Mark Kirk's military service was supposed to be a major plus in his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Instead, the Highland Park Republican congressman finds himself increasingly on the defensive, barraged by questions about the veracity of his portrayal of his military record.
On Wednesday, Kirk was under the microscope regarding inaccurate descriptions of his military service, this time over wrongly saying that he served "in" Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war in Iraq that eventually toppled President Saddam Hussein.
Kirk's campaign said his official U.S. House website once incorrectly said he was the only member of Congress to serve in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that began in 2003. That was changed in 2005 to say that he served "during" the operation.
Kirk, a member of the Navy Reserves, served as a stateside intelligence officer during the invasion.
"Over the course of a public career, unintentional errors do happen," Kirk's campaign said in response to a story on the blog Talking Points Memo.
The campaign added that his 2005 campaign website always used the correct wording.
The description of Kirk serving "in" the operation went beyond his website. Newspaper stories of the period routinely said Kirk served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and there's no sign that he sought corrections.
A 2004 op-ed column that Kirk co-wrote for the Washington Times also said he served in the conflict, and that's how Kirk was sometimes described when he appeared on cable talk shows.
Kieran Michael Lalor, founder of the political committee Iraq Veterans for Congress, praised Kirk's military service but suggested he was misleading the public for political purposes.
"When veterans in politics are dishonest and act like all of the other self-serving politicians in government, it undermines all veteran candidates," Lalor said.
Kirk's first correction of his military record involved his frequent claims that he has been named the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1999. In fact, as the Washington Post first reported, it was a different award and it went to his entire unit, not to Kirk personally.
Kirk played down the discrepancy, describing it as simply a matter of getting the award's name wrong in his official biography. He said his aides found and corrected the mistake on their own, although the Navy said it contacted Kirk's campaign after getting questions from reporters.
The five-term congressman portrays questions about his record as an attack on his military service by his Democratic opponent for the U.S. Senate, Alexi Giannoulias.
But with a high-profile Senate seat at stake, the allegations have taken on overt political tones with both campaigns calling upon sympathetic veterans to back up their views.
The Kirk campaign released a letter from the commanding officer who nominated him for the award, Capt. Clay Fearnow, who said Kirk served under him during the Kosovo campaign. Fearnow said it would be easy to make an "honest mistake" comparing the two awards and praised Kirk's record.
"Assertions I've seen that Mark Kirk embellished or exaggerated his record are ridiculous," Fearnow wrote. "He is one of the finest Naval Officers I have had the honor to work with."
Giannoulias' campaign turned to Jill Morgenthaler, the former Illinois Homeland Security Director and a retired Army colonel. She previously sought the Democratic nomination for Illinois' 6th Congressional District. She said Kirk inevitably misled the public about his service record and his receipt of awards.
"He had an honorable career, definitely," Morgenthaler said. "What I don't understand is why he's had to lie and embellish his career - At least to us in the military, that comes off as a fatal character flaw."
In response, Kirk's campaign sent media outlets a two-page list of supportive quotes from Illinois veterans, including some from the suburbs.
"Mark Kirk wore the uniform of our country with honor and distinction. Alexi Giannoulias never has. The only person who needs to apologize is Alexi Giannoulias for trying to disgrace a decorated veteran," said Luke Praxmarer, a Marine veteran from Palatine.
Meanwhile, veterans' groups said observers should be wary of jumping to conclusions.
Jules Spindler, commander of the Illinois chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars, took issue with Kirk's claims about his record but said critics should be careful when making comparisons about his awards.
"It's not right, but I don't hold that in the disregard I would as someone claiming they served in Vietnam when they didn't or won the Purple Heart when they didn't," Spindler said.
Daily Herald Senior State Government Editor John Patterson, staff writer Chase Castle and Associated Press contributed to this story.