The American Legion on Tuesday called out Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald for lying about having served in the Army Special Forces, the toughest criticism yet of what McDonald called an "inaccurate" statement.
"I am greatly concerned that he would lie about his service, regardless of the circumstance," Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm told organization members gathered in Washington, DC, for an annual conference. "A lie is a lie."
McDonald admitted on Monday to telling a homeless man in Los Angeles, who claimed to be a Special Forces veteran, that he had also served in Special Forces. McDonald's exchange with the man was recorded by a CBS news team that accompanied the secretary on the homeless outreach.
McDonald, a West Point graduate, served in the 82nd Airborne Division during his time in the Army. He completed Ranger school and earned a Ranger tab, but he was not assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment.
In a statement Monday, McDonald apologized for the misrepresentation, saying he made the remark in an effort to bond with the man.
"While I was in Los Angeles, engaging a homeless individual to determine his veteran status, I asked the man where he had served in the military. He responded that he had served in Special Forces. I incorrectly stated that I had been in Special Forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement."
The White House issued a statement saying President Obama had accepted McDonald's apology and hoped the VA could move forward from it.
"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," according to the White House statement.
Helms said that McDonald must work to "restore the trust that he lost."
"I can't believe people do this," Helms said. "What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose number one issue right now is the restoration of trust ... The secretary has apologized, as he certainly should."
McDonald spent Monday morning reaching out to veterans groups to apologize for his mistake. He called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to personally apologize and plans to meet later today with members of The American Legion.
Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer of IAVA, said the organization accepts McDonald apology.
The VA secretary "clearly made a mistake," Rieckhoff said in a statement. "All of America witnessed [McDonald's] deep dedication to our community in his first few months on the job. IAVA is committed to helping him succeed in this extremely tough job and to focusing on the most urgent challenges facing us like reforming VA, battling suicide and ending homelessness."
Peter Hegseth, chief executive officer of Concerned Veterans for America, suggested that McDonald's false claim is reflective of the VA's problem with providing lawmakers with accurate information. He cited McDonald's claim to NBC's "Meet the Press" that the VA fired 60 people in connection with the wait-times scandal. The number is actually 10, according to documents acquired by Military.com, while others were terminated, allowed to resign or retire, demoted, or given letters of admonishment.
"While it is a good thing that Secretary McDonald immediately and unequivocally apologized for misrepresenting his military service, [he] still has a long way to go before he and the organization he leads can truly be trusted yet again by the American people and the veterans they are tasked to serve," Hegseth said.
The national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States said the organization accepted McDonald's apology.
On Capitol Hill, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, said he was disappointed with McDonald's claim.
Miller has frequently criticized the VA for years of overstated and misleading claims related to patient wait-times, construction project delays, and overall efficiency at its medical facilities.
"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. "This is the only way the department can regain the trust of the veterans and taxpayers it is charged with serving."
McDonald was appointed VA secretary after Eric Shinseki resigned the post amid the wait-time scandal that broke out of the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, but quickly was found to be systemic across the department.
Dozens of veterans awaiting appointments or saw their care delayed by the manipulation of wait times died. VA officials say the delays in care contributed to the deaths.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, came to McDonald's defense saying the VA secretary made an "error" and he "served honorably." The Congressman said he was more concerned this would distract from bigger issues at the VA.
"We should all take him at his word and Washington shouldn't spend the next two weeks arguing about it. The Secretary has a job to do – clean up the scandal-plagued VA. This latest controversy shouldn't shift one iota of focus away from that long overdue task," Coffman said in a statement.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org