HARTFORD, Conn. – When Jim Overman watched a TV news report of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal saying he regretted “misstating” his military service during the Vietnam War, he got mad.
“He was lying,” said Overman, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and a Vietnam veteran.
Blumenthal’s May 18 televised press conference was an attempt at damage control over a New York Times report a day earlier that said he had never served in Vietnam.
The report quoted Blumenthal at a ceremony in March 2008, honoring veterans and senior citizens who sent presents to soldiers overseas at which he referred to “the days that I served in Vietnam.”
Blumenthal, a Democrat now running for the United States Senate to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Chris Dodd, obtained “at least” five military deferments from 1965 – 1970 and took repeated steps that enabled him to avoid going to war, the Times reported.
The report sparked a firestorm of controversy in Connecticut around the popular Democrat and long time attorney general whose run for the Senate before the Times’ exposé was considered almost guaranteed.
But Overman and other Native veterans consider Blumenthal’s lie profoundly dishonorable.
“We call them three dollar bills and we have them in our society for all wars, but the one I concentrate on is the Vietnam War, because I am directly involved. I have three combat tours in North Vietnam and when I see somebody imitating what I did, somebody who deliberately had a stay-away package from his society of handshakes, I get very upset,” Overman said.
“When he made the statement that he served in Vietnam he was misrepresenting me, and now he’s trying to make it look like he misspoke.”
Overman, 77, spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and retired in 1972 as a major. He remains the highest decorated Native American fighter pilot in the Air Force, having received three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 18 Air Medals.
During the years of Blumenthal’s deferments, the attorney general completed his studies at Harvard, pursued a graduate fellowship in England, served as a special assistant to the Washington Post’s publisher Katharine Graham and took a job in Nixon’s White House. In 1970, he landed a spot in the Marine Reserve that virtually guaranteed he would stay stateside during the remaining years of the war.
Blumenthal is notorious in Indian country as an enemy of federal recognition and tribal sovereignty. He is particularly unloved for his efforts at the center of a successful campaign of political influence that overturned the BIA’s federal acknowledgments of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation.
Donna Loring, a former Penobscot representative in the Maine legislature and a Vietnam veteran who served in the communications center at Long Binh Army Base, said Blumenthal’s lie was an offense to all of Indian country.
“What really gets me about this is that more Native Americans serve in the military than any other demographic group. We Native people have given our lives disproportionately in the military to protect the rights of people of this country. And here this guy is fighting as hard as he can to take away our land and our rights, and then he lies about serving his country. That is so dishonest and so dishonorable.”
Blumenthal also organized other state attorneys general to join him in intervening on the plaintiff’s side in Carcieri v. Salazar, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Interior secretary did not have the authority to take land into trust for tribes not federally recognized in 1934. He also inserted himself in San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians in California v. National Labor Relations Board in which an appeals court ruled 2-1 that federal labor laws could apply to sovereign tribal nations.
“It’s no surprise to us at all that he’s a liar. He certainly lied about the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, and those lies were an attempt at cultural genocide,” said STN Chief Richard Velky.
Velky served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and has been recognized by the state’s Native American Veterans Association, but he did not serve in the war.
“I joined the Navy in April of my senior year in high school and went into the service three days after I graduated. I didn’t want to be drafted. I wanted to be in the Navy. But you go where they tell you to go. Half of my platoon was sent to Vietnam. It just so happened that I wasn’t. But for Blumenthal to seek deferments means he was obviously trying to avoid being sent to Vietnam.”
Velky said Blumenthal’s “regret” about “misstating” his service doesn’t add up to much.
“An apology was due to the veterans who served, not regrets that he misspoke,” Velky said.
When news broke in the summer of 2008 that then Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Glenn Marshall had similarly lied about serving in Vietnam “his tribe basically booted him out of office, which is what the consequence should be when a politician lies,” Velky said.
But that’s not likely to happen. The Democratic Party machine has already closed ranks around the attorney general.
“People know him, they know he has a strong record of fighting for people in Connecticut for a long time. People, I think, are forgiving,” Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant in Washington, told the Washington Post.
Connecticut’s Democratic Party is so firmly in Blumenthal’s corner that the Democratic town committee chairpersons in 83 of the state’s 169 towns have barred Democratic challenger Merrick Alpert from speaking to their committees.
But while the party may be holding fast to its support for Blumenthal, voters may not be so forgiving. While polls earlier showed Blumenthal ahead of his Republican challengers by 30-40 points, the Cook Political Report, an independent, non-partisan national organization, said May 18 that Blumenthal’s misstatements about his military service has “put the race in a toss-up.”