All’s fair when delving into military records

Both political parties have aggressively exploited discrepancies in rival candidates’ military service records to gain political advantage in highly competitive races.

In Connecticut, Illinois and Missouri, the finer details of a candidate’s military service are now being called into question — at times with the help of technology.

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Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk (R), for instance, recently changed his website to correct the name of an award he won from the Navy. Kirk had claimed he won the Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year award — which is given to an individual — when it was his unit that had been awarded the United States Navy Rufus L. Taylor Intelligence award for its service during NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia in the late 1990s.

In a letter to supporters, Kirk said the original wording was “not precise.”

“So we corrected my biography with the official name of a very distinguished award that I am honored to have received,” he wrote.

The Washington Post, which broke the story, was tipped off by the campaign of Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, Kirk’s Senate rival.

The Democratic National Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee subsequently seized on the story and continued to update reporters about the latest developments.

Kirk isn’t the first Illinois Republican to have his military service record questioned this cycle.

Illinois House candidate Adam Kinzinger (R), a member of the Air National Guard running against Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.), went through something similar in February after a Facebook thread of comments suggested he misrepresented his military record because he said he served in the Air Force Special Operations Command and flew a KC-135 Stratotanker — an aircraft that isn’t typically used by AFSOC.

After the Facebook threat appeared, Kinzinger changed his website biography page. First, the bio on his website read: “In 2003, Adam joined the United States Air Force. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in November 2003 and was awarded his pilot’s wings in 2005. Captain Kinzinger now serves as a pilot with the Air Force Special Operations Command.” The last sentence was later changed to “Captain Kinzinger has served in the Air Force Special Ops, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, and Air National Guard.”

Democratic operatives pointed to the change as a sign he had overstated his military record.

“I frankly think it’s getting a little disturbing to start seeing people going down this road,” Kinzinger told The Hill. “If we get into the thing where we are going to splice words apart just so that we can really get in there and try to attack somebody’s military record, which frankly I think is what was done in my case, we’re getting to a pretty crazy point at that time.”

Kinzinger said he was standing behind Kirk despite the controversy, and called it “disappointing” that Giannoulias would launch such a “pathetic attack.”

Republicans are no strangers to the hardball tactic of using a candidate’s military service in a political attack.

In Connecticut, Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon’s campaign claimed credit for directing the New York Times to a 2008 video that showed state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) saying he served “in Vietnam.” The Democratic Senate candidate, who served stateside in the Marine Reserves during the Vietnam War, later apologized and said he “misspoke.”

And in Missouri, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R) has tried to diminish her Democratic rival’s experience in the Army.

In an interview with the Southeast Missourian, Emerson said House candidate Tommy Sowers (D) “never commanded anybody” during his time in the military.

But Sowers’s website biography says “during the Balkan war, he deployed to Kosovo to lead a platoon of Combat Engineers in multinational operations.” Sowers also said he commanded troops in Iraq during a deployment in 2004 - 2006.

Sowers said Emerson “chose to disparage my military service with lies.” The exchange was sparked by a disagreement over whether to reverse the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about gays serving in the military.

Still, the leader of one veterans group said questioning certain aspects of a candidate’s military record is fair game — albeit with a caveat.

“Questions about whether a candidate is being honest about his or her military record, if done in good faith, are legitimate,” Kieran Michael Lalor, the founder of the GOP-leaning Iraq Veterans for Congress political action committee, said in an e-mail.

“However, second-guessing the split–second decisions made during the heat of battle under the most arduous of conditions is out of bounds.”