WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald apologized anew Tuesday for erroneously claiming he served in the military’s special forces, and veterans groups and lawmakers appeared ready to accept his expression of regret.
At a news conference outside VA offices, McDonald told reporters he made the misstatement in a conversation with a homeless veteran he was trying “to connect with” during an impromptu meeting on a Los Angeles street last month.
“I made a mistake. I apologize for it. I have no excuse,” he said.
McDonald, 61, said integrity has been “one of the foundations of my character,” from his Boy Scout days to his military service, business career and seven-month tenure as VA secretary.
“Integrity and character is part of who I am,” he said, adding that he owes it to veterans to own up to his mistake and continue his service on their behalf.
Lawmakers and veterans groups have said they are disappointed at McDonald’s comment, but his misstep has not led to public calls for his resignation so far.
“A lie is a lie,” said Michael Helm, national commander of the American Legion, the largest veterans service organization. “I can’t believe people do this.”
Helm said McDonald’s comment was especially disappointing because he leads a department that is trying to restore trust following a nationwide scandal over long wait times at VA health centers and falsified records covering up delays.
“The secretary has apologized, as he certainly should,” Helm said Tuesday in a statement. “We hope that he can restore the trust that he lost.”
Two other veterans groups, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also said they accepted McDonald’s apology. McDonald also apologized Monday in a written statement issued by the VA.
McDonald served five years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and qualified as an Army Ranger, but did not serve in a Ranger regiment. He was never part of the special forces — elite units that are trained to perform unconventional missions including covert operations, hostage rescue and other high-risk actions.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said McDonald’s comment exacerbates a “rough couple of weeks” for the VA, which also included what Miller called “inflated claims” about firings at the VA since McDonald took office.
“I hope Secretary McDonald will redouble his efforts to ensure his statements — and those of all VA officials — are completely accurate,” Miller said Tuesday. “This is the only way the department can regain the trust of the veterans and taxpayers it is charged with serving.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that McDonald “is somebody who understands firsthand the sacrifice our men and women in uniform make on a regular basis,” adding that McDonald also understands that “what he said about his service was wrong and that it was appropriate for him to apologize.”
Still, Earnest said “there’s no reason to think that the mistake he made should interfere with his ability to continue to lead the fight for our veterans.”
President Barack Obama chose the former Procter & Gamble CEO to take over the scandal- plagued VA last year, and McDonald took office last July. The questions about McDonald’s service come as TV newsmen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly have had their claims about covering foreign wars called into question.
McDonald won qualified support Tuesday from a Republican lawmaker who sparred with the VA secretary at a hearing this month.
“The secretary’s misstatement was an error, but it doesn’t dim the fact that he served honorably,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. “We should all take him at his word and Washington shouldn’t spend the next two weeks arguing about it.”
The controversy “shouldn’t shift one iota of focus away” from the “long overdue task’ of reforming the scandal-plagued VA, Coffman said.
Coffman and McDonald tussled at a recent congressional hearing over construction delays and cost increases at a troubled Denver VA hospital. After a few minutes of arguing, McDonald snapped at the four-term lawmaker: “I’ve run a large company, sir. What have you done?”
Coffman, an Army veteran, served in both Iraq wars. He did not respond at the Feb. 11 hearing, but noted later that, unlike McDonald, “I have never run a federal agency that tolerates corruption the way the VA has.”
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