Can We Question Someone’s Service?

We’ve already had a few dust-ups over the claims of service that some veterans running for congress have made. Over 400 have run or are running in this year’s midterms, a significant surge over previous years. It’s bound to come up again.

Most of the issues raised so far have been around the specifics of slogans like “combat proven” or claiming to have “fought in Iraq.” It’s mostly semantics. It does raise a reasonable question though.

Is a candidate’s service record fair game for political fodder?

My answer? Yes…but it’s complicated.

If a vet is going to pursue office, a noble but voluntary endeavor that comes with prestige, privilege and platform, that vet’s time in service is open to scrutiny. I also believe that the degree to which one’s service is central to their campaign platform matters too.

If one is touting oneself to be a war hero, one ought to be a war hero in broadly accepted terms and be willing to field challenges to that distinction.

If one’s opponent is touting themselves as a war hero, one should feel free to challenge that distinction. All the common risks of political strategy apply. Service distinction shouldn’t inherently hold sacred ground.

What gets complicated, though, is what we find when we actually try to apply scrutiny to early 21st century American military service. We’ve been at war with global, non-state actors for nearly twenty years. The result is that the details around one’s service can get a little murky. Fighting ambiguous wars against ambiguous enemies in ambiguous locations leads to ambiguity that opens up holes large enough for political operatives to drive a straight talk express bus through. Those running on their service records should be wary of both political opponents and the campaign advisors pitching them. It’s extremely easy to slide into exaggerations.

Last year, I wrote an article for the Washington Post. It was my first for that platform. The draft byline referred to me as a combat veteran. I asked them to strike the term combat veteran because I wasn’t comfortable with the distinction. I wasn’t comfortable with it because I don’t really know what it means.

The most obvious definition of a combat veteran would be someone who received a combat action ribbon. Even that gets murky though. The criteria for that award is relatively narrow and has limitations on communities and rank. A combat nurse working on combat wounded in a combat zone on a location regularly attacked would not qualify unless their precise location were targeted.

How precise? Somewhat. I think.

It’s possible that the award alone is too narrow a definition of combat veteran for modern warfare.

Like I said, murky.

The result of me erring on the side of understatement was hundreds of comments on the article about my opinion not mattering because I never saw any “action”.

Now, I’m reasonably confident stating that I’m a combat veteran is some level of exaggeration, though I led combat elements on combat missions in combat zones. Part of the point, and what we’re likely to get a heavy dose of in the coming months, is that I don’t know how to accurately describe my service in a way that either is inaccurately over or understated.

For Example:

I conducted the initial air strikes into Afghanistan in October of 2001. My team fired the first shot in the war. This is a true statement.

I was a surface warfare officer on a ship that happened to be in the Arabian Gulf on 9/11. We were first on station off the coast of Pakistan and fired the first Tomahawk into Taliban territory. I was on the bridge of the ship when we launched. My roommate was in the combat information center planning and actually firing the missile. We literally conducted the first air strikes in the war. True.

We then ate bowls of ice cream and watched Joe Dirt on the MWR channel in our state rooms and were asleep before the missiles reached their targets. That last detail probably isn’t making it into a campaign speech but it’s an important descriptor of my experience.

On my second deployment, after transitioning to a special operations community, I didn’t deploy to a combat zone or even one that entitled me to hazardous duty pay. I was nowhere near Iraq or Afghanistan. I received no awards or formal recognition.

That is a true statement.

The following is also true.

My team was the first one on the ground in the area and DOD had not yet classified it a combat area because there was no one there before us. Months after we left it would be.

While there, I was on-scene tactical commander for hundreds of hours of operations “outside the wire”. Though we took no confirmed fire from enemies, we were under regular IED threat. I was in constant danger and risked my life and the lives of my men more times than I can count. I was even emergency med-evac’d out of a remote location after suffering kidney damage do to lack of water.

I separated from the navy two months after returning. No time to process awards.

Still, not combat proven.

On my last deployment to Iraq, after being recalled to active duty, I was awarded the Bronze Star for leading a team that executed over a hundred successful direct action raids against enemy insurgents. I served in Ramadi on a base that was attacked while I was there.

That is a true statement.

The following is also true.

As a Lieutenant Commander, I almost never left the tactical operations center, my duty station, during a single operation. I watched a lot of football on the Armed Forces television network and ate ten thousand Thin Mints.

All true. Still not combat proven.

This level of ambiguity is not unique to my service. My record doesn’t look that different than many others. Now, imagine trying to explain to an excited campaign manager or speech writer, that you ought not say you “fought in Iraq”.

Additionally, try to explain to a woman who, at the time, was not technically allowed to serve in a combat status but was in dozens of convoys through the bomb laden streets of Fallujah, that she didn’t serve in combat because none of the bombs hit her exact vehicle.

The reality is that service in these wars breaks down in a few ways. There were rare, no shit action hero war experiences that have mostly been made into movies or self help , corporate leadership books by now. There were larger groups that served in the earliest three to four years of the wars where there were regular combat operations experienced by the broad population of those that deployed. And then there’s been about a decade of low intensity conflict where troops went away to war zones, were less exposed to conventional combat, but were regularly exposed to things like roadside bombs or sniper attacks for long periods of time and have no idea exactly how to express the experience they had to others.

