No one disputes that Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, served with the National Guard in a combat zone.

So the recent round of questions about whether she counts as a "combat veteran" has made more than a few former service members uncomfortable and upset.

But they aren't necessarily surprised.

"This kind of stuff has been going on for generations," said Phil Carter, director of veterans programs at the Center for a New American Security. "We've seen conversations about peacetime service as opposed to wartime service. We've seen veterans from different wars trade stories about who had it tougher.

"But so few people have an appreciation for what military service is that these arguments start to take on a controversial quality about what 'counts' as service."

Earlier this month, the Huffington Post questioned Ernst's characterization of herself as a "combat veteran," noting she had not been involved in a firefight during her 14-month Middle East deployment.

The Iowa Guard lieutenant colonel commanded the 1168th Transportation Company during the 2003-04 deployment, overseeing transportation runs in Kuwait and southern Iraq and running a protection detail in Kuwait.

She touted her "combat veteran" status in numerous campaign stops during the mid-term elections last year, and noted in response to the recent criticism that both Veterans Affairs and Defense Department guidelines classify her as one.

Fellow Senate Armed Services Committee colleague Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — himself a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war — called Ernst a combat veteran "by any definition."

"Malicious claims to the contrary denigrate not only her service, but that of countless current and former service members who served honorably in a range of roles in our military," he said in a statement.

Carter echoed that sentiment, noting that honoring only certain kinds of military service — in this case, battlefield fighting — risks alienating other troops who have served honorably.

"There's always someone harder than you," he said. "There's always someone who has seen more combat, or had tougher tours. But that doesn't erase someone's war record."

Since the Ernst piece was published and picked up by other news outlets, most veterans' groups have declined comment on the criticisms, other than to offer official statements saying it's clear the senator served honorably in a designated combat zone.

Mark Seavey, new media manager at the American Legion and an an expert in stolen valor cases, said he worries that criticisms like those leveled at Ernst confuse actual cases in which troops or imposters claim military honors they never earned. Ernst has not claimed any medals or campaign awards beyond her record.

"You don't want to see real crimes get watered down because of some people's semantics about service," Seavey said.

He also sees the continued buzz over the issue as underscoring the lack of understanding by many civilians about what the recent wars were really like.

"I can't think of a place, the entire time when I was in Afghanistan, where I thought, 'Wow, I feel really safe here,' " he said. "Everyone who has served over there was in a dangerous area.

"A minuscule number of individuals ... were involved in firefights. But it's still a combat zone."

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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