The secretary of Veterans Affairs faced the press outside of the department moments ago to apologize for claiming to have served in the Special Forces.
Robert McDonald, who took over the troubled department in July, was touring VA facilities in Los Angeles last month when he stopped to speak to a homeless veteran. The man told McDonald that he had served in Special Forces.
“Special Forces? What years?” McDonald responded. “I was in Special Forces.” The exchange was captured by a CBS News crew and his claim was called out yesterday by the Huffington Post.
McDonald, who retired from Proctor & Gamble before being selected by Obama, is a graduate of West Point and served as a captain in the Army for five years, with most of his time in the 82nd Airborne.
His message today? “I have no excuse.”
“We at VA are working hard to restore trust and again I apologize for those who may have been offended by my misstatement,” McDonald said.
“My biggest motivation was to connect with the veteran,” he said when asked why he would make that statement, reminding reporters that at his first national press conference he gave out his cell phone number for veterans to call. “My whole purpose in this job is to try to connect with veterans and better serve veterans.”
“I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he added. “…I was talking to a homeless veteran … what I said was not on my mind at the time.”
Asked what he’d say to offended Special Forces veterans, the secretary replied, “I apologize to them.”
“What you do when you connect with veterans is try to find common ground,” he said, adding that no one would find him claiming to be Special Forces in any of his corporate or government bios. “Integrity has been one of the foundations of my character.”
Asked if he thinks he should step down: “I want to serve veterans.”
In a statement before the press conference, the American Legion called out McDonald on the lie.
“In an effort to bond with a homeless veteran, Secretary McDonald told him he was in the Special Forces,” National Commander Michael D. Helm said. “He did complete Ranger training and served honorably with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. But a lie is a lie.”
“I can’t believe people do this,” Helm continued. “What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose number one issue right now is the restoration of trust. He should be held to a higher standard. The secretary has apologized, as he certainly should. We hope that he can restore the trust that he lost.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest called McDonald “somebody who understands firsthand about why what he said about his service was wrong and that certainly is why it was appropriate for him to apologize.”
“But there is no reason to think that the mistake that he made should interfere with his ability to continue to lead the fight for our veterans and to continue to implement the kinds of reforms at the VA that are still critical to making sure that our veterans are getting the benefits that they deserve,” Earnest said.