This ambiguity leads to more than bad campaign slogans. It contributes to the struggle of transitioning out of the military as past service members can’t pinpoint the cause of the emotional trauma the service and ultimate separation caused, since they did not, in fact, “see combat”.

One of the secrets we vets know about being a hero is that the most significant variable that leads to heroism is circumstance; something that has little to do with the hero in question. There is no choice in it. The choice, the one that matters, the one that makes one worthy of representing other Americans in government,  was in the decision to serve. The decision to “go”.

If running for office, applying for a job or simply sitting in a bar stool at your local pub, it’s sufficient to simply say that you went. And that you did what was asked of you for your fellow American.

That message holds up. I hope to see many candidates say it. And then lead in congress with the lessons they truly learned.


9 thoughts on “Can We Question Someone’s Service?

  1. There should be categories:

    -Combat Veterans
    -Combat Fobbits
    -Combat award Fobbits (Bronze star for BS duties and accolades, the worse!)
    -Combat Cappuccino (toughest assignment was choosing how much whip cream to add)
    -Combat pay veterans (Bogus “combat” zones for tax purposes like Qatar, Kuwait,etc)


  2. This frustration isn’t constrained to those who have served on the ground or afloat- Combat Vs on COMs and Air Medals were being handed out a lot after 9/11 for aviators for reasons that seemed (at least to me) varied, and so were bronze stars to squadron COs, even if they didn’t ever fly down range. I was given a COM with V for a mission, and while I know it was a good event, since I didn’t get shot at, to this day I will not wear the V, out of respect for the men and women who flew into the super MEZ over Baghdad, or for that matter, flew downtown Hanoi or Berlin.


  3. As a Vietnam vet (draftee if you need to know) I had a platoon sergeant at Fort Jackson tell me I would never get a Combat Infantryman’s Badge. I, of course, asked him if he knew something I didn’t know.He said simply that I wouldn’t get one.

    I get to my first line company and get asked by the First Sergeant if i wanted to go back and learn company clerk? I didn’t have time to take a breath before the “YES” was out. So I went to the rear to OJT a clerk slot. Fast forward the or four months and the XO slot changed and I b elieve the new XO may have tried to line his pockets from the company funds. I wasn’t beholding to him so he sent me to the field where I stayed the rest of my tour.

    Change of companies to the 1st Air Cavalry (Airmobile) and the clerks there said, “Hey, you don’t have a CIB!” I thought for a moment and said, “Don’t put me in for it.” You never worry about the bullet with your name on it, you worry about the bullet marked “to whom it may concern.”

    So I have a combat tour (and a Bronze Star), but no Purple Heart, nor a CIB. Yet I do consider myself a “combat veteran.”


  4. I have to wonder how many thousands of soldiers (including me) have stories, situations and feelings like this. My first Iraq deployment (06-07) included time in convoys (IEDs hit other trucks, but missed mine) and the ever-changing rules for CABs indicated I was occasionally eligible, occasionally not. I flew in a variety of helicopters (never under fire, as far as I know) and a couple of times in Sherpas, at least once when we came under attack from ground fire. Maybe.

    For me, none of that counted as combat, and I declined to follow up on any situations where I might be awarded a CAB. I wouldn’t have been able to look myself in the eye if I had. But others felt that since the rules authorized it, they wanted it. One notable person was observed to be “chasing a medal” by the battalion commander. He never received a CAB while we were deployed but somehow wound up with one after the fact. To each his own, I suppose, and he has to live with that decision.

    So “combat proven” is in the eye the beholder to some extent. I don’t consider myself in that category, but others who had even less eventful deployments feel that they were. A decade later, I still wonder about it. Maybe it’s just another ambiguity in what might be the most ambiguous war in American military history.


  5. Thanks for this. I have the same thoughts. I was in Iraq 03-04, have a CAB and the unit I commanded got a Combat Action Streamer. But I never discharged my weapon. I’d not hesitate to say anyone else with my story was “combat proven” but feel….like a faker…when described that way or asked about it. Glad to know others struggle with it.


  6. Total BS. There’s no WAY you ate 10,000 Thin Mints.


    On a serious note…thanks for articulating this issue so well, as always, and for giving us a good bottom line to remember.


  7. Sean, What you have articulated well here is the kind of ambiguity that experts in an area face. When you understand the technical details, you tend to give technically precise answers. For every one of us that’s how we demonstrate our expertise, no matter what our profession. In working with my clients, whether private sector or candidates for public office, I try to help them focus on fewer “A student” answers and more “C student” answers because of the scope of knowledge one faces in the electorate, and because of the value of simple answers in campaign communications. What I wish you would also address is how can we help the electorate respect all kinds of experience.

    For example, my husband and I have a friend who was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam era. He has struggled to get the VA Care that he needs as a consequence of his service because, just as you described above, he was in an area before it was determined to be a combat zone. It has taken a long hard fight to get him the care he was promised and deserves. This is both an issue for the individual, but also an issue for our government to resolve, which makes this a political issue as well.

    I read every post you write. Keep writing.


  8. As a veteran of two deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2005, you nailed the exact thing that I’ve been struggling with ever since – the ambiguity of how to describe my experience. Thank you for saying it so clearly.


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