February 24, 2015 / 11:15 AM / 4 years ago

White House defends Veterans Affairs head after false statement

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Tuesday defended U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald after he apologized for falsely saying he served in the U.S. special forces, but a top Republican said the incident could hurt trust in the department.

McDonald said he recently met a homeless man in Los Angeles who said he served in the special forces. McDonald said he incorrectly responded that he had also served there. The exchange aired on the CBS Evening News.

McDonald is the latest U.S. public figure to be in the news over statements about military activities after NBC anchor Brian Williams was suspended two weeks ago.

“In an attempt to connect with the veteran and make him feel comfortable, I misspoke,” McDonald said on Tuesday, speaking to reporters outside department headquarters. “I made a mistake and I apologize for it.”

“We take him at his word,” a White House spokesperson said, adding the administration does not expect the situation to harm McDonald’s work. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, a nonprofit that represents veterans, issued a statement accepting McDonald’s apology.

But Republican lawmaker Jeff Miller, who leads the House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee, said the misstatement could further erode trust in the VA.

The department was the subject of searing criticism after it was discovered that veterans faced long waits for care at some facilities. Staff also tried to hide how long veterans waited.

McDonald, who served with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was chief executive of Procter & Gamble Co, took over after former Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned.

Even before the comments about his military service, he was criticized for saying 60 people had been fired on his watch for manipulating wait times. The Washington Post and others said that was higher than the true number.

Miller said McDonald should ensure his statements are correct so the department can “regain the trust of the veterans and taxpayers it is charged with serving.”

McDonald defended his service to reporters on Tuesday. Asked if he had considered resigning, he said he wanted to serve veterans.

“I’m here to try to prove that we can make VA work,” he said.

New Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald gestures as he testifies about "The State of VA Health Care" as he appears at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 9, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

The comments follow Williams’ suspension earlier this month after he acknowledged a story he told about coming under fire on a helicopter in Iraq was not true.

The magazine Mother Jones reported that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly exaggerated his reporting experience during the 1982 Falklands war. O’Reilly says he accurately described his coverage.

Reporting by Emily Stephenson, Elvina Nawaguna and Julia Edwards in Washington and Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Andrew Hay

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