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Matt Dietrich
By Matt Dietrich September 15, 2016

Tammy Duckworth hits Mark Kirk for military embellishments

In a speech Aug. 18 in Springfield, Ill., to the county leaders of the Illinois Democratic Party, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth revived and added specificity to a charge that dogged U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk throughout his successful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign.

"This is the man who knows so much about national security. He’s been wrong about every issue on national security he’s ever been involved in," Duckworth said. "And who, by the way, claims all this based on his military record which he lied about at least 10 times."

Those who followed Kirk’s campaign against then-Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias likely recall that Kirk in 2010 issued clarifications and apologies related to his military claims on more than one occasion. But "at least 10?"

The Duckworth campaign provided a list of Kirk’s alleged infractions. It says Kirk falsely claimed he: won the Naval Intelligence Officer of the Year Award, performed combat duty in Kosovo, was shot at in Afghanistan and while flying over Iraq, was "deployed" to Afghanistan, took part in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, was the only member of Congress as of 2005 who was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, commanded the Pentagon’s war room and did not violate military policy about campaigning while on duty.

We decided to look into the allegations.

The background

Kirk served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1989 to 2013 and frequently mentioned his military experience during the years he spent as U.S. representative for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District from 2001-11. There’s nothing unusual about that. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin noted in a June 2, 2010, column, "In American politics, military service is like a platinum credit card."

Kirk might have kept his platinum card status had Terry Welch, an Afghanistan veteran and blogger at, not looked into a claim in 2005 by U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, that Kirk was the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress. (Kirk became part of this narrative only as a side player. Schmidt brought up Kirk’s service record to refute a claim by her opponent that, if elected, he would be the first Iraq War vet in Congress.)

Kirk’s official House website at the time said Kirk "is the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom…"

In a series of posts in 2005 (here, here and here), Welch painstakingly dissected Kirk’s claim of Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran status. Kirk’s office eventually changed the wording, though Welch noted that it took 50 days for it to do so.

"While we applaud the service of Mark Kirk, his service occurred before the March 19, 2003, start date of the mission, according to the Bush administration itself," Welch wrote in this post.

The episode, though clumsily handled by Kirk’s office, faded in the years that followed. But when Kirk in 2010 became the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Barack Obama, it became a crack in a dam that soon would unleash a flood of reporting on similar incidents in which Kirk inaccurately described his military career.

The questions started anew in May 2010, when Kirk’s opponent, then-Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, challenged Kirk’s claim to have been named Naval Reserve Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1999. This led to an admission by Kirk that he had not won the award, but was part of a unit that won a different honor.

"Commander Danny Hernandez, a Navy spokesman, said Thursday the individual 1999 Naval Reserve Intelligence Officer of the Year was given to another reservist and not to Kirk," the Chicago Tribune reported.

Also around that time, Kirk changed his website to remove the word "combat" from his description of military service in Kosovo.

On June 3, Kirk faced new allegations of embellishment when he visited the Chicago Tribune editorial board. From the Tribune’s report:

In a new disclosure, Kirk acknowledged that his campaign's promotion of him coming under fire while flying aboard an intelligence reconnaissance plane in Iraq may not be correct because there is no record of whether his aircraft was being fired upon.

Kirk also acknowledged a constituent letter sent out by his North Shore congressional district office last year that described him as a member of Operation Desert Storm, though he did not participate in that effort.

"I am sorry, absolutely," Kirk said. "You should speak with utter precision. You should stand on the documented military record. In public discourse, for high office, you should make sure that there is a degree of complete rigorous precession."

If you’re keeping score, that’s six of the 10.

On June 13, the Tribune ran a story challenging Kirk’s claim that he had been "deployed" to Afghanistan when really he had been there for short training stints. The article again quoted Navy spokesman Commander Danny Hernandez. "A deployment is a deployment and annual training is annual training," Hernandez said.

That’s No. 7.

On July 8, 2010, PolitiFact summarized more inaccuracies in Kirk’s telling of his military background. These found Kirk claiming, incorrectly, that he had served in Operation Desert Storm and that he "command(ed) the war room in the Pentagon." PolitiFact mentioned those and other incidents while testing the veracity of a claim by Kirk’s opponent that Kirk had been disciplined for "violat(ing) Pentagon rules...for improperly mingling politics with his military service."

