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Rep. Coffman really is a ‘combat veteran’

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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“Let me start by telling you something I haven’t done,” said Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran. “I have never run a federal agency that tolerates corruption the way the VA has. I’ve never built a hospital that’s years behind schedule and hundreds of millions over budget. And I’ve never been a shill for inept bureaucrats who allowed American heroes to die on a medical waiting list while waiting for medical care.”

–Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), statement on website, Feb. 12, 2015

This statement comes from Coffman’s response to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, after a heated exchange during a recent budget hearing.

When grilled by Coffman on whether progress has been made since McDonald took office and whether he has changed the culture of mismanagement and unethical behaviors at the VA, the new chief responded in defense of his record: “I ran a large company, sir, what have you done?”

This “Oh, snap!” moment went viral, and Coffman issued a statement about his own credentials in response, including that he is a Marine Corps combat veteran. Coffman’s spokesman Tyler Sandberg noted again to our colleagues at In the Loop that Coffman is a combat veteran who served in both Iraq wars, and took another jab at McDonald’s performance in his first six months on the job. Veterans groups also criticized McDonald for being disrespectful to a 22-year veteran who served in two wars. (McDonald himself is an Army veteran.)

A reader asked The Fact Checker to confirm Coffman’s combat experience. The reader, who identified himself as a veteran, wrote: “The usage of the term ‘combat veteran’ was normally only applied to a soldier who actually directly engaged the enemy and received fire as a member of a unit assigned to combat operations. The remaining veterans served in a combat zone, but were not actual combat veterans.”

The question piqued our interest. Coffman has repeatedly been described a combat veteran. Others who have done so, like Joni Ernst, recently have been criticized for using the term while not having engaged in firefights.

Did Coffman, in fact, actually fight in combat? What are the criteria to qualify as a “combat veteran”?

The Facts

Coffman was deployed twice — in 1990 as an infantry officer in the first Gulf War, and in 2005 as a civil affairs officer working in support of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

For his first deployment, Coffman earned the Combat Action Ribbon, awarded to Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard members who participated in ground or surface combat and “rendered satisfactory performance under enemy fire.” In short, people who receive this award have been shot at and had the opportunity to fire back. (In 2012, the requirements were changed to include those who had direct exposure to or worked to disable improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.)

Marine Corps requirements state that “merely serving in a combat area or being exposed to enemy fire or threat of enemy fire” does not make a member eligible.

The Marines Manpower and Reserve Affairs Office confirmed Coffman received this award for his actions during Operation Desert Storm. Sandberg also sent The Fact Checker this 2010 photo of Coffman wearing the ribbon on the top right among his insignia.

The controversy over the use of “combat veteran” stems from its vagueness and various technical uses of the term.

Dan Caldwell, legislative director for Concerned Veterans for America and former Marine, said the generally accepted use of the term is for those who were “with a unit, in the military, on the ground, and you were supporting or directly engaged in military effort against an enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan or another combat zone.”

For tax purposes, the term technically can apply to any veteran who served in a combat zone, which are established through executive order. The designation allows military members to exclude military pay from federal income taxes. The Combat Zone Tax Exclusion was created to exempt members from income tax increases to fund World War I and II, according to a Defense Department report.

American troops in the Philippines helping with intel and training in conjunction with Operation Enduring Freedom are in Afghanistan combat zone. The entire Arabian peninsula has been designated as a combat zone since 1991.

During his second deployment, Coffman helped establish interim local governments in the Western Euphrates River Valley, according to his bio. He was deployed to a combat zone in the technical sense, but he served as a civil affairs officer.

When it comes to VA benefits, the definition is narrower. The VA provides health benefits for veterans who confirm they served in theater combat, by showing documentation that shows they received a combat service medal, hostile fire pay, imminent danger pay or tax benefits. But the veteran also must meet other criteria, such as serving at least 24 continuous months or being discharged under honorable conditions.

Caldwell said disputes over whether a combat veteran truly was in a firefight while serving in a combat zone take the focus off larger veteran issues.

“The bigger issue is, did somebody blatantly misrepresent their service — i.e., ribbons they didn’t rate, lying about things they didn’t actually experience, and even the larger issues of, ‘What are the larger strategic implications behind the combat that they supposedly are engaging or aren’t’?” Caldwell said. “We, as a veteran community, sometimes get hung up on these things that, at the end of the day, don’t make a big difference.”

The Pinocchio Test

There are many uses of the term “combat veteran.” The broadest sense of the word — that a member served in active duty in a geographical area designated as a combat zone — is used for tax exemption purposes. A narrower definition is used for veterans to receive health benefits. It is a vague title that can be interpreted in different ways within the veteran community.

But when it comes to Coffman’s record, he is a combat veteran in the most literal and widely-understood use of the term. The criteria for the Combat Action Ribbon that Coffman received requires proof he was in actual combat operations. Without having been there with him, this is the best measure to confirm his experience. We award Coffman the elusive Geppetto Checkmark.

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