Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath’s military background has been one of her greatest assets in her campaign to represent Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District.
It was a major feature in her campaign announcement video, which went viral and caught the attention of national donors. It has helped her connect with conservative Democrats in the district. And it’s an attribute she frequently highlights to hammer home her pledge to put country over political party.
But as Election Day nears in her nationally-watched race against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, a handful of veterans in the 19-county district are using conservative talk radio and letters to the editor to accuse McGrath of misrepresenting her role in combat missions.
Jim Lucas, an Army veteran from Berea, said he and a group of about six veterans plan to petition the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame to have her removed for allegedly misrepresenting her military record in campaign commercials. In particular, Lucas accused McGrath of “stolen valor” for creating the false impression that she piloted F-18 fighter jets into combat.
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“We’re not doing this as a political thing,” said Lucas, a registered Republican. “We’re going to continue whether she gets elected or not.”
McGrath, though, has been consistent about her role in the military and careful to say she was the first woman Marine to fly in an F-18 into combat. She served as the back-seat weapons system operator during her 89 combat missions, not as the front-seat pilot. She did later become a front-seat pilot, but never steered an F-18 during a combat mission.
A Herald-Leader review of McGrath’s commercials and many of her public comments found no evidence that she has ever claimed to have piloted an F-18 during combat, though some political groups supporting her and some media reports have gotten it wrong.
“I just think it’s part of this climate where you have to try to tear somebody down and make them seem like someone you can’t trust,” McGrath said Thursday when asked about Lucas’ claims. “I’ve never tried to embellish my record, ever.”
Michael Estorer, a Democrat who served with McGrath and now lives in Lexington, said everything the McGrath campaign has said about her military service is accurate.
“It is a little bit of a smear campaign,” Estorer said. “People are taking little facts and attacking them to misrepresent her service.”
Barr’s campaign has not raised the issue and at a “Veterans for Barr” rally this summer, Barr said he appreciated McGrath’s service.
“We respect Amy McGrath’s service to our country, as well as the service of all our veterans,” Barr campaign spokeswoman Jodi Whitaker said Thursday.
But at the “Veterans for Barr” event, some of the speakers before Barr took swipes at McGrath and her service.
One speaker, a Marine veteran named Travis Cassidy, questioned the claim that McGrath was the “first woman in combat.” (The Herald-Leader could find no evidence that she has ever made that claim).
“I said, ‘what year was you in Iraq as to be the first woman in combat,’ as portrayed in the earlier commercials, earlier in the year,” Cassidy said from the stage. “She gave me the year and I said, ‘that’s funny, because I was in Iraq in 2004 and there was women guarding towers.’ And then you all take this home with you, what she says to me next you all will never forget. She giggles and she says ‘it’s just a commercial.’”
Jon Soltz, the chairman of Vote Vets, a political action committee supporting McGrath, called the accusations political.
“No one gets angrier over stolen valor than I do,” Soltz said. “But this complaint is stupid, and clearly a political stunt.”
What is McGrath’s military record?
McGrath graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1997. She didn’t have perfect vision, so instead of becoming a pilot, she became a weapons systems operator for the F/A-18D Hornet, earning the call sign “Krusty” because of the way her hair stuck out from under her helmet.
She became the first woman Marine to fly in an F-18 into combat when she was deployed to Kyrgyzstan in 2002. While there, she flew more than 50 combat missions into Afghanistan, in the back seat of the plane.
She went back to the Middle East in 2003 as part of an initial push in the Iraq War and flew more than 30 missions.
“So my flying missions, the 89 combat missions, I was a weapons systems officer,” McGrath said last month. “That’s why I was always very careful to say I was the first women to fly in an F-18 because I was a back-seater and I have always been up front about that.”
McGrath did later become a pilot. Between 2004 and 2007, after getting LASIK eye surgery, she trained in Texas to move from the back seat to the front seat of the plane. It was during that time that she achieved her childhood dream of landing on aircraft carriers, first in 2006 in a smaller plane and then with an F-18 in 2007.
After that training, she was redeployed to Afghanistan in 2010, this time as a pilot. But instead of flying in combat missions, she was assigned aviation support duties on the ground.
“When you’re in the military, you do what Uncle Sam tells you,” McGrath said in an interview this summer. “There are some people who don’t go to combat at all.”
The last eight years of her military service were spent in the U.S., first on Capitol Hill, then in the Pentagon, then in the classroom at the U.S. Naval Academy.
McGrath said after she had her first child in 2013, a general called her into his office and said he wanted her to return to flying.
“And I said, ‘sir, I want another kid,’” McGrath recalled. “And he said ‘ok, that’s not what the Marine Corps wants.’ And I said, ‘well, it’s what I want.’ And he said ‘well, if you miss this opportunity to go back and be an executive officer and fly again, you will not be promoted anymore.’”
McGrath had two more children before she retired from the Marine Corps in 2017 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
In her own commercials and in interviews, McGrath has been careful about how she presents her military record.
In her first commercial announcing her candidacy, McGrath summed up her combat duties in the military.
“I spent 20 years as a U.S. Marine, flew 89 combat missions bombing Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” she said. “I was the first woman Marine to fly in an F-18 in combat. And I got to land on aircraft carriers.”
Some of her supporters haven’t been so careful.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently aired an ad supporting McGrath that said “as a fighter pilot, McGrath flew 89 combat missions.” She was not a pilot during those missions.
Lucas, the veteran seeking to revoke McGrath’s place in the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame, said he remains unconvinced that McGrath has been honest with voters.
“Her campaign is putting some truths together to make a lie,” Lucas said.
That mindset frustrates Estorer, who went to flight school with McGrath and said everyone there knew she’d be the first female Marine to fly into combat.
“There is nothing she has said that isn’t accurate,” Estorer said.
McGrath said she’s not paying much attention to the accusations.
“I’ve got thick skin,” she said. “If people want to talk about me, that’s fine. I know what I did.”