Continental Divides

To be Humble is a Duty

In the wake of World War II, veterans rarely if ever boasted about their military experiences. Ditto with Korea and Vietnam.

By John McCaslin

Surely you’ve heard by now that it was a retired Navy SEAL who came to the rescue of Speaker Mike Johnson last month when Republican rebels raging against renewing military aid to Ukraine corralled the embattled leader on the House floor.

Wisconsin Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who served five combat deployments during his 22 years as a SEAL, determined the speaker was in need of a “swim buddy” and immediately confronted the unruly gang.

During the ensuing clamor, outspoken Rep. Matt Gaetz not once but twice called the freshman congressman a “squish” (a “soft person” in GOP jargon), at which point the former frogman says he warned the Floridian, “Stow it, Tubby.”

“I am the only member of congress [sic] to work with … Ukrainian Special Forces as an active duty Navy SEAL,” Van Orden reminded on his X account. “Some creepy … colleagues of mine would do well to remember that.”

Honestly it would be difficult for them to forget, considering how often the lawmaker circles back to his SEAL days. It’s all part of a trend that has roots in Montana, where ex-Navy SEALs in particular flaunt their military records for political leverage.

That certainly wasn’t the case in the wake of World War II, when veterans rarely if ever boasted about their military experiences. Ditto with Korea and Vietnam.

How many know, for example, that former President George H.W. Bush was one of the youngest wartime pilots in U.S. Navy history? You didn’t hear it from him.

Enlisting as an aviator on his 18th birthday, “Skin” as the lanky lad was tagged, flew 58 combat missions and made 128 carrier landings during WWII. Brought down by enemy fire, killing both of his fellow crewmembers, the future president was somehow plucked from the ocean by a U.S. submarine and soon returned to the cockpit.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was 21 and in Italy when his Army unit was hit by hostile fire, leaving his entire right arm and hand and part of his left hand permanently disabled. The only war stories he liked to tell were as congressional crusader for Americans like him with disabilities.

Sen. John McCain, a former neighbor of mine, was shot down more than once while piloting naval ground-attack aircraft during the Vietnam War. Severely tortured as a POW, he endured wounds that left him with lifelong disabilities. McCain would frown whenever called a hero.

And lest we forget John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (both Navy), Barry Goldwater (Army Air Corps) and John Glenn (Marines), John Kerry (Navy) and Bob Kerrey (Navy SEAL), who lost his lower right leg in combat.

Another neighbor of mine, elder statesman Strom Thurmond, would regale me with his lifetime of memories. Never once though did he recall resigning from the bench, joining the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and landing on a glider in the Battle of Normandy – at age 42 no less.

The aforementioned are a mere sample of the men and women who’d fought on countless battlefields, only to carry their heavy loads into the hallowed halls of Congress to continue leading. Fortunately there’s plenty more where they came from.

Take a Virginia congressional seat captured in 2018 by ex-SEAL sniper Scott Taylor, who was defeated two years later by retired Navy commander Elaine Luria, who in 2022 relinquished her seat to former Navy helicopter pilot Jen Kiggans.

Here in Montana, much has been written of late about first-time political candidate Tim Sheehy, who is hoping his now-questionable Navy SEAL record can catapult him straight into the U.S. Senate. First he would have to outpoll senior Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the powerful chairman of both the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and subcommittee on Defense.

The stakes recently got higher for Sheehy after he admitted to lying about one of however many bullet wounds he’s received (during an appearance in Billings in 2022, he reportedly told of being shot three times and wounded seven times by IEDs, yet he writes in his new book that only one bullet ever struck his body).

Meanwhile, confusion lingers as to whether the bullet wound in question is combat related, the result of careless horseplay with SEAL team members, or perhaps was accidentally inflicted in the parking lot of nearby Logan Pass.

Either way, Sheehy supposedly felt comfortable enough to tell a gathering of Montana women last fall that he’s indeed “a war hero,” a self-description long frowned upon by many in the ranks.

Dave Madden, a former Navy SEAL deployed with Sheehy to Afghanistan, recently told the Washington Post: “There’s this conflict inside the SEAL teams between being the quiet professional, which is the professed ideal, and trading on the reputation of the organization for your own personal benefit.”

Here’s my advice to Sheehy: set the record straight before somebody else does it for you. Rest assured, somebody eventually will. And emulating this nation’s bygone warriors wouldn’t hurt your campaign, either.

Thank you for your service.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.