U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL), the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, has apologized for misstating the name of an award he received while in the Navy, but there are other instances in the past few years wherein Kirk has embellished or fudged his service record, while stopping short of outright lying about it. In each instance, Kirk’s statements have served to cast his record and his proximity to danger in a more, rather than less, heroic light: fostering the impression that he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and claiming he did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, when both are misleading.
Some of Kirk’s exaggerations were first documented in 2005 on the blog Nitpicker by an Afghanistan vet, and liberal, named Terry Welch. It was Welch who found the claim on Kirk’s congressional website that Kirk was “the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” For a larger view click on this link to an archive of Kirk’s site, or on this screengrab, which Welch saved in 2005:
Kirk misstates his service there in much the same way as Connecticut Senate hopeful Dick Blumenthal. Kirk’s error is that he served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, not in Iraq per se. Welch says the error remained on the site for about 50 days after he first alerted Kirk’s office, when it was silently changed to reflect his biography more accurately. (It should be noted that Kirk did fly intelligence missions over the Kurdish area of northern Iraq earlier in his career before the 2003 U.S. invasion.)
Like Blumenthal, Kirk has mostly been careful to maintain the distinction between serving “in” a conflict and serving “during” a conflict. But occasionally he’s let the lines get blurry. Appearing on the now-defunct MSNBC show Scarborough Country in August 2003, Kirk, a decorated intelligence officer, put it this way “I think I’m the only member of Congress that served on active duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and serving with my comrades in arms, both reserve and active duty, we are not in it for the money.”
That left the host, former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL) — who briefly overlapped with Kirk in the House GOP caucus in 2001 — with the wrong impression. “I want to ask you, if you’ll keep coming back on Scarborough Country as a man who not only serves Americans in Congress, but also who served Americans overseas in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Scarborough said, closing out the segment uncorrected.
Kirk’s congressional spokesperson directed me to his campaign office, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kirk also describes his service in Afghanistan in a way that can leave listeners with the wrong impression. For the record, Kirk, who is a Navy reservist, has been to assigned to Afghanistan twice for a total of 34 days. The first time was from Dec. 15, 2008, through Jan. 2, 2009, and then again from Dec. 19, 2009, through Jan. 4, 2010, according to the State Journal Register in Springfield, Il. But in describing those two short stints in Afghanistan, Kirk has referred to them as deployments or tours, a potentially misleading characterization that the State Journal Register tweaked him for in an editorial in January.
For example, a Kirk campaign flier read, “Last year, Mark deployed to Afghanistan, joining America’s fight against terrorism,” according to the State Journal Register. In the Fox segment below, Kirk said of his time in Afghanistan, “I’m the first member of Congress to deploy to an imminent danger area since 1942. Lindsey Graham in the Senate also did this.” But in his defense, Kirk went on to say in the same segment, “For my three week tour in Kandahar, I saw some of the roughest districts.”
“Reservists and National Guardsmen have specific expectations of different types of duty,” Welch told me in an interview. “When someone gets a letter for deployment that means their family is going to miss them for six months, a year, a year and a half. When you say you went on deployment and then come back after three weeks and brag about how much of a hero you are, it pisses off…people who are there for a year who get to talk to their family for 10 minutes at a time.”
Kirk recently apologized for claiming on his bio page that he had been named “Intelligence Officer of the Year.”
“Upon a recent review of my records, I found that an award listed in my official biography was misidentified as ‘Intelligence Officer of the Year,’” Kirk wrote in a statement. “In fact, as noted in my fitness report, I was the ‘recipient of the Rufus Taylor Intelligence Unit of the Year award for outstanding support provided during Operation Allied Force.’”
But Kirk has also been captured on camera making the incorrect claim about the award in public.
Welch describes himself as a liberal who stumbled into the Kirk story under non-ideological circumstances. It started, he said, “in 2005, when Jean Schmidt was running against [Paul] Hackett for Ohio’s second district. Hackett would’ve been the first Iraqi freedom veteran in the House. Schmidt called him a liar, saying there was already an Iraqi Freedom vet in the House—Mark Kirk.”
That piqued Welch’s interest, but he quickly found that, not only was Schmidt wrong, but Kirk was also publicly misrepresenting his record. Welch says that diminishes other service members who perform similar duties.
“By all accounts he sounds like an excellent intelligence officer,” Welch told me. “But when you have to lie and make self-aggrandizing claims about your service, you’re saying that’s not enough.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.