Blumenthal defends service record

Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal stands with veterans as he addresses a report that he has misstated his military service during the Vietnam War at a news conference held in West Hartford  on Tuesday.
Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal stands with veterans as he addresses a report that he has misstated his military service during the Vietnam War at a news conference held in West Hartford on Tuesday.

Hartford - Attorney General Richard Blumenthal Tuesday acknowledged having "misplaced words" in 2008 when describing his service during the Vietnam War, but he forcefully denied that he had intentionally misled voters into thinking he saw combat in Southeast Asia.

Blumenthal, who served six years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve during the Vietnam War, responded to a report first published Monday by The New York Times that on at least two occasions he had misstated his combat record in appearances before veterans groups.

The report had enlivened Blumenthal's Republican and Democratic opponents for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Chris Dodd, and for nearly 24 hours it had shaken a campaign that has been the front-runner in all public polling on the race.

Appearing Tuesday at the Hannon-Hatch VFW post in West Hartford, with at least 20 veterans gathered behind him on the podium, Blumenthal acknowledged past misstatements of his record.

"Now, on a few occasions I have misspoken about my service, and I regret that, and I take full responsibility," Blumenthal said. "But I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country."

He described the gaffe as "absolutely unintentional, a few misplaced words, 'in' instead of 'during', totally unintentional."

The attorney general also flatly denied the Times' suggestion that he had received draft deferments that would have been hard for others to obtain before eventually enlisting in the reserves. There were "no special favors, no privileges involved," he said.

The Times report centered on a tape of Blumenthal speaking at an event honoring veterans in Norwalk in 2008 in which he referred to "the days that I served in Vietnam" - an impossibility because the attorney general never served overseas.

Blumenthal over the years has frequently invoked his service in the reserves during the Vietnam era when appearing at ceremonies honoring troops or urging better support for veterans at home.

But he has usually specified that his service was in the Marine Corps Reserve or, as in a primary debate with Democratic challenger Merrick Alpert in March, said explicitly that he did not go to Vietnam.

"Although I did not serve in Vietnam, I have seen first-hand the effects of military action," Blumenthal said that night.

A search of The Day's electronic archives on Monday night turned up no articles in which Blumenthal suggested he had served in Vietnam.

The remarks in Norwalk, and another comment in 2003 that suggested Blumenthal had been among those who "returned home" from Vietnam, were rare errors among hundreds of speeches he has given before veterans groups, Blumenthal and the veterans who joined him on Tuesday said.

The campaign also noted that Blumenthal has explicitly stated the correct details of his service in his official state biography, on his campaign website and literature, and in previous profile articles.

The two leading Republican challengers for the Senate seat, former Congressman Rob Simmons and former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, took starkly different routes to criticize Blumenthal on Tuesday.

Simmons, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army and the CIA, staged a press conference on the North Steps of the Capitol before Blumenthal's much anticipated press conference and later criticized the attorney general for not issuing a formal apology to veterans of the Vietnam War.

"Too many people have sacrificed too much to have their valor stolen in this way," Simmons said.

Simmons, who has appeared with Blumenthal at numerous events honoring troops and the military, said he did not recall ever hearing Blumenthal assert that he'd fought in Vietnam. On the contrary, Simmons said, he has long had an accurate understanding of Blumenthal's experience during the Vietnam war years: the future attorney general served in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Meanwhile, Simmons used much of the time in his press conference to renew attacks on McMahon's record, saying that the former wrestling executive had to answer questions of "character." Those included McMahon's decision in 1989 to alert the target of a probe into illegal distribution of steroids that he was under investigation by the federal government, and inaccurate information she provided to the state government after her appointment to the State Board of Education in 2009.

McMahon's campaign, meanwhile, was largely quiet.

On Monday night, after the Times story was published, McMahon's staff had taken credit for leaking the tape of Blumenthal's 2008 remarks to the media, republishing a blog post asserting as much by the commentator and former Republican politician Kevin Rennie on the campaign website. A McMahon staffer also confirmed that the campaign had leaked the tape to the Associated Press.

But on Tuesday, the Rennie blog post had vanished from the McMahon website.

"We're not commenting any further on our research except to say that the substance of this report is far more important than the process at this point," said Ed Patru, a McMahon spokesman.

Meanwhile, Democrats and the veterans who assembled behind Blumenthal on Tuesday were rallying behind the candidate, while opponents seized on the most serious blow to Blumenthal's sky-high public image in an electoral career spanning nearly 30 years.

Republican Jim Bancroft, a Marine veteran, stood in front of the state Capitol waving a U.S. Marine Corps flag on a white plastic pole and holding a white dry-erase board on which he had written: "Prosecute Blumenthal Stolen Valor Act."

Conservatives like Bancroft, who is backing Republican longshot Vinny Forras in the Senate primary, sense an opening - and a chance to demolish a candidate whose lead had once seemed nearly insurmountable to some political experts here and in Washington.

Bancroft, who served in the Marines from 1977 to 1981, is an ardent conservative and thus an ideological foe of Democrats like Blumenthal. But he said Tuesday he had occasionally defended the attorney general when he heard others charge that Blumenthal had falsely claimed service in Vietnam.

"He told me he was a reservist in D.C.," Bancroft said, referring to a conversation he had with the attorney general at one of the numerous rallies to send off or welcome home troops that Blumenthal attends.

"I even stood up for him," Bancroft said. "I'm about as right-wing as you can get, but I defended him, and he deserved it."

Bancroft said he was shocked by the Times report. When a reporter noted that Blumenthal had often seemed careful to note he had been a reservist, and not to suggest he had served in Vietnam or experienced combat, Bancroft agreed, but said he was surprised and angered to hear the sentence Blumenthal uttered in Norwalk.

"He's a lawyer," Bancroft said Tuesday morning. "He knows exactly what words mean."

But other veterans dismiss the story as overblown and said the Republican attacks are acts of desperation.

"I think the political fallout is going to be against the opposition," said Kevin Creed, of American Legion Post 44 in Bantam, referring to McMahon's campaign. "They spent all that money, and this is all they could come up with? That's ludicrous."

Creed served 25 years in the U.S. Army, retiring at the rank of major in 1996 before returning to active duty to serve one year in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.

"I've been with him at different events 50 times in the last 10 years," Creed said. "He's never, ever been anything more than humble about his own experience, and he would only bring it up in the context of 'I myself was a Marine, and I know a little bit about what they're going through.' "

"If I'm not upset about anything he said ..." Creed started, then interrupted himself to gesture around at the other figures on the small stage in the VFW hall. "You've got guys up here who are Purple Heart winners, some guys here are POWs (in) Japanese prison camps. If they aren't upset about it, I don't think Linda McMahon has much to talk about."

But Republicans hope the damage has been done. The chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, Chris Healy, gleefully tweeted a new article from the Cook Political Report Tuesday afternoon. The seemingly safe Democratic seat, it said, is now "a toss-up."

Merrick Alpert, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks to the media after Attorney General Richard Blumenthal addressed a report Tuesday
in West Hartford that he had misstated his military
service during the Vietnam War.
Merrick Alpert, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks to the media after Attorney General Richard Blumenthal addressed a report Tuesday in West Hartford that he had misstated his military service during the Vietnam War.

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