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PolitiFact ruled the statement True, which brought more trouble for Kirk when his office persisted in claiming that he never had violated those rules.

That’s 8 and 9.

But Duckworth specified 10, and among those was a claim that Kirk lied about being shot at in Afghanistan. This is based on a Huffington Post article published June 4, 2010, that claimed Kirk had given conflicting accounts of whether or not he was shot at in Kandahar.

In January 2009, Kirk had told the suburban Lake County News Sun that he "never got shot at" during recent service in Afghanistan.

In January 2010, Kirk was asked on a Chicago Sun-Times questionnaire about the "wildest thing" he had ever done in his career. He responded, "Last year, I was with a Dutch armor unit in Kandahar, getting shot at."

The original HuffPo article inferred that Kirk gave conflicting reports about the same incident. But Kirk’s campaign spokesman said in an addendum to the article that that was not correct:

Eric Elk, a spokesman for Kirk, said that there is no contradiction in the statements. The Congressman, he says, was referring to two different instances in which he was in Kandahar.

"He there was there in December 2008/Jan 2009 and then December 2009/Jan 2010," said Elk.

That would be the last of the new accusations pertaining to Kirk’s military career. Kirk weathered the storm and made numerous statements of contrition, then went on to defeat Giannoulias in a narrow victory in November.

Our ruling

Duckworth said Kirk claims military and defense expertise "based on his military record which he lied about at least 10 times."

There is no disputing that Kirk spent the summer of 2010 explaining and apologizing for misstatements in describing his military experience.

The Duckworth campaign listed these 10 examples when we asked:

  1. Naval Intelligence Officer of the Year Award

  2. Taking fire while flying over Iraq

  3. Serving combat duty in Kosovo

  4. Being shot at in Afghanistan

  5. Being "deployed" to Afghanistan

  6. Taking part in Operation Desert Storm

  7. Participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom

  8. Claimed to be the only member of Congress who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom

  9. Claimed to command the Pentagon’s war room

  10. Claimed he had not violated Pentagon policy about campaigning while on duty

The fourth claim on this list, that Kirk lied about being shot at in Afghanistan, is in dispute. The original source for that claim contains an update indicating Kirk described two separate incidents. Kirk’s current campaign spokesman, Kevin Artl, reiterated that explanation when contacted for this article.

The groundwork on the other nine claims was done six years ago or longer, sometimes by multiple media outlets. If you follow the links included above, you’ll see that the coverage at times creates a confusing patchwork of sourcing that makes it difficult to put all this into a smooth timeline.

You’ll also see a long pattern -- albeit one that appears to have ended after the summer of 2010 -- of ambiguous language and conflicting claims throughout Mark Kirk’s frequent pronouncements on his military activity.

We rate Duckworth’s claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Email correspondence, Matt McGrath, deputy campaign manager, Duckworth for Senate, Aug. 24, 2016

Email and telephone interview, Kevin Artl, campaign manager,  Kirk for Senate, Sept. 15, 2016

Official Mark Kirk website, accessed Aug. 24-Sept. 12, 2016, background on 10th Congressional District, Sept. 12, 2016

(Sources below accessed multiple times Sept. 5-14, 2016)

Carol Marin column, "Kirk fails to set the record straight," Chicago Sun-Times, June 30, 2010

Carol Marin column, "Kirk’s trying to dodge blame for false claims," Chicago Sun-Times, June 2, 2010, blog posts from 2010 on Kirk’s military claims; "A conversation on Mark Kirk," Aug. 4, 2005, blog post;  "It’s Time for Mark Kirk to Apologize," Aug. 3, 2005, blog post; "Jean’s lie outs a fellow Republican," Aug. 2, 2005; "Yet another Kirk post," May 28, 2010; "Why Blumenthal not Kirk?", May 20, 2010

"Kirk campaign acknowledges another misrepresentation of military service," Washington Post Plum Line blog, June 2, 2010

"GOP Senate candidate Kirk overstated military award," Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2010

"Kirk apologizes, acknowledges more errors in military resume," Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2010

"Alexi Giannoulias says Kirk mixed politics and military service," PolitiFact, July 8, 2010

Illinois State Board of Elections, election results 2010 general election, Sept. 12, 2016

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