Analysis: No, Tom Cotton Didn't Lie About His Military Service

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Posted: Jan 25, 2021 1:06 PM
Analysis: No, Tom Cotton Didn't Lie About His Military Service

Source: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Over the weekend, a tweet caught my attention. It was published by radio host Hugh Hewitt, a friend of mine, who seemed to be defending Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) – someone he's regularly interviewed for years. Cotton is a decorated combat veteran, having signed up to serve on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan after graduating from Harvard Law School. So what was this "scurrilous attack" comment in reference to?


As it turns out, Salon – a left-wing outfit whose ethics I've questioned in the past – had published a story purporting to demonstrate that Cotton has embellished his military service by falsely claiming a title he didn't earn. The New York Post summarizes:

An incendiary new report blasts GOP Sen. Tom Cotton for past claims to have served as an Army Ranger — but had to reach back to his first run for Congress, in 2012, to do it. “I did become an infantry officer and an Army Ranger,” Cotton, then an Army reservist running for Congress after a four-year infantry stint that included two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in a 2011 interview with an Arkansas news station. In fact, according to Salon.com, Cotton was never a member of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, but merely a graduate of the Army’s Ranger School...The report — which cites no examples of Cotton repeating the claim of Ranger status in his 2014 Senate run or in the years since — drew a furious response from Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who did serve with the special-operations force. “Hey SenTomCotton unless you wore one of these berets you shouldn’t be calling yourself a Ranger,” Crow tweeted over a photo of himself in the unit’s distinctive headgear. “Truth matters.” In his current Senate biography, Cotton, 43, a Trump-supporting conservative seen as a future GOP presidential candidate, makes no claim to Ranger status — but includes the Ranger Tab, the insignia given to graduates of the Ranger School, among his other military decorations.

Various media sources have amplified Salon's accusation, with several citing criticism from a House Democrat and ex-Ranger. But is the crux of the attack true? Did Cotton inaccurately claim a title that he didn't earn? Cotton's office offered this statement to Townhall: “To be clear, as he’s stated many times, Senator Cotton graduated from Ranger School, earned the Ranger Tab, and served a combat tour with the 101st Airborne, not the 75th Ranger Regiment.” Allies have circulated photographs of Cotton deployed abroad while wearing a "Ranger Tab" insignia on his uniform. Team Cotton's argument is that Cotton never claimed to have served in a Ranger Regiment. As Cotton has always said, he served in the 101st Airborne. But was it inaccurate for Cotton to refer to having served as an Army Ranger, even if he didn't state he was part of a Ranger unit? I do not pretend to be an expert on such matters, and I understand that exaggerations on this front are seen as deeply problematic within military circles. On that front, Cotton's office provided quotes from Rangers and military leaders whose public comments buttress Cotton's argument:

General Scott Miller: “You'll leave Victory Pond today with a small piece of cloth on your shoulder, but more importantly, you carry the title of Ranger from here on out”: he said. Scott Miller is the 4-star commander in Afghanistan. He previously served in the Ranger Regiment and Delta Force, and he commanded JSOC.

• Sgt. Maj. Rick Merritt: “It’s unfair. It’s almost slanderous. [Cotton’s] 100% a Ranger. He will always be a Ranger.” Rick Merritt was the Regimental Sergeant Major for the Ranger Regiment, where he served in numerous positions throughout his career.

• General Tony Thomas: [To a Democrat attacking Cotton]: “This is a dumb debate (feel pretty qualified to say that). Need you to focus on more important things for the good of the nation. You and [Cotton] get together and work like “Ranger buddies.” Tony Thomas is the former JSOC commander, SOCOM commander, and held multiple positions in the Ranger Regiment.

Cotton's office also noted how numerous media outlets have handled this sort of terminology in the past – including Salon itself: "Salon, despite leading the smear against Senator Cotton, described female Ranger school graduates as 'the first female U.S. Army Rangers.' One of Salon’s 'journalist’s' bio describes himself as a 'Ranger' for graduating from Ranger School—just like Senator Cotton":


This very much looks like a manufactured "gotcha" in which Salon is ignoring its own standards to accuse Cotton of a trumped-up rhetorical sin. Lying about one's military record or accomplishments is a grave offense, though apparently not in the eyes of Connecticut voters. Padding one's bio with questionable or false achievements is also a significant issue, as one congressional freshman is currently learning. But whether one agrees or disagrees with Sen. Cotton's politics (I do a bit of both, myself), it does not appear as though the Arkansan did anything unethical or fraudulent here – based on the terms employed by other Rangers, as well as media organizations who've covered Rangers, including the very outlet that published this hit on Cotton.