WASHINGTON -- Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, wrongly claimed in a videotaped comment earlier this year that he served in the Army's elite special forces, when his military service of five years was in fact spent almost entirely with the 82nd Airborne Division during the late 1970s.
U.S. special operations forces (SOF) are composed of exhaustively trained and highly capable troops from each military service, including the Army Rangers, Delta Force, Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces (also known as the Green Berets) -- but not the 82nd Airborne. They are certified to undertake the most dangerous and delicate missions, including, famously, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Special operators are a close-knit community deeply hostile to outsiders who try to claim the coveted mantle of special operations.
McDonald, a retired corporate executive who took over the VA last June as the agency was sinking in scandal, made the claim in late January as he was touring a rundown Los Angeles neighborhood during a nationwide count of homeless veterans. He was accompanied by a CBS-TV news crew, which recorded an exchange between McDonald and a homeless man who told McDonald he had served in special forces.
“Special forces? What years? I was in special forces!” McDonald told the homeless man. That exchange was broadcast in a Jan. 30 CBS News story about the VA’s efforts to find and house homeless veterans.
In fact, McDonald never served in special forces. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975, completed Army Ranger training and took courses in jungle, arctic and desert warfare. He qualified as a senior parachutist and airborne jumpmaster, and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division until he resigned his commission in 1980. While he earned a Ranger tab designating him as a graduate of Ranger School, he never served in a Ranger battalion or any other special operations unit.
“I have no excuse,” McDonald told The Huffington Post, when contacted to explain his claim. “I was not in special forces.”
McDonald’s remark came to light after several retired military officers noticed his remark on the CBS tape, days after NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended for fabricating stories about his reporting experiences in Iraq and elsewhere.
McDonald told The Huffington Post that he “wanted to clear up the confusion I probably created -- I did create” in the exchange with the homeless man in L.A. Saying he was in special forces, McDonald said, “is not right. I was not in special forces. What I said was wrong.”
McDonald said he has many friends in the special forces community “and I have great respect for special forces.” But, he added, “as I thought about this later I knew this [claim] was wrong."
When the homeless veteran claimed to have served in special forces, McDonald said, “I reacted spontaneously and I reacted wrongly, [with] no intent in any way to describe my record any different than it is.”
“It was wrong,” said retired Army Col. Gary Bloomberg, a former senior special forces commander who had not seen the video before being contacted by The Huffington Post. When he first watched it, Bloomberg said, “I thought, 'What a boneheaded statement -- is this what we want from our senior government officials?'”
Bloomberg said he checked around with others in the special forces community, which is normally quick to jump on SOF impostors in the same way that the Stolen Valor organization hunts down and exposes people who wear unearned military decorations and honors.
Bloomberg said he talked to several other former special operators, “and no one got really crazy about the whole thing, compared to some of what we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s a lot different from guys running around faking their special forces credentials.”
Several times a month, Bloomberg said, an email message will bounce around the SOF community asking for information on someone claiming special forces status. “When it turns out the guy doesn’t have it," he said, "the community goes to great lengths to expose it.”
In McDonald’s case, he said, “I can see [other former special forces soldiers] going, ‘Hey, check out this boneheaded remark,’ but I don’t see the gravitas that I would with a guy wearing medals he didn’t earn.”
McDonald, the former chairman, president and CEO of the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, was selected by President Barack Obama to replace Eric Shinseki, the retired Army general who resigned in disgrace last May following reports of widespread corruption and malfeasance within the VA.
The White House said Monday evening that the Obama administration accepted McDonald's explanation.
"Secretary McDonald has apologized for the misstatement and noted that he never intended to misrepresent his military service," the White House said in a statement. "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."
UPDATE: Feb. 24, 11 a.m. -- Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he was "disappointed" in McDonald's claim that he served in special forces.
"After a rough couple of weeks that also included inflated claims of accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I hope Sec. McDonald will redouble his efforts to ensure his statements -- and those of all VA officials -- are completely accurate," Miller said in a statement Tuesday. "This is the only way the department can regain the trust of the veterans and taxpayers it is charged with serving.”
Clarification: Language has been added to clarify specific military terms regarding special operations forces and the conclusion of McDonald's service.