Bishop, House conflict over veteran status, meaning

Campaign claims fly in final days of congressional race

jgaines@macon.comNovember 2, 2012 

A campaign dispute between incumbent U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., and retired Col. John House, his Republican challenger in the 2nd Congressional District, hinges on one word: veteran.

A screenshot, dated Sept. 17 and provided by House, is apparently from Bishop’s official web page. The screenshot has Bishop, a 10-term congressman, describing himself as “a veteran of the United States Army.” That conflicts with what Bishop told The Telegraph in an Oct. 17 interview.

Contacted Friday, Bishop’s campaign didn’t directly deny the screenshot’s authenticity.

His web page does not now include that phrase.

Bishop told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspaper Friday that House is “grasping at straws.”

“The fact is, I have a long record of service to veterans in my years in Congress,” Bishop said.

But House said claims of military service, and specifically how that service is described, are important to veterans -- and that Bishop doesn’t qualify.

House doesn’t contest Bishop’s account of undergoing basic ROTC training, completing advanced ROTC while in law school, failing his commissioning physical and receiving an honorable discharge certificate in February 1971. The open questions are whether that makes Bishop a U.S. Army veteran, and -- if not -- whether Bishop has claimed veteran status.

House says Bishop has claimed “more than once” to be a veteran, and cites Title 38 of U.S. Code as evidence that Bishop is not.

“The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable,” according to federal law.

The Title 38 language sets requirements for getting veterans’ benefits, which Bishop says he never sought.

Asked last month whether he described himself as a military veteran, Bishop recounted his ROTC experience and discharge before going on active duty.

“No, I don’t say I’m a military veteran, but let me just say, look up Webster’s dictionary and see what a veteran is,” he said in the Telegraph interview. “Depending upon what definition you use, I could be considered a veteran. To me that’s not really an issue.”

More important, Bishop said, is his legislative record on veterans issues, and awards and endorsements for that work.

But House, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2001, said use of the term does matter -- to other veterans in particular.

“There is no doubt he has portrayed his military status as if he was a veteran in order to solicit support from veterans,” House said.

House said the wording disappeared from Bishop’s website in late September, just a few days after the questioned wording was brought up at a news conference in Columbus.

Now, that page on the site begins: “As the Ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, and as the Co-Chair of the Congressional Military Family Caucus, I will continue to support the men and women who serve in the military and their families and our nations (sic) veterans.”

The Telegraph asked Bishop campaign spokeswoman Emily Lilley whether the screenshot House provided was authentic and, if so, how it squared with Bishop’s statement that he doesn’t call himself a veteran.

Lilley’s initial reply avoided a direct answer, reiterating Bishop’s ROTC training, physical failure and discharge, and a recitation of Bishop’s work on veterans’ issues, related awards and endorsements. She included a picture of the certificate saying Bishop was “honorably discharged from the United States Army.”

Asked again, Bishop’s campaign didn’t directly confirm or deny the screenshot’s authenticity.

“I cannot speak to the content of the official website. However, if the screenshot is a reflection of content that was removed from the website, I would say it was taken down because it is incongruous with Congressman Bishop’s historic portrayal of his military service,” Lilley said in an e-mail. “Though Congressman Bishop does not refer to himself as a veteran, the generally accepted definition of ‘veteran’ includes Congressman Bishop as he is ‘a former member of the armed forces,’ specifically the United States Army, as evidenced by the honorable discharge.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.

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