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  • VA Secretary ‘Scandal’ ‘Tempest in a Teapot’

    shutterstock_224334034I’m clearly on record as being a strong advocate for always telling the truth on one’s résumé, as well as when making any other statements or claims about one’s work history. (See Go Ask Brian: ‘Fudging’ Résumé Risky.) But in my opinion, the latest “scandal” involving VA Secretary Robert McDonald merely rises to the level of a “tempest in a teapot.”

    If you happen to be one of the three or four Americans who may not be familiar with the latest “scandal” surrounding the new VA Secretary, here is a brief recap:

    While conducting a nationwide count of homeless veterans, McDonald and his staff visited a rundown neighborhood in Los Angeles in January. He asked one of the veterans he encountered there what unit he had served in and the veteran told McDonald he had served in Special Forces. “Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces!” McDonald responded.

    McDonald’s statement was later proven to be technically false, and he quickly acknowledged that fact and apologized for his misstatement. His admission of misstating a fact about his service and his subsequent apology, however, were not perceived as quite adequate by either the media or some veteran groups, particularly veteran organizations such as Stolen Valor, which monitors and reports upon false statements and/or claims people make about military service.

    To clarify, U.S. Military “Special Forces” are usually considered to consist of the following:

    • U.S. Army Rangers
    • U.S. Army Delta Force
    • U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”)
    • U.S. Navy SEALs
    • U.S. Marine Corps Force Recon


    Although McDonald completed the extremely challenging U.S. Army Ranger course and earned the coveted “Ranger Tab,” he never actually served in the U.S. Army Rangers, so his statement about being in Special Forces was indeed technically incorrect. The bulk of McDonald’s U.S. Army service was in the 82nd Airborne Division, certainly not exactly a military unit for the faint of heart by any stretch of the imagination, but admittedly, not officially classified as one of the Special Forces.

    Here is the irony in all of this, as far as I’m concerned: Had McDonald said something like, “I qualified to be in Special Forces (by virtue of his having completed the U.S. Army Ranger Course), though I never actually served with them,” the story of this “scandal” would never have seen the light of day.


    I believe McDonald did the honorable thing, by quickly and completely taking responsibility for his misstatement of fact and offering a sincere apology to those whom he may have offended or who may have construed his statement as being intentionally misleading. (I don’t believe it was intentional.)

    Secretary McDonald certainly has nothing to apologize for when it comes to his service to our country. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975,[1] he served for five years in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer, primarily in the 82nd Airborne Division, before resigning his commission. While a member of the 82nd Airborne, he qualified as a senior parachutist and airborne jumpmaster, no mean accomplishments.

    Following his military service, McDonald had a long and successful career at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, retiring as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. He accepted the administration’s nomination last year to serve as VA Secretary, replacing General Eric Shinseki, who resigned amid reports of an organization in apparent chaos and even suspected malfeasance.


    I believe—and hope that those of you reading this post also believe!—that our country and the VA desperately need people like Robert McDonald to serve. I mean, after all, at this stage of his life, after a long and very successful career in the private sector, did he really need the potential hassle and microscopic focus that usually comes with public service these days? Yet he accepted the challenge and willingly entered the lion’s den because he had a strong desire to once again serve our country and its military veterans.

    Since he has taken the reins of the VA the morale of both VA employees and the veterans they serve has improved significantly and substantively. The VA certainly is not quite perfect yet, but it is improving across a number of important programs and initiatives, as attested by the other half of my editorial team, Michael Garee, a disabled U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and someone who has interacted, and continues to interact, regularly with the VA.

    Many veteran groups have already agreed to give Secretary McDonald the benefit of the doubt, accept his sincere apology, and move beyond this issue, in order to address far more important and crucial issues faced by our country and the VA. I believe the rest of us Americans should do no less.

    What are your thoughts on this issue?

    [1]FULL DISCLOSURE: I graduated from West Point one year later than McDonald, in 1976, although I never had the pleasure of meeting him while there.


    Check out Career Stalled?, Skip’s latest job-hunting book in the “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets Series of Career Development & Management publications featured on Amazon.com.

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    Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.

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