The commander of Connecticut's Veterans of Foreign Wars called Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's claims to have served in Vietnam "outrageous." But most rank-and-file veterans across the state said Tuesday that they are standing behind a politician who has made appearances at military events a bulwark of his career.
"Up until now, I know he [Blumenthal] has been a good friend of veterans," said Larry Santamaria, a Vietnam veteran who is commander of the Edward A. Norton Post in Guilford.
And Larry Riley of Middletown, who served in the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam, said that he continues to support Blumenthal, attributing Tuesday's dust-up to the bruising environment of a political campaign.
"Out of all the candidates, he [is] probably the best," Riley said. "I want to know what the man's going to do when he gets into office."
Many other veterans who said that they would continue to support Blumenthal alluded to the favorable impressions he has created over the years by supporting veterans groups. During appearances, these veterans said, the attorney general had usually been careful to point out that he served during Vietnam and was not a combatant in the war itself.
Alfred "Rusty" Meek and Jerry Blonigen, Vietnam veterans from Eastern Connecticut and leaders in the state's Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, both said they had heard Blumenthal speak several times. They said Blumenthal was always careful to say he was in the Reserves and did not go overseas.
"I find it difficult to believe that he would say [he had served in Vietnam], but if he did, throw that son of a bitch out the door and be done with it," said Blonigen of Jewett City, who served as a U.S. Navy SEAL in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969.
Other veterans said that they supported Republican and former 2nd District U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, who served for 19 months in Vietnam. But if the controversy lingers, and Blumenthal fails to adequately address the questions his statements raised, it could affect independent voters.
"The only thing you think about is what else was he fibbing about?" wondered Bill Gregoire, a veteran who was playing cards Tuesday at the Enfield Senior Center. "I think it'll hurt him with people that are on the edge. This is going to follow him all the way to November."
Who Is A Veteran?Language about military service can be confusing, and several other veterans referred to the frequent ambiguity about serving "in" or "during" a conflict.
"Beginning today, I am going to start talking a lot more specifically about my service," said Len Lanza, a Navy veteran who is the commander of VFW Post 1926 in Simsbury.
"In my case, for example, I served during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and during the early years in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean I actually served in those countries. I was in the 6th Fleet either in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean."
But because he was serving "overseas" during those conflicts, Lanza said, he qualified for military service ribbons and was classified as a "veteran" eligible to be a member of the VFW.
Andrew Barylski Jr. of Putnam, past state commander of the American Legion, said it's not unusual for people who served in the military during the Vietnam War to call themselves Vietnam veterans.
"Usually, the veteran who was there doesn't talk about it," Barylski said.
He called Blumenthal "a friend of the American Legion." But the controversy that erupted Tuesday over a 2008 videotaped speech the attorney general made in Norwalk, Barylski said, sounds like "someone trying to make political hay."
"Even the best of speakers, sometimes in their haste, will leave something out that changes the context of what they're saying," said Barylski, who served as a U.S. Army journalist in Vietnam from 1966-67. "I really think it's much ado about nothing."
Navy veteran Aaron Roome of Middletown said that he was shocked when he read The New York Times' story on Blumenthal. Prior to reading the story, Roome said he had never heard references to Blumenthal's military service. Roome served during the Vietnam War and said that the attorney general's claim that he served in Vietnam is an insult to those who did fight on foreign soil.
Because of Blumenthal's claim, Roome, a registered Democrat, said he is reconsidering whether he can support Blumenthal for the U.S. Senate seat. Many other veterans that he knows, Roome said, are upset about Blumenthal's remarks.
"This makes you stop and think," he said.
World War II veterans Frank L. Simeone, of Rocky Hill, and Joe DeCorleto, of Wethersfield, are also standing by Blumenthal. While they were surprised to read Blumenthal's comments in the newspaper, they said Blumenthal has done good things for Connecticut over the years.
Dr. James Lewis, a Hamden neuropsychologist and Army veteran who was in Waterbury Tuesday, said the news shouldn't chase Blumenthal from the race.
"I'm not sure it's a problem. Public people say so much, they make so many speeches — if you do that, you're going to say something that's mis-phrased," said Lewis, "For me, it's not something I'll take umbrage at. He was a Vietnam-era veteran — he was saying 'I served in that time,' but he technically wasn't in country. People who served, served."
But Mills C. Rodgers of Waterbury, a retired career Army sergeant, was blunt about Blumenthal's words: "Don't lie about it. Don't hide your past."
Rodgers said he spent 23 years in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam. He said the difference in how soldiers serve can be hugely important.
"Guys who were in just two years or four years, they were just starting to learn when they left, " Rodgers said. "With some guys, I tell them, 'The time I spent in the Army and the time you spent don't even equate.'"
Courant staff writers Don Stacom, Amanda Falcone, Monica Polanco, Jesse Leavenworth and Shawn Beals contributed to this story.