VA Secretary ‘Scandal’ ‘Tempest in a Teapot’


shutterstock_224334034I’m clearly on record as being a strong advocate for always telling the truth on one’s résumé, as well as when making any other statements or claims about one’s work history. (See Go Ask Brian: ‘Fudging’ Résumé Risky.) But in my opinion, the latest “scandal” involving VA Secretary Robert McDonald merely rises to the level of a “tempest in a teapot.”

If you happen to be one of the three or four Americans who may not be familiar with the latest “scandal” surrounding the new VA Secretary, here is a brief recap:

While conducting a nationwide count of homeless veterans, McDonald and his staff visited a rundown neighborhood in Los Angeles in January. He asked one of the veterans he encountered there what unit he had served in and the veteran told McDonald he had served in Special Forces. “Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces!” McDonald responded.

McDonald’s statement was later proven to be technically false, and he quickly acknowledged that fact and apologized for his misstatement. His admission of misstating a fact about his service and his subsequent apology, however, were not perceived as quite adequate by either the media or some veteran groups, particularly veteran organizations such as Stolen Valor, which monitors and reports upon false statements and/or claims people make about military service.

To clarify, U.S. Military “Special Forces” are usually considered to consist of the following:

  • U.S. Army Rangers
  • U.S. Army Delta Force
  • U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”)
  • U.S. Navy SEALs
  • U.S. Marine Corps Force Recon


Although McDonald completed the extremely challenging U.S. Army Ranger course and earned the coveted “Ranger Tab,” he never actually served in the U.S. Army Rangers, so his statement about being in Special Forces was indeed technically incorrect. The bulk of McDonald’s U.S. Army service was in the 82nd Airborne Division, certainly not exactly a military unit for the faint of heart by any stretch of the imagination, but admittedly, not officially classified as one of the Special Forces.

Here is the irony in all of this, as far as I’m concerned: Had McDonald said something like, “I qualified to be in Special Forces (by virtue of his having completed the U.S. Army Ranger Course), though I never actually served with them,” the story of this “scandal” would never have seen the light of day.


I believe McDonald did the honorable thing, by quickly and completely taking responsibility for his misstatement of fact and offering a sincere apology to those whom he may have offended or who may have construed his statement as being intentionally misleading. (I don’t believe it was intentional.)

Secretary McDonald certainly has nothing to apologize for when it comes to his service to our country. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975,[1] he served for five years in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer, primarily in the 82nd Airborne Division, before resigning his commission. While a member of the 82nd Airborne, he qualified as a senior parachutist and airborne jumpmaster, no mean accomplishments.

Following his military service, McDonald had a long and successful career at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, retiring as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. He accepted the administration’s nomination last year to serve as VA Secretary, replacing General Eric Shinseki, who resigned amid reports of an organization in apparent chaos and even suspected malfeasance.


I believe—and hope that those of you reading this post also believe!—that our country and the VA desperately need people like Robert McDonald to serve. I mean, after all, at this stage of his life, after a long and very successful career in the private sector, did he really need the potential hassle and microscopic focus that usually comes with public service these days? Yet he accepted the challenge and willingly entered the lion’s den because he had a strong desire to once again serve our country and its military veterans.

Since he has taken the reins of the VA the morale of both VA employees and the veterans they serve has improved significantly and substantively. The VA certainly is not quite perfect yet, but it is improving across a number of important programs and initiatives, as attested by the other half of my editorial team, Michael Garee, a disabled U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and someone who has interacted, and continues to interact, regularly with the VA.

Many veteran groups have already agreed to give Secretary McDonald the benefit of the doubt, accept his sincere apology, and move beyond this issue, in order to address far more important and crucial issues faced by our country and the VA. I believe the rest of us Americans should do no less.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

[1]FULL DISCLOSURE: I graduated from West Point one year later than McDonald, in 1976, although I never had the pleasure of meeting him while there.


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Now he’s in REAL trouble! Snowden sued by the former secretary of the Kansas Dept of Transport


Here’s a new one: Horace Edwards, the former secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation, has filed a lawsuit against Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and others involved with “Citizenfour,” a film about the National Security Agency whistleblower.

The lawsuit seeks to ensure “that ill-gotten gains are disgorged” in an effort to deter “breaches of fiduciary duty, [address] irreparable damage to the safety of the American people and [prevent] dangerous disruption of foreign affairs due to irresponsible conduct of disloyal government operatives and entertainment industry collaborators.”

Edwards defends the suit by saying that it doesn’t infringe on First Amendment rights. Instead, it “seeks relief against those who profiteer by pretending to be journalists and whistleblowers but in effect are evading the law and betraying their country.” (Because revealing unethical, and perhaps illegal, programs is “pretending” to be a journalist.)

TechDirt notes that Edwards’ claim of not censoring anyone is only technically true:

If successful, [Edwards’] lawsuit would have a chilling effect on future reporting pertaining to whistleblowers and/or leaked documents. If he somehow manages to prove that Snowden’s breach of contract makes him and his “benefactors” responsible for money spent by the US government’s damage control, this will deter both future reporting and future whistleblowers from making any information public.

Judging by the vitriol shown in the lawsuit, Edwards would probably be just fine with that result. As the Hollywood Reporter notes in its report on the nigh-unbelievable suit:

Edwards is clearly upset by Snowden’s actions, calling them ‘dishonorable and indefensible and not the acts of a legitimate whistleblower,’ as well as by Hollywood for ‘omit[ting] from the storyline’ perceived acts of foreign espionage, and Poitras for doing things like ‘hiding [Snowden] in her hotel room while he changes into light disguise, accepting all of the purloined information to use for her personal benefit financially and professionally, filming Defendant Snowden’s meeting with a lawyer in Hong Kong as he tries to seek asylum…’

Welcome to America, where the former secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation can file a lawsuit against one of the world’s most wanted men in response to the deep, deep anger he feels about… knowing the government is spying on millions of people around the world. I can’t wait to see how this one turns out.

Spoiler: probably not the way Edwards wants, since he’s seeking “billions of dollars” in damages and “Citizenfour” hasn’t exactly become a Hollywood blockbuster, Snowden hasn’t (to anyone’s knowledge) sold secrets, and even the journalists who privatized the documents he leaked did so with the backing of a capricious, and thrifty, billionaire.