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The Honor of Senator Joni Ernst

02/06/2015 08:15 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
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When most people hear "combat veteran," they think firefights with the enemy. But the military defines combat veteran differently -- as soldiers who served in a combat area.

Which brings us to Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), one of the GOP's most recent stars. It was Sen. Ernst who was selected to give the Republican response to President Obama's recent State of the Union message this year.

Senator Ernst calls herself a combat veteran at every turn -- on her Senate web page, in campaign debates, and in her stump speeches. She can say this because she served in a combat zone.

And it's technically true. She was company commander of the Iowa National Guard's 1168th Transportation Company during its tour of active duty in Kuwait and southern Iraq, from February 2003 to April 2004. But the unit was never in a firefight, or for that matter attacked at all; it delivered supplies, and later, guarded the front gate and ran perimeter patrol at their home base outside Kuwait City, Camp Arifjan.

Real combat veterans I spoke to don't think much of how the Senator talks up her combat duty. Larry Hanft, for instance, who earned the Combat Infantryman's Badge fighting in Vietnam, says, "By her definition, everybody who stepped off the plan in Kuwait is a combat veteran. Joni Ernst is using her military experience to gain a political edge and pull the wool over the eyes of the American people. She's a fraud..." Mr. Hanft is one of Sen. Ernst's constituents.

This isn't to say Sen. Ernst's soldiers spent the Iraq War lounging by a pool. According to the official history of the unit's deployment -- written by the Senator -- the 183 soldiers of the 1168th worked hard. Between May and August 2003, they drove 230,278 miles on 402 missions around Kuwait and southern Iraq, hauling everything from Patriot missiles and body armor to mattresses. Then the unit was re-assigned to Force Protection -- security -- at their home base, manning the front gate and patrolling the camp's perimeter.

Convoy duty in Iraq was dangerous work. Armies can't fight without supplies, convoys deliver them, and convoys were prime targets of both Iraqi infantry and, later, roadside bombs. In fact on its way back from its first mission, the 1168th was forced to a crawl in one town: Iraqi men threw themselves in front of the trucks, and stayed there until they were almost run over (the trucks only slowed). Sen. Ernst's soldiers would have been sitting ducks if they'd taken fire.

But they didn't, and that's the point. In the 1168th's 14 months in theater, the unit was never under fire, or hit by a roadside bomb. The deployment's only injury occurred on its last day in Kuwait, when a sergeant dislocated his shoulder.

That was Senator Ernst's war.

The reason she can call herself a combat veteran is because President GHW Bush issued Executive Order 12744 on January 21, 1991 and made the entire Arabian Peninsula a combat zone. That Executive Order is still in force. To put that order in perspective, a soldier could be stationed today in Bahrain and call him or herself a combat veteran.

In the military, personal honor is real. Soldiers are expected to tell the truth, honor their commitments, and not split hairs. And for good reason: If you're in combat and don't do what you say you will, people go home in body bags.

Technically, of course, the Senator is just relating the legal facts and letting people reach their own conclusions, like any other politician. She commanded the 1168th'in a war zone, there's no doubt driving trucks in convoy or guarding bases can be dangerous, and soldiers die that way.

But nothing in the 1168th's tour of duty stands up to the average citizen's idea of combat duty. And when the Senator calls herself the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate, or when she allows her own husband to say twice that she led her troops into combat she's betraying the code of honor she lets people think she stands for. Sen. Ernst's husband is a retired Command Sergeant-Major in the Army Rangers.

Even worse, to the military mind, the Senator doesn't correct people when they've said she's led troops into combat.

This gets scant respect from serving soldiers. Asked what a soldier should do in a case like that, Lt. Col. Alayne Conway says, "You'd clarify, and say 'Sure, I had friends who were in firefights every day, and those are the guys you should roll out the red carpet for.'" Lt. Col. Conway serves in the Army's Press Office in Washington.

And the Senator has never been shy about playing the military honor card. When she took the floor of the Iowa Senate in 2014 in support of a bill called the Stolen Valor Act, she said, "Sgt. Milledge paid for his posthumously awarded Purple Heart with his blood, and the blood of a comrade in arms. Let us not allow his Purple Heart to be cheapened by some Joe Schmoe on the street that tries to pass himself off as a hero to others to gain some personal advantage."

Asked for comment, the Senator's office said, "... the threshold for a combat veteran is having served in a combat zone or provided direct support to a combat zone. Senator Ernst's service meets the VA and DoD's definition." You can read her office's full response here.

Update: Following the publication of this piece, Lt. Col. Conway responded with the following statement; my own response follows.

From Colonel Conway:

Alayne Conway · Media Relations Division Chief at Office of the Chief of Public Affairs (OCPA)

Senator Joni Ernst is a combat veteran. Period. Andrew Reinbach manipulated my words, and I am angry and embarrassed that a so-called journalist would deliberately take out of context a small portion of our 15 minute discussion. I never questioned Sen. Ernst's service, or that of my brothers and sisters in arms; to allow the Huffington Post's readers to think otherwise is not only a disservice to Sen. Ernst, but to all those who wear the uniform of the United States. In a cheap attempt to besmirch the military service of Sen. Ernst, the Huffington Post instead has insulted all the men and women of the Armed Forces who have deployed in service to their nation. LTC Alayne Conway.

My reply:

Not only did I in no way misquote Col. Conway, take her comments out of context, or otherwise manipulate her words: When she made that comment, I asked her if I could quote her and read her words back to her, and she consented.