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Does VA Secretary Robert McDonald have a 'Brian Williams problem'?

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald is apologizing for falsely claiming he was part of the military's elite Special Forces. The question is whether retired Special Forces members will consider his offense trivial.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs budget, Feb. 11, 2015. McDonald apologized Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, for misstating that he served in the military's special forces. McDonald made the erroneous claim while speaking to a homeless veteran during a segment that aired last month on 'CBS Evening News.'

Does Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald have a Brian Williams problem? He’s falsely claimed that he was a member of the military’s elite Special Forces. That’s a misstep similar to NBC anchor Williams’ exaggeration of the dangers he faced covering the Iraq War.

But Mr. McDonald’s slip about his Army record seems to have occurred only once. Mr. Williams honed his untruthful stories over years. The VA secretary quickly apologized and continues today to spread mea culpas.

“I have no excuse. I was not in Special Forces,” Williams told David Wood of the Huffington Post.

First, we’ll look at some background that’s apropos, but not directly related.

McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Procter & Gamble executive, took over the VA last June. At the time, the department was reeling from charges of delayed care and shoddy recordkeeping. Some vets had even died while awaiting treatment, according to critics.

In a Feb. 15 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McDonald said he’d fired 900 people since taking over, in an attempt to shape up the department. Sixty of those dismissals were directly related to the wait time problem, he said.

According to Politifact, only 14 VA employees got the ax due to the wait time problem, plus another five directors of the organization. McDonald’s claim of 60 was an exaggeration, according to the fact-checking site.

“We rate the statement false,” wrote PolitiFact’s Steve Contorno on Feb. 20.

Now for the Special Forces misstatement. In late January, McDonald was touring a poor Los Angeles neighborhood during a nationwide count of homeless veterans, with a CBS news team in tow.

The VA Secretary encountered one homeless man who said he’d served in Special Forces.

“Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces,” McDonald replied.

This exchange was captured on film and broadcast on CBS as part of a Jan. 30 story on the VA’s outreach efforts.

But as David Wood explains today, McDonald didn’t serve in Special Forces – the elite units of the US military, including Army Rangers, Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and Green Berets.

After graduating from West Point in 1975, McDonald did take Army Ranger training, and earned a tab designating him as a graduate of Army Ranger School. But he never served in a Ranger unit. He qualified as an airborne jumpmaster and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

McDonald retired from active duty in 1980.

Well, the Special Forces claim was pretty close to true, right? Yes, perhaps closer than Brian Williams’s claims of riding in a helicopter that took enemy fire through its tail.

But Special Forces members are jealous of their identity and prerogatives in part because so many people, military and civilian, falsely claim to be one of them. There’s a cachet to these elite units that drives some to create fake certificates, buy an insignia on eBay, and pass themselves off as Special Forces to friends, neighbors, and local July 4 parades.

Last November, for instance, a former Navy enlisted seaman was arrested in Texas on charges of impersonating on officer due to his false claims that he was lieutenant in the SEALs.

There are entire networks of retired military personnel dedicated to exposing Special Forces fakes and false claims of honors earned.

Given that, the question for McDonald is whether retired Special Forces members will consider his offense trivial. In addition, will the White House lump it in with his inflated firings claim, and see the new VA Secretary as a public relations problem, more than a possible solution to VA management problems?

So far the administration is standing behind him.

“Secretary McDonald has apologized for the misstatement and noted that he never intended to misrepresent his military service. We take him at his word and expect that this will not impact the important work he’s doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans,” said the White House in a statement issued Monday.

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