Key lawmaker, vets group leader disappointed in VA secretary

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A key committee chairman and the head of the American Legion expressed disappointment Tuesday with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who erroneously claimed he served in the military's special forces.

McDonald, who served in the Army, qualified as an Army Ranger, but did not serve in the special forces — elite units that are trained to perform unconventional missions including covert operations, hostage rescue and other high-risk actions. McDonald apologized Monday after making the claim while speaking to a homeless veteran last month.

"A lie is a lie," said Michael Helm, national commander of the American Legion, the largest veterans service organization. "I can't believe people do this."

McDonald's comment was especially disappointing because he leads a department that is trying to restore trust following a nationwide scandal over long wait times at VA health centers and falsified records covering up delays, Helm said.

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

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said McDonald's comments exacerbate a "rough couple of weeks" for the VA, which also included what Miller called "inflated claims" about firings at the VA since McDonald took office.

"I hope Secretary McDonald will redouble his efforts to ensure his statements - and those of all VA officials - are completely accurate," Miller said Tuesday. "This is the only way the department can regain the trust of the veterans and taxpayers it is charged with serving."

In a statement released Monday by the VA, McDonald said he "incorrectly stated that I had been in special forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement."

McDonald said he remains committed "to the ongoing effort to reform VA."

The White House issued a statement late Monday saying, "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."

President Barack Obama chose the former Procter & Gamble CEO to take over the scandal-plagued VA last year, and McDonald took office last July. The questions about McDonald's service come as TV newsmen Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly have had their claims about covering foreign wars called into question.

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