The NY Times has challenged CT Attorney General and candidate for US Senate Dick Blumenthal's representation of his military service during the Vietnam War era. He is not, in fact, a Vietnam veteran, having never deployed to southeast Asia but rather serving as a reservist in Washington D.C.
"what is striking about Mr. Blumenthal’s record is the contrast between the many steps he took that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, and the misleading way he often speaks about that period of his life now, especially when he is speaking at veterans’ ceremonies or other patriotic events...the idea that he served in Vietnam has become such an accepted part of his public biography that when a national outlet, Slate magazine, produced a profile of Mr. Blumenthal in 2000, it said he had “enlisted in the Marines rather than duck the Vietnam draft." It does not appear that Mr. Blumenthal ever sought to correct those mistakes."
As distasteful and damaging as these revelations appear, Blumenthal is hardly the first American politician to misrepresent his record of military service during wartime. I wonder, however, whether future politicians in uniform today will fall as readily into the same seductive trap as some have done from Blumenthal's era?
For one thing, service in the National Guard or Reserves is hardly the means today to avoid a tour (or more) in Afghanistan or Iraq. In an all volunteer army and a war that has lasted for close to a decade, the chances that a service member will not deploy to a conflict area would appear to be long odds. When guarding military facilities against the tactics of terror, even the coast guard reserves are deployed in the Persian Gulf. In these conflicts, those military personnel who are technically not combat troops are often under fire and may well become engaged in combat.
What will it mean when a future politician claims to have been a service member during the War on Terror Era? Does that necessarily imply that only those based in Iraq and Afghanistan will be considered war veterans, and what percentage of personnel are likely to have served at least one deployment in or near the main arena of conflict? If you spent your tour guarding enemy combatants detained in Gitmo, does that count? Or guarding our cities, airports, and public facilities against domestic terror attacks? Where will we set the bar? Does it have to be an Orange Alert or greater?
Combat veterans and those whose units are recognized as having served in a war zone are quite rightly considered war veterans, though their experiences and actions may differ greatly. Yet I suspect that the rub will come not in the eyes of the public (excepting, of course, flagrant misrepresentations of actual service) but rather in the bureaucracy of the VA as it sorts out veterans benefits claims from millions of service men and women. It would be tragic if it all boiled down to what class of veteran is recognized as capable of developing PTSD.
What Blumenthal appears to have done says as much about the context of the times in which he served as the content of his character. In an era when many Americans consider every person in uniform a hero, regardless of where and how they serve, it may be that when Blumenthal's son, a newly minted Marine Corps officer, considers a career in politics, the need to represent one's service record as a war veteran will seem less important than the fact of his service. Or perhaps old habits die hard, and there will always be the temptation for some soldiers turned politicians to make their record appear to be more than it was.