Really? The secretary of Veterans Affairs? Surely there is no one who should better understand how offensive it is to lie about one's military service than the secretary of Veterans Affairs. Yet that's exactly what Robert McDonald did the night he participated in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count in January. While chatting with a homeless man on skid row who said he had served in the elite special forces, McDonald responded, "Special forces? What years? I was in special forces."
In fact, McDonald, who graduated from West Point and did serve in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was never a member of special forces. This week, he apologized, telling the Huffington Post, which first reported his false claim, that he "reacted spontaneously." The White House described his claim as a "misstatement" and said McDonald "never intended to misrepresent his military service."
Of course it's hard to know for sure what a person "intended," but the fact remains that McDonald did — clearly and unequivocally — misrepresent his military service. You might even say he lied about it.
NBC News anchor Brian Williams got in trouble this month for his false claim that he had been on a military helicopter shot down in Iraq. He was taken to task because, after all, what does a newsman have if not his credibility? McDonald, too, has a standard to live up to: He is a public servant, a member of the president's Cabinet, the liaison of the U.S. government to those former members of the armed services who fought for their country. As a national leader, he has a responsibility to stick to the truth.
In his defense, McDonald didn't go as far as some others have. He didn't repeat the untruth over and over or peddle it on his resume. He didn't wear a medal or decoration he didn't earn — an act so offensive that Congress passed a law against it in 2013 (only to see it struck down by the Supreme Court on free speech grounds). One veterans group has already given McDonald the benefit of the doubt, noting that the misstatement occurred while McDonald was "directly engaging one of many homeless veterans in the West Los Angeles area."
We're also in favor of engagement between the VA and homeless veterans. The secretary has his work cut out for him to earn back the trust of veterans frustrated by his department's recent scandal over months-long wait times for care and its bad record of caring for veterans. But it doesn't seem too much to ask that when directly engaging with veterans, he does so honestly.