Washington (CNN)Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald publicly apologized Tuesday after taking heat for falsely claiming he served in the military's special forces while meeting a homeless veteran last month.
VA chief apologizes for 'misstatement'
McDonald, who has been overhauling the VA since taking the helm this summer, apologized for what he characterized as a "misstatement" and a "mistake." McDonald explained that he was trying to connect with a homeless veteran, but said there was "no excuse" for what he said.
"We at VA are working hard to restore trust and again I apologize to those who may have been offended by my misstatement," McDonald said Tuesday during a televised press conference. "What I was trying to do was find a way to connect with that veteran."
McDonald took to the streets in January to help homeless veterans when he ran into a homeless man who claimed to have served in the Army's special forces.
"Special forces? What years? I was in special forces!" McDonald told the man in a moment that was captured by CBS News cameras.
McDonald immediately apologized and backed off the statement after The Huffington Post contacted him and reported on the flap.
McDonald served in the Army and though he went through Rangers training, McDonald never joined the elite group.
The story spread like wildfire in the veterans and military community where some chalked it up to a misstep while others called it a much more serious breach of trust from a man brought on by President Barack Obama to re-establish trust after a health care scandal exposed the bureaucracy and mismanagement plaguing the VA.
Michael Helm, the head of the American Legion, called McDonald's special forces claim a "poor choice of words" and said he was disappointed in McDonald.
"In an effort to bond with a homeless veteran, Secretary McDonald told him he was in the Special Forces. He did complete Ranger training and served honorably with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. But a lie is a lie," Helm said. "What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose number one issue right now is the restoration of trust. He should be held to a higher standard. The secretary has apologized, as he certainly should. We hope that he can restore the trust that he has lost."
Stewart Hickey, the executive director of AMVETS, another veterans service organization, lauded McDonald's efforts to change both the VA's culture and its effectiveness, calling him a "breath of fresh air."
Hickey, who has met with McDonald, called the VA secretary a "very personable guy," noting that McDonald has urged staffers at the VA and others to refer to him by his first name, Bob.
"I'm sure he was saying it just to try and generate some camaraderie with a veteran. He could've just said I'm a vet too," Hickey said.
McDonald's comments were "unfortunate," he said, adding it reminded him of a heated exchange McDonald had with Rep. Mike Coffman during a congressional hearing last month. Coffman had accused McDonald of not changing enough at the VA in his first six months at the helm.
"I've run a large company, sir. What have you done?" McDonald fired back at Coffman, a veteran of both wars in Iraq.
Hickey said McDonald might be building a track record of arrogance.
Coffman actually rose to McDonald's defense on Tuesday, calling McDonald's misstatement "an error" that "doesn't dim the fact that he served honorably."
"We should all take him at his word and Washington shouldn't spend the next two weeks arguing about it," Coffman said. "The secretary has a job to do -- clean up the scandal plagued VA. This latest controversy shouldn't shift one iota of focus away from that long overdue task."
McDonald and Coffman found common ground on that point on Tuesday as McDonald asked to move forward to continue his work at the VA.
The VA chief insisted that he had never before claimed to serve in special forces and pledged to continue his work of regaining veterans' trust -- now in both the institution and in his leadership.
"Trust is something that is aimed every single day one veteran at a time," McDonald said. "If I can solve [one veteran's] problem I've earned one bit of trust."