NEW HAVEN, Conn. — U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal acknowledged he misstated his service in Vietnam, said he made mistakes, regretted them and took responsibility. What he didn't explain was why.
Blumenthal, Connecticut's popular attorney general who insisted he was proud of his domestic military service in the Marine Reserve, became part of a long running phenomenon in which men embellish or outright lie about their military record.
"They all do it for the prestige," said retired FBI agent Thomas Cottone, who used to investigate military impostors for the agency. "They all want to be recognized. They need that ego boost."
Blumenthal's political crisis erupted when The New York Times reported last week that the Democrat had repeatedly distorted his military service, including saying at a 2008 event that he had served in Vietnam. The newspaper said Blumenthal intimated more than once that he was a victim of the abuse heaped on Vietnam veterans upon their return home.
Blumenthal said he meant to say he served "during" Vietnam instead of "in" Vietnam. He said the statements were "totally unintentional" errors that occurred only a few times out of hundreds of public appearances.
A longer version of the video of the 2008 event posted by a Republican opponent shows Blumenthal at the beginning of his speech correctly characterizing his service by saying that he "served in the military, during the Vietnam era."
Blumenthal spent his entire six years of military service in the United States. By mentioning Vietnam, however, he may have been trying to identify with his audience, said Kyle Longley, a history professor at Arizona State University and author of a book on Vietnam veterans.
"A lot of this I think these guys are trying to fit themselves into 'I was part of this generation,'" Longley said. "It seems like he tried to identify with the generation of the warrior."
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Shays said Blumenthal had made it clear to him and others that he did not serve in Vietnam, but he said in the past decade he began to talk in a way that left the impression he served in Vietnam.
Shays said he was not sure why Blumenthal's remarks evolved, but noted that Blumenthal was a strong supporter of veterans.
"When you're with the veterans, you want to link up with them," Shays said. "You want them to know you felt their pain."
Doug Sterner, a military historian, says inflated service records have been a problem since the founding of the country, when George Washington expressed concerns about anyone receiving military honors they did not deserve.
The problem is so common that the POW Network, a watchdog group, lists thousands of names of those it says have made service claims not matched with military records.
Cottone, who retired in 2007, said his caseload of military impostors roughly doubled after the Sept. 11 attacks as reverence for military service intensified.
"Some of it is guilt," he said. "They regretted they didn't serve in Vietnam. They just felt they missed that opportunity to be a warrior."
Christian Appy, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written extensively on the Vietnam War, said many men remain convinced the Vietnam war was unjust and have no regrets about avoiding service.
"But certainly some portion of the Vietnam generation feels they missed out on some primal vital male testing experience," Appy said. "They feel like they missed out on an adventurous exciting heroic moment that would test them."
In Blumenthal's case, Appy said it may simply be he wanted sympathy votes not only for serving in Vietnam but for what he said was the rejection of Vietnam veterans when they returned home.