The incident, first reported Monday by the Huffington Post, took place last month as the new secretary participated in an overnight count of homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area. The event is an annual survey of the homeless population, with volunteers engaging with individuals living on the streets to learn about their backgrounds and challenges.
"While I was in Los Angeles, engaging a homeless individual to determine his Veteran status, I asked the man where he had served in the military," McDonald said in a statement released to Military Times late Monday night. "He responded that he had served in special forces. I incorrectly stated that I had been in special forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.
"I have great respect for those who have served our nation in special forces."
McDonald took charge of the VA this past summer from retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who resigned amid a scandal involving widespread problems with VA patient care.
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, the Huffington Post reported.
"I have no excuse," McDonald told The Huffington Post. "I was not in special forces."
McDonald's nomination to VA's top post was designed to help restore the department's reputation after months of scandal, and the former Procter & Gamble CEO has pushed for increased transparency and improved interactions with veterans.
The exchange was part of a longer conversation with the homeless veteran, and staffers could not immediately confirm any details of his service. It was captured in a Jan. 30 report appearing on CBS.
A spokesperson for the White House told Military Times on Tuesday morning that President Obama accepted McDonald's explanation, saying "we take him at his word."
"Secretary McDonald has apologized for the misstatement and noted that he never intended to misrepresent his military service," the official said. "We take him at his word and expect that this will not impact the important work he's doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation's veterans."
The apology is the second major correction for McDonald in the last week. In a Feb. 15 appearance on "Meet the Press," he 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.
With Patricia Kime contributing.
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.