Records fail to back some of Wash. state lawmaker's military service claims
By JIM BRUNNER | The Seattle Times | Published: January 24, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Graham hunt has issued this statement about this article,
In May of 2014, a dramatic Iraq war photo was posted to the Facebook page of state Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, showing two kneeling U.S. soldiers in desert combat uniforms, one man consoling the other.
“This picture of me was taken after a mortar attack in 2005,” the post said. “Background has been modified, but I think combat camera captured the moment pretty well. I surely have not forgotten that moment.”
Hunt is a decorated former Arizona Air National Guard member who deployed to the Middle East. But neither soldier in the picture was him. The image was a doctored version of a 2003 Associated Press photo of two military policemen from Ohio during a deployment near Baghdad.
The photo was removed several months later, with Hunt saying a campaign volunteer had posted it without his knowledge.
It’s not the only question to surface regarding Hunt’s descriptions of his military record.
Until recently, in his official and campaign biographies Hunt listed three medals that a military personnel center has no record of him receiving — though a military spokeswoman cautioned that its records are sometimes incomplete.
Hunt has described himself as having been “wounded in combat” but grows vague when asked for details. He said he was knocked down by explosions but cannot remember where. He also says he cannot remember the names of units he deployed with to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Late last month, after being interviewed by The Seattle Times, Hunt altered several details about his military service on his online biographies.
He deleted references to the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Afghanistan Campaign Medal — awards a military personnel office says do not appear on his service record.
Also removed was a reference to Hunt being a “combat veteran” of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hunt’s new bio was more vague, saying he served in the Air Force for nearly 10 years, with “tours of duty in several countries, including multiple tours to the Middle East.” It says he has been awarded “several military honors, including the Air Force Achievement Medal.”
In interviews, Hunt said he did not mean to list medals he had not received and took down the references until he could find documentation. Last week, he said he’d made a mistake in listing the Iraq medal — mixing it up with a similarly named award he did earn.
Hunt downplayed the importance of the decorations. “Honestly, I don’t even care to list any honors or awards I have received, because frankly I don’t think they are that important to the public in the first place,” he said.
He said he has never intended to mislead anyone about his military record.
A self-described “conservative constitutionalist,” Hunt is the Washington chair for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. He was one of two Washington state lawmakers who recently visited armed protesters who have seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Hunt, 36, was appointed to the Legislature in January 2014 to represent the 2nd Legislative District of south Pierce and Thurston counties. He won election to a full term in November 2014 and is up for re-election this coming fall.
In the Legislature, he’s been an advocate on veterans issues, leading an effort last year to secure state funding to renovate an old veterans cemetery in Orting. This year, he’s been in the news as a leading opponent of a rule allowing transgender persons to use bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify.
Military records show Hunt served in the Air National Guard from 1998 to 2005, assigned to Sky Harbor Air National Guard Base in Phoenix, according to Lt. Col. Belinda Petersen, a spokeswoman with the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Colorado. After 2005, Hunt was a nonparticipating reservist until 2010, when he separated from the military.
Hunt achieved the rank of staff sergeant and earned several awards. They include a small-arms marksmanship ribbon, the Air Force Expeditionary Medal and the Air Force Achievement Medal, according to the personnel center.
The achievement medal was earned while Hunt was at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in late 2002 and early 2003 as part of the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, according to a copy of the medal citation supplied by Hunt.
As a senior airman, Hunt worked security, searching vehicles and local workers to screen for threats. “In extreme heat and austere conditions, he ensured stringent security practices at all entry control points,” reads the medal citation signed by Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III.
But the Air Reserve Personnel Center said Hunt’s service record does not indicate he earned the Air Force Commendation Medal — a more prestigious award — or the Iraq or Afghanistan Campaign medals authorized for serving in the U.S. war in those countries.
Maj. Heather Newcomb, public-affairs director for the personnel center, said while medals and citations are normally a part of a veteran’s service records, they are not always up to date if the veteran did not submit required paperwork.
“It’s a distinct possibility” Hunt could have earned other medals not reflected in his personnel file, Newcomb said. In such cases, she said, it’s up to veterans to provide documentation.
Hunt said this past week he’d erred in listing the Iraq Campaign Medal. Describing it as an honest mistake, he said he had in fact earned the Expeditionary Medal for deploying in support of the Iraq war.
Hunt said he’s frustrated he has been unable to locate documents proving he was awarded the Afghanistan medal and the commendation medal. He declined requests from The Seattle Times to sign a waiver allowing fuller disclosure of his military records, including a complete copy of his DD-214 discharge papers.
The records disclosed by the personnel center do not say whether Hunt was deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
They do say Hunt served overseas, including in Saudi Arabia. The records also say Hunt was deployed for a time to a classified location “in support of military operations.”
Hunt says that referred to missions inside Iraq and Afghanistan. While he said he has a hard time remembering exact dates, he said he was sent to Afghanistan sometime around October 2001 for three or four weeks.
He says he was sent to Iraq around May 2003 and was in and out of the country several times.
Asked what units he served with while inside those countries, Hunt said he cannot recall. He said he has not stayed in touch with anyone who could talk about his time there.
Hunt offered a snapshot of his military records via email. That document said he served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom — the military designation for the global war on terrorism — from December 2002 to June 2003 in a “classified location.”
Hunt’s achievement medal citation says he was stationed at the Saudi Arabia air base for roughly that same time period. But he says he also was deployed to other countries.
When asked about where he’d seen combat and suffered wounds, Hunt did not provide details but said he is receiving disability benefits for service-related injuries that he declined to elaborate on.
Hunt shared a page from a Department of Veterans Affairs benefit claim in which a fellow soldier said Hunt had told him he responded to the scene of an attack on Americans in Saudi Arabia in 2003.
Hunt said some of his memories of war are painful to relive. “Any veteran who has seen a gunbattle has been wounded,” he said.
As for the Facebook photo that purported to show Hunt after a mortar attack, he said he has never told anyone the photo depicted him. He said a campaign volunteer posted it to his account, but Hunt declined to identify the person, saying he wants to spare the volunteer from humiliation.
“I take full responsibility for it,” Hunt said.
The 2003 Associated Press photo actually showed David Borell and Brian Pacholski, both soldiers from Toledo, Ohio, according to a 2011 article in the Toledo Blade. The camera captured Pacholski comforting Borell, who’d broken down after seeing Iraqi children injured while playing with explosive materials.
On Hunt’s Facebook page, the photo had been altered to remove Army insignias from Pacholski’s sleeve, replacing them with an Air Force staff sergeant patch.
Hunt’s campaign logo was superimposed on the image, along with the slogans “KNOWS THE SACRIFICE” and “STILL FIGHTING FOR OUR COUNTRY.”
In a similar version of the photo reposted by a Facebook friend, Hunt commented, “picture is from a deployment in Iraq and in the USAF.” The image was again posted to Hunt’s Twitter account as late as September 2014, according to screenshots provided to The Seattle Times.
In January 2015, Hunt posted an apology on Facebook saying he’d received a complaint. “Someone took screenshots and even though I reacted and pulled the post down some people I guess will never forget,” he wrote.
In recent interviews, Hunt said he hopes to locate records further documenting his military service. “I just need time,” he said, saying such papers might be lost in boxes or at a relative’s house in Missouri.
But he said he was not sure he’ll find them. He added, “I know where I was. I know what I did. I don’t need it validated.”
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