‘Show us your combat ribbon:' attacks on female veteran candidates

Elizabeth Howe
October 29, 2018 - 5:19 pm

The 2018 midterms have seen an influx in veteran candidates, woman candidates and woman veteran candidates. But it’s this last group of candidates that seems to be fending off an increased number of attacks on military records.

Maura Sullivan and Lynne Blankenbeker  have both faced accusations of stolen valour — Sullivan of inflating her service record and Blankenbeker over her campaign message “combat proven.”  Critics wanted to see combat ribbons. Neither is still in the running. Amy McGrath has come under similar fire over her role in F-18s, and it certainly didn’t help in her close race against incumbent Andy Barr.

But is it really just these female veterans who face scrutiny? Or are we just paying more attention to this record-breaking demographic? Do men face just as many attacks on their military service records?

Jeremy Teigen, a professor of political science at Ramapo College and the author of Why Veterans Run, thinks we might just be paying extra attention to these specific candidates.

“I think what we’ll call this is a little bit of journalism bias,” said Teigen. “We’re seeing this record number of females running with military records. There’s something substantively interesting here. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be covering them, but I think that maybe coverage is getting a little over hot because we’re losing site of the fact that men too have their credentials scrutinized.”

“The story of attacking military credentials is a, shall we say, equal opportunity game as far as gender goes,” Teigen added. “But because we’re really paying close attention to these women it might feel like this is something unique.”

To a certain degree, Rebecca Best, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, disagrees. Her research shows that female veterans are perceived differently than male veterans — and they advertise themselves accordingly.

“When people think about a male veteran, they just assume he served in combat — even though plenty of male veterans have not. With female veterans, I think the reverse is true. And they’re aware that they have this vulnerability — that they might have their service records attacked or be accused of stolen valor,” Best said.

And so, Best believes that female veteran candidates advertise themselves differently than their male counterparts to pre-empt exactly the types of attacks Sullivan, Blankenbeker and McGrath faced.

“One of the projects I’ve been working on is looking at the ads of female veterans, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that female veteran ads hit you over the head with the fact that they served in combat,” said Best. “If you just look at the female veteran ads compared to the male veteran ads, the female ones are more likely to show pictures of them on deployment, in front of helicopters they flew. They talk about missions they ran, they have endorsements from other veterans.”

Lory Manning, director of government operations at Service Women’s Action Network, agreed with Teigen that a military record is an easy target in political scrambles.

“Military service is admired by a lot of the American public and put on a high pedestal. And when you’re running against someone, the way politicians are, you rip them to shreds. And what do you go after first? You go after that sterling thing they have like a military service record,” Manning said.

But she also agreed with Best.

“There are also certain kinds of people — not all men, some are women — who devalue anything women do,” Manning said. “And military service, which has been so traditionally male for a long time — when women prove that they can do it too, it sets things akilter. There are people who don’t like it so they find a way to devalue things women have done.”

One thing is for sure — even the experts haven’t seen female veterans running for congress in these numbers before. It's unclear whether or not females are facing more scrutiny simply because of gender. But only time will tell what they are capable of accomplishing should they win.