Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald was heard, in an exchange with a homeless vet, saying that he had been in a special forces unit, which he now admits is untrue. McDonald did however serve in the military: he is a West Point grad and was in the 82nd Airborne division.
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Today the head of the VA apologized for claiming he'd been in the military's special forces when he hadn't. Bob McDonald made the claim while speaking with a homeless man. A news crew was taping the conversation. The secretary, so far, has the support of the White House and many veterans groups. But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, the gaff may hurt the VA's effort to regain credibility after a string of scandals.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Bob McDonald has been talking transparency at the VA, and he has courted press coverage. CBS news was filming him last month in Los Angeles when McDonald spoke with a homeless man who said he was a veteran.
(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)
BOB MCDONALD: Really? Army, Navy, Air Force?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Army.
MCDONALD: Army? What unit?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Special forces.
MCDONALD: Special forces - what years? I was in special forces.
LAWRENCE: McDonald served in the army, but he was never in any special operations unit. This afternoon, McDonald apologized in a news conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
MCDONALD: What I was trying to do is find a way to connect with that veteran, and as I said, I made a misstatement. I apologize for that. I have no excuse for it, but if you look at my 61 years of biography, you'll never find anywhere in any of my biographies that I have claimed to be part of special forces. It was a misstatement. It was a mistake.
LAWRENCE: McDonald has enjoyed broad support in Congress, but he was recently called out for exaggerating the number of staff the VA has fired for their roles in recent scandals. American Legion Commander Michael D. Helm says he likes McDonald but holds him to a high standard.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHAEL D. HELM: In an effort to bond with a homeless veteran, Secretary McDonald told him he was in the special forces. I can't believe people do this. What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose number one issue right now is the restoration of trust.
LAWRENCE: Even some of McDonald's critics in Congress have said the gaff should not distract from the real work of reforming the VA which will take years. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.