Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald continued in damage-control mode on Thursday, meeting with reporters and The American Legion officials in back-to-back meetings to apologize for falsely claiming Special Forces experience during a conversation with a homeless man in Los Angeles.
In an outdoor press conference at VA headquarters near the White House, the former soldier said he hasn't considered resigning over the misrepresentation.
"I want to serve veterans. I'm here to try and prove we can make VA work and the veterans we serve can get all the benefits they've earned," he said.
McDonald, a West Point graduate who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, said he claimed the Special Forces experience spontaneously in an attempt to "connect" with a homeless man who said he had been part of the elite force. While he did earn a Ranger tab, he never served in a Ranger battalion or any other special operations unit, according to The Huffington Post, which first reported the claim.
"That was wrong and I have no excuse," the secretary said of the incident. "I have great respect for those who have served our nation in Special Forces."
During both events, the 61-year-old former chief executive officer of the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble said any investigation into his military career would find no claim that he was a Special Forces soldier.
McDonald said he has been calling veterans groups and Special Forces associations to apologize. His conversation with the unnamed homeless man was captured by a CBS news crew that accompanied him on the Los Angeles homeless outreach program last month. He said no one with his VA entourage pointed out that he had misstated his background.
While veterans groups have criticized McDonald for making the statement, none has called for his resignation.
McDonald got one of his best ovations during a late afternoon meeting with The American Legion at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, where the organization is holding a conference as part of its annual presentation to Congress. After again saying he made a mistake, a Legionnaire in the audience said everyone makes mistakes. The remark was followed by sustained applause from the several hundred Legion members present.
During a brief question and answer session, a number of veterans raised concerns about the disability claims backlog, difficulty getting assistance from a VA health care provider and the VA medical center in Colorado that's behind schedule in construction and millions of dollars over budget.
Only one veteran asked about McDonald's Special Forces claim.
McDonald replied, "I'm here for only one reason, and that is to care for you. I'm not going for election or anything like that. I was retired, living very comfortably, but this mission inspired me." He participated in the homeless outreach program, he said, with the thought that "I might pick up that tarp and see my [one-time] radio-telephone operator, or someone who saved my life by checking my parachute before getting on the plane."
Legion National Commander Michael Helm told McDonald in the closing minutes of the meeting at the Hilton that he believes the secretary has made a good start at fixing the agency's problems.
Helm told Military.com afterwards that he believes McDonald will ride out the current controversy, but that he does need to continue apologizing to veterans groups and work hard to rebuild his credibility and trust.
"The biggest challenge [he will face] is actually health care," including cases for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD and traumatic brain injury, or TBI, he said. "The biggest problem he's got is with the claims," he added. "Those are the problems he's got to address and address hard. And we're not quite there yet."
Helms wouldn't say if he was ready to go to lawmakers in Congress on Wednesday and say he fully endorses McDonald. "I think the secretary is doing a credible job ... but this [controversy] certainly makes a challenge for him," he said.
Earlier in the day, Helm had blasted McDonald's Special Forces claim. While the secretary had simply said it was incorrect and "not accurate," Helm said, "A lie is a lie."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com