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McConnell opens military record

WASHINGTON — With his brief Army service once again a campaign issue, Sen. Mitch McConnell on Wednesday allowed the Herald-Leader to take notes from two pages of his service records — his honorable-discharge certificate and his discharge form, which declared him medically unfit.

McConnell's office in Washington provided access to those pages but said it would not allow copies to be made.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, campaigning with McConnell's Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, called on McConnell to publicly share his Army records.

"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 told a crowd in Paris.

Questions about McConnell's military service have popped up toward the end of each of his last three campaigns. McConnell has previously allowed reporters to view some of his military records, but he has never allowed anyone to copy the documents.

Based on records the Herald-Leader has obtained from the National Archives and the University of Kentucky, a bare outline emerges.

McConnell was a 25-year-old University of Kentucky law student with political aspirations in spring 1967, during the Vietnam War.

As his graduation neared, making him eligible for the draft, McConnell secured a coveted post in the U.S. Army Reserve, which President Lyndon Johnson kept out of combat for most of his administration. McConnell enlisted March 21, 1967, and then returned to UK to finish law school.

Private McConnell spent little time in uniform. He won a discharge from the Reserve after five weeks of active duty. He trained at Fort Knox from July 9 to Aug. 15, 1967.

McConnell's discharge came five days after U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper, R-Ky., for whom he had worked as an intern, sent a letter to the two-star general in command of Fort Knox.

Cooper told Maj. Gen. A.D. Surles that McConnell expected to be released on a medical discharge because of optic neuritis, a painful eye condition that is treated by steroids. The man's papers seemed to be stalled somewhere on base and needed to be forwarded, Cooper wrote.

"Mitchell anxious to clear post in order to enroll NYU," the senator told the general on Aug. 10, 1967. "Please advise when final action can be expected."

Actually, McConnell never attended New York University. After his discharge, he did a short stint at a local law firm, and then returned to Washington to join the office of Sen. Marlow Cook, R-Ky., where he worked for the next few years.

In a 2006 interview with the Herald-Leader, McConnell denied that anyone pulled strings for him in 1967. "No one helped me get into the Reserve, no one helped me get out of the Reserve," McConnell said.

McConnell said he was entitled to a medical discharge for his eye problems. His father asked the senator — a family friend — to expedite the discharge, but he eventually would have been granted an early release anyway, McConnell said.

On Wednesday evening, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the Army's medical board ruled McConnell was medically unfit for service on July 31, 10 days before Cooper's letter. The Herald-Leader has not yet inspected that document.