Veterans groups were divided in their reaction to Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald's false claims of serving in the Special Forces, the latest in a series of headaches for the Cabinet official selected to bring more honesty and trust to the scandal-plagued department.

On Monday, McDonald was forced to publicly apologize for the claim, which came during a conversation with a homeless veteran during a survey event in Los Angeles in January. The comments were caught by a CBS camera crew and exposed as a lie by the Huffington Post this week.

"I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement," McDonald said in statement. "I have great respect for those who have served our nation in Special Forces. They, and all veterans, deserve a Department of Veterans Affairs that provides them the care and benefits they have earned."

Leaders at the Veterans of Foreign Wars quickly dismissed the burgeoning scandal, noting that McDonald was "trying to make a connection" with the homeless vet and is Special Forces-qualified.

A 1975 West Point graduate, McDonald spent five years in the Army assigned primarily to the 82nd Airborne Division. He graduated jump school and Army Ranger training before leaving the service in 1980 at the rank of captain.

But he never served in a Ranger unit or as part of any U.S. commando force, and false claims of "Special Forces" service routinely rile veterans groups that see the résumé lies as a form of stolen valor.

During the American Legion's Washington conference on Tuesday, group national commander Michael Helm said he was shocked that an official as senior as McDonald could be that careless with such a claim.

"A lie is a lie," he said. "What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose number one issue right now is the restoration of trust. He should be held to a higher standard."

Latest problems

House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., a frequent critic of VA leaders but a supporter of McDonald in recent weeks, noted the secretary has faced "a rough couple of weeks" and said he needs to "redouble his efforts to ensure his statements — and those of all VA officials — are completely accurate."

The incident is the third public misstep for the VA secretary in less than three weeks, after months of relative quiet since he took over the job last August.

During a Feb. 15 appearance on "Meet the Press," McDonald claimed that 60 department workers had been fired in recent months for problems related to the VA's wait time scandal, but later backtracked to say only eight had lost their jobs.

Lawmakers and veterans groups criticized that mistake as carelessness at best, and possibly intentional misleading about the strength of VA accountability efforts — a frequent topic of criticism since more than 100 department facilities were found to be manipulating patient wait time data last year.

Just a few days before that "Meet the Press" mistake, McDonald sparred with Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., during a public hearing on the VA budget.

At one point, the visibly frustrated secretary said Coffman shouldered more blame for VA construction problems in his state and ended their exchange with "I've run a large company, sir. What have you done?"

Coffman, who served in both Iraq wars and as Colorado's secretary of state before being elected to Congress, defended McDonald on Tuesday on the Special Forces claims.

"The secretary's misstatement was an error, but it doesn't dim the fact that he served honorably," the congressman said in a statement. "We should all take him at his word and Washington shouldn't spend the next two weeks arguing about it.

"The secretary has a job to do — clean up the scandal-plagued VA. This latest controversy shouldn't shift one iota of focus away from that long overdue task."

Lasting effect

McDonald's Special Forces claims come on the heels of high-profile military exaggerations by NBC News anchor Brian Williams about his time in Iraq and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly about his proximity to fighting in Argentina during the Falklands War.

Military analyst Michael Lyons said that there's no question McDonald's comment about Special Forces service was wrong, but it shouldn't be taken out of context of the video.

"Before we get the pitchforks out, and try to say it's the same as Brian Williams saying he almost got shot — it's not even close," he said.

"It was a miscommunication, but in fact at West Point this would be considered a 'pop-off answer,'" Lyons, an Army vet who provides analysis on national security and military tactics for CBS News Radio, told Military Times. "In the moment, it was an attempt at empathetic leadership" misconstrued by social media, he said.

But it shouldn't sideline all the work McDonald has done thus far within the VA.

"The veterans administration hasn't had someone like him in a long time," Lyons said. The generational divide within the VA has been bridged by McDonald's willingness to reach out and work with service members to "tremendously manage generational fault lines."

McDonald has earned high marks from most veterans groups in recent months for his efforts to reform the department, and for his outreach to both VA employees and lawmakers.

But members of Congress have also made it clear to McDonald in recent months that public trust with the department was significantly damaged by last year's scandals, which forced the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Helm said he hopes this latest gaffe not only reopens those wounds, but calls into question McDonald's work going ahead.

"The secretary has apologized, as he certainly should," he said. "We hope that he can restore the trust that he lost."

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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