Of all the agencies in the executive branch that could have courted controversy this week, the Department of Veteran Affairs is the one that can least afford it. Already mired in scandal over its treatment of ill veterans, the VA now has to endure another black mark coming straight from the top. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert McDonald is now apologizing for falsely claiming that he served in Special Forces.
There are few things that get under a veteran’s skin like stolen valor. One could argue that Brian Williams would still be manning the NBC news desk if his lie had been of a civilian nature. But because he attempted to make it look as though he were an unsung war hero, the curtains came down in a hurry. Those who served in the military, their families, and Americans who know the sacrifice these men and women make for the security of this country won’t tolerate that kind of lie.
McDonald’s lie touches the same nerve. In some ways, it’s worse. As the head of the VA, he should be more cautious than most about exaggerating his service record. Claiming membership to one of the military’s Special Forces groups is one of the most common forms of stolen valor. And it is an unnecessary lie. One should be proud to have served at all. McDonald’s (real) resume speaks for itself, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. As a member of the 82nd Airborne – and, hell, as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs – he has no reason to exaggerate his career.
Unlike Williams’ oft-repeated, detailed story, McDonald’s was a casual lie. He doesn’t have a website filled with pictures of him wearing the SEAL trident or a uniform decorated with medals he didn’t win. He simply had a conversation with a homeless man that happened to be caught on camera by CBS News. When the man told McDonald that he had served on a Special Forces team, the VA Secretary said, “Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces!”
McDonald has issued an apology for the fib: “I have no excuse,” he told the Huffington Post. “I was not in special forces…I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”
In all likelihood, that will bring a quick end to the controversy. McDonald did, after all, graduate from Army Ranger training. That alone doesn’t mean he can go around claiming that he was in Special Forces, but it does go some way towards mitigating an off-the-cuff remark. In the meantime, it once again highlights the importance of not overstating one’s service. Whether you’re claiming to have braved conditions that never happened, served in units you never joined, or reported from areas you never laid eyes on, it’s best to stick to the truth.