“Sua Sponte”: Critics and Veterans Slam Media Attack On Sen. Cotton’s Service Claims

There is an ongoing controversy triggered by an article in Salon suggesting that Sen. Tom Cotton had lied about being an Army Ranger in describing his military service. The Salon article by Roger Sullenberger claimed that Arkansas senator Tom Cotton “felt compelled to repeatedly falsify that honorable military record.” It is an accusation that borders on a claim of stolen valor and could not be more insulting, particularly for someone with a highly distinguished military service record. The article has been denounced as part of a smear campaign by conservative sites like National Review but also veterans as unfair and inaccurate.

Ironically, the regimental motto of the Rangers is the Latin phrase sua sponte, or “of their own accord.” There appears debate on whose accord is controlling on such questions.

Cotton volunteered to serve and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was deployed with the 101st Airborne in Iraq and was promoted to first lieutenant. He also served in Afghanistan. He was awarded a Bronze Star, two Army Commendation MedalsCombat Infantryman BadgeRanger tabAfghanistan Campaign Medal, and Iraq Campaign Medal.

False or exaggerated military records have been raised over political claims in the past.  Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., claimed on repeated occasions that he served in Vietnam when he had been in a Marine Reserve unit that was never sent overseas. In one article in May 2008, Blumenthal claimed that “when we returned from Vietnam, I remember the taunts, the verbal and even physical abuse we encountered.” There is no ambiguity on that claim.

However, Cotton not only went to Ranger School and received a Ranger badge but went into combat. Cotton received his Ranger badge and then served with the 101st Airborne Division. As a military history nut, I have discussed the “Screaming Eagles” in prior columns as one of the most storied and revered forces in United States military history.  Cotton was in combat with one of the most elite units in the world.  He never claimed claimed to have served in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Instead, he claimed that he “volunteered to be an Army Ranger” and referred to himself as a ranger on occasion.  Sullenberger maintains that that does not make him an “actual Army Ranger,” but that is not a view shared by some other rangers.  There is no balance in the article. Such countervailing views appeared in coverage following the Salon article.

The Arkansas Times interviewed Command sergeant major Rick Merritt, who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, who denounced the premise of Salon’s article as “absurd,” “unfair,” and “almost slanderous.” Conversely, Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, criticized Cotton for referring to himself as an Army Ranger, tweeting a picture of a Ranger in uniform with “Hey @SenTomCotton, unless you wore one of these berets you shouldn’t be calling yourself a Ranger. Truth matters.”

The National Review takes apart that claim and notes that veterans insist that Cotton was a Ranger. Moreover, it noted that major publications have referred to graduates of Ranger school as rangers in the same way as Cotton did. Notably, critics pointed out that Newsweek slammed Cotton after the Salon story but in 2015 used the same description of graduates from the school who did not serve in the actual Ranger regiment. Rather than change its criticism of Cotton, Newsweek quietly changed the 2015 article to remove the reference to being a Ranger.

As the site military.com noted, “the 75th Ranger Regiment requires its soldiers to complete its own eight-week selection process. Upon completing the course, soldiers are allowed to wear a distinctive tan beret with their uniform.” Cotton took the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, a roughly eight-week leadership course on light-infantry tactics. While Salon dismissed the school as a course that “literally anyone in the military is eligible to attend,” military.com wrote

To be clear, serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment or completing the Army’s Ranger School are both significant accomplishments. The vast majority of service members have neither served in a special operations unit nor attended Ranger School, both of which are physically and mentally grueling tasks. Neither are required to be eligible for the other — the only exception being that 75th Ranger Regiment leaders, such as commissioned officers, are required to complete Ranger School.

This does strike me as unfair. Salon as a long history of such hits pieces, particularly against Cotton. For example, the Arkansas Times noted prior pieces entitled “10 frightening facts about Tom Cotton” and “Chair of the imbecile caucus: Sen. Tom Cotton proudly stands at the vanguard of shameless Republican obstructionism.” This latest article was entitled in a way to be used by an Internet mob to suggest a type of stolen valor: “Sen. Tom Cotton campaigned on his “experience as an Army Ranger” — but he didn’t have any.”  This was a man who earned his Ranger badge but served with an elite airborne division.  The headline makes it sound like he was back in the states with the motor pool.  Normally, this type of issue would warrant a parenthetical in a profile piece.

I have no problem with raising this issue. Indeed, I find it interesting. This appears to be a long-standing matter of debate. Frankly, I do not see why Cotton did not just identify himself as Airborne with the Screaming Eagles, which is an enormous distinction. However, the Salon piece is typical of the slanted and sensational coverage that is now common among publications. Articles are designed to thrill audiences in our siloed media where people expect nothing confirmation of their own biases. These sites on the left and the right contribute to the anger and divisions in the country.

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