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VA secretary apologizes for false claim; reactions mixed

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald answers questions outside the VA headquarters building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. At right is McDonald's Media Relations Director James Hutton trying to keep order among the journalists vying to ask questions.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2015

WASHINGTON — Reactions from veteran groups and Capitol Hill ran the gamut Tuesday from outrage to acceptance following an apology by VA Secretary Bob McDonald for claiming he served with U.S. special operations forces.

The American Legion called the secretary’s claim a disappointing “lie” while the Veterans of Foreign Wars said it accepted McDonald’s apology for a “misspeak.” Still others said it was part of a troubling pattern of misleading statements after McDonald was called out last week for inflating the number of Department of Veterans Affairs employees fired after its wait-time scandal.

McDonald, who was picked last summer specifically to clean up dysfunction and wrongdoing at the massive agency, issued an apology Monday for a recent “CBS Evening News” segment in which he told a homeless veteran, “I was in special forces.” According to his VA bio, he graduated West Point in 1975, became an Army Ranger and then served in an Army unit that is not part of special operations forces.

“He did complete Ranger training and served honorably with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. But a lie is a lie,” American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said in a prepared statement. “I can’t believe people do this. What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose No. 1 issue right now is the restoration of trust.”

During a press conference in Washington Tuesday, McDonald again apologized for the “inaccurate” statement. He said his focus during the encounter was on getting the man assistance and not the small talk.

“What I said was not on my mind at the time. I was trying to connect with them and we had people with us that could help get them into a home if they were a homeless veteran,” McDonald said.

In his apology, McDonald said his comment about special operations forces was an “inaccurate” statement and that he has “great respect” for those who have served in those units.

The group Concerned Veterans For America hammered McDonald on again damaging public trust in the VA.

“CVA is not surprised that Secretary McDonald was caught exaggerating his military service when he was just found by multiple fact checkers to have misrepresented the number of people fired by the VA as a result of the wait list scandal — on national television nonetheless,” CEO Pete Hegseth said in a written statement.

The secretary said during a Feb. 15 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had fired 900 employees, including 60 connected to the widespread manipulation of veteran appointment records to hide long and sometimes dangerous waits for care at VA hospitals and clinics across the country.

But the website PolitiFact rated the claim as “false” and The   Washington Post’s Fact Checker column gave it four Pinocchios, its most untruthful rating. Previously, McDonald and the VA had been harshly criticized by Congress for not firing employees responsible for the wrongdoing.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Tuesday he is disappointed with the chairman’s recent comments.

“After a rough couple of weeks that also included inflated claims of accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I hope Secretary McDonald will redouble his efforts to ensure his statements — and those of all VA officials — are completely accurate,” Miller said in a written statement.

But the secretary’s claim of being in special operations forces and his subsequent apology did not rankle everybody.

VFW National Commander John W. Stroud said McDonald had misspoken, saying he was in “special forces” when in fact he was “special forces-qualified,” in an attempt to connect with the homeless vet.

“The secretary has since apologized for his misspeak, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States accepts it,” Stroud said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said McDonald has an “extremely tough job” reforming the VA, and his group still backs him.

“He called me personally today to apologize for that mistake and we at IAVA accept his apology,” Rieckhoff wrote in a statement. “We know Secretary McDonald is a man of exceptional commitment who served honorably and cares deeply about our veterans. All of America has witnessed his deep dedication to our community in his first few months on the job.”

When contacted for comment, Sen. John McCain’s office brushed off the flap over McDonald’s comments, saying the VA has larger concerns. The Arizona Republican was an architect of the massive VA overhaul law passed in August and since has pressed the agency to hold more employees accountable for the records manipulation last year.

“His comments were unfortunate, but Senator McCain is far more concerned by Secretary McDonald’s performance as VA Secretary,” McCain’s communication director Brian Rogers wrote in an email.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

 

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