PARIS — A prominent Democrat questioned Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's military service — specifically his discharge from the Army Reserve — as McConnell launched his latest commercial Tuesday criticizing veterans' health clinics with ties to his Democratic opponent.
Democratic state Rep. Greg Stumbo, the former Kentucky attorney general, called on McConnell to release his military discharge records.
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"Elections should be about informed choices. He's obviously not proud of his record, Sen. McConnell isn't, or he would have shown it by now," Stumbo said. "Something isn't correct about it that might cause a lot of people, including veterans, to take a second look at him."
McConnell enlisted in the Army Reserve in July 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War but received a medical discharge after less than six months for an eye condition called optic neuritis, according to limited information that has been made public.
Questions about McConnell's military service have popped up toward the end of each of McConnell's last three elections.
After his 2002 opponent, Lois Combs Weinberg, claimed McConnell might have received "preferential treatment," the Herald-Leader reported that McConnell's eye problems led to a hospitalization before McConnell enlisted in the Army Reserve, and that the condition has flared up occasionally since then.
"If Lunsford wants to question the senator's honorable discharge, the Army's decision and the Herald-Leader's 2002 reporting on this subject, he should do it himself and not hide behind surrogates," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell in Washington.
Lunsford declined to touch the subject.
"This campaign has been one about change — about the bigger issues," he said.
But Stumbo — Lunsford's running mate in the 2007 governor's race — said Lunsford should use it as a campaign issue. Lunsford joined the National Guard and after a year transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve, where he served five years.
McConnell has brought the scrutiny upon himself, Stumbo said.
"I'll tell you how sorry he is, he's sending young men and women to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he will not share with the people of Kentucky how he got out of military service — how in the height of the Vietnam War he was able to dodge military service," Stumbo said Tuesday before an event for Lunsford in Paris.
Stumbo said he doubted that McConnell was discharged for medical reasons.
"I think he either had a personal issue that they threw him out of the armed services and military or he had a powerful member of his party or somebody get him out," he said. "I don't know why you get released from the Army at the height of a war unless you know somebody or unless you did something real bad."
The only record of McConnell's military discharge that has been publicly released was an Aug. 10, 1967, letter from then-U.S. Sen. John Cooper, a Somerset Republican for whom McConnell interned in 1964. Cooper's letter to the commanding general at Fort Knox said McConnell was being medically discharged for optic neuritis, according to the Sept. 11, 2002, Herald-Leader.
McConnell's former chief of staff Hunter Bates told the Herald-Leader six years ago that Cooper wrote that letter to "expedite a discharge" at the request of McConnell's father after the Army informed McConnell his condition was grounds for leaving the military.
This resurgence of the issue of McConnell's military record came the same day the Republican senator's campaign launched its latest commercial hitting Lunsford on his business ties to Valor Healthcare, a company that operates clinics for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Texas and Arkansas. Lunsford sits on Valor's board of directors and temporarily served as its chief executive officer.
McConnell's new commercial — his fifth about Valor clinics — quotes Ron Wilging, who is identified as a patient of Valor's clinic at Hot Springs, Ark., and a former VA employee.
"The VA would not condone the actions of Valor Healthcare if they knew all the particulars that were going on," Wilging says in the 30-second spot, without elaborating.
A female announcer then lists several alleged infractions: "broken or non-existent equipment, botched prescriptions, a pattern of negligent care." The ad doesn't cite a source for those accusations.
Alison Aikele, the VA's press secretary in Washington, said she wasn't aware of any specific problems with the Hot Springs clinic.
"All of our clinics must meet our performance standards. And the Hot Springs clinic has met our performance standards," she said.
The VA had found that Valor clinics in Texas didn't meet some of their contractual obligations and were subsequently fined earlier this year after a review. But no fines have been levied at the Hot Springs clinic after that one, too, was reviewed, Aikele said.
A man answering the phone at Wilging's residence in Arkansas hung up the phone after a Herald-Leader reporter asked to speak to him. A subsequent message left on the answering machine wasn't returned.