Monday evening, David Wood with the Huffington Post reported that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald wrongly claimed on video that he had served in the special operations forces while in the U.S. Army.
Here’s the context of the video, which was part of a CBS Evening News package dated Jan 30. McDonald was in Los Angeles with a group of volunteers who count homeless veterans living on the streets. He approached one man outside on the street in the evening hours, and tried to spark up a conversation, asking the man if he is a veteran. The man replied, “Yes, sir.”
Then McDonald asked, “Really? Army, Navy…”
The man cut in, “Army.”
McDonald asked, “What unit” and the man said, “Special Forces.”
McDonald then responded, “Special forces? What years? I was in special forces!” Then the video cuts away. McDonald appears a little over zealous, while the man he is speaking to is soft spoken and reserved, an understandable response from both in front of a news team.
According to the Huffington Post, McDonald’s apology came after some retired military officers saw the video. McDonald told Wood that he “wanted to clear up the confusion I probably created — I did create.”
“I have no excuse. I was not special forces,” McDonald said.
McDonald is a West Point graduate who spent five years in the military in the late 1970s, serving primarily with the 82nd Airborne Division. He earned a Ranger tab, but never served in any special operations units prior to separating from the Army in 1980.
Falsely claiming to be part of the special operations forces is not taken lightly with the special operations community and some critics have already come forward and called this an act of “stolen valor.” But, this criticism is shortsighted and focuses on the wrong problem.
McDonald is a well-versed public figure and he knows he is watched very closely by the veterans community and media to see if he makes a mistake. His failures translate to failures for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, McDonald’s military record has also been clearly laid out in front of Congress and the media repeatedly. We know he wasn’t special operations forces; he knows he wasn’t special operations forces, so to think that McDonald was trying to falsify his record is a stretch. It is far more likely that under pressure to bond with a complete stranger on the street in front of the cameras, he blurted out the first sentence to came to mind to create some sort of bond with the man he was speaking to.
Boneheaded move? Absolutely. Stolen valor? Save it for someone else.
Unfortunately for McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs cannot afford to make these types of mistakes, especially following the report earlier this month by Washington Post that he provided inaccurate figures in an Feb. 15 interview on NBC's Meet the Press regarding the number of people fired over the wait-time manipulation scandal at VA medical facilities.
Prior to this, under McDonald’s leadership, a culture of accountability started to emerge within the VA as he has publicly portrayed himself as heavily invested in systemic change. In September, McDonald handed out his own cell phone number and told everyone he to call him Bob. “I’m Bob. We want an organization where everyone is called by the first name,” McDonald said in a press conference last year. He has also traveled to VA facilities all over the country, meeting with employees and whistle-blowers to identify problems these facilities face on both a local and national level.
But, an incident like this has the potential to undo all of that work and will make it even more difficult to start over. The number one priority of the VA right now needs to be rebuilding trust with the veterans community and these incidents do the exact opposite. McDonald can be the most effective secretary the VA has ever seen, but without the faith of the people he is meant to serve, his efforts will go to waste. This is already apparent within the Veterans Choice Program, which provides eligible veterans the alternative of private medical care if they do not have easy access to a VA facility. Only 27,000 have enrolled since the program launched in November. That means the $10 billion allocated to this program is largely going unused and may be distributed elsewhere if it remains ineffective.
McDonald cannot afford to just hope this mistake blows over. He is going to have to make a concerted effort to reclaim his credibility. The veterans community has been lied to far too many times to be forgiving.