. His record indicates that he should not be criticized much on the grounds of military service, training, and merit. However, in trying to “connect” to a homeless veteran he exhibits the typical elite and powerful culture. Talk about some superficial title or institution and tell a personal story to distract from the brutal policies you support and implement. As the VA Secretary this guy should not be proud right now, have you checked the VA’s record lately?? Professionally, put your head down and try and make your agency work for veterans, all veterans.

    1. TJustice – he would have connected just as much by stating his real bona fides.

  13. As a veteran, I see no problem with his off hand comment since it was in response to the poor man’s statement. Now if he had gone on and bragged about his bogus SF career that would be an entirely different matter. Also as Prof Turley has pointed out, he was a Ranger and Airborne which is just as demanding as SF. It was a shorthand way of establishing a rapport with the guy. It was not an outright lie as O’Rielly has been boasting about. I also salute the guy since even on my best days as a young man could not have done what he did. Hell basic was bad enough.

  14. I have a friend whose son is in US Army Military Intelligence, 82nd Airborne, and assigned to a Special Forces unit and deploys with them…although he’s not yet entered the Q course. He is also a observation and surveillance pilot. What should he call himself, since he wears the SF unit arm badge, with the Airborne tab, but without the Special Forces tab above it?

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