This story has been kicking around for a couple of days, but I’ve been reluctant to jump into the fray because 1) I have no background in the military and never served, and 2) I have read comments online that come down on both sides of the question, and it seemed to be an “issue” that has existed in a myriad of forms for a long time.
The question posed is relatively straightforward — Sen. Tom Cotton, while an officer in the US Army, applied for and attended Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia. It is an all-volunteer two-month course open to all branches of the military. The failure rate approaches 60%. Thereafter, in campaign literature, Cotton referred to himself as an “Army Ranger” although he never served in a unit of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Before going into the controversy, I think it is appropriate to provide a complete and comprehensive list of Tom Cotton’s actual service in the US Army — then we’ll assess the claims that have been made against him.
Cotton graduated high school in Dardanelle, Arkansas in 1995, and was accepted by Harvard where he enrolled as an undergraduate. He graduated magna cum laude in only 3 years. After spending one year in a Masters program, Cotton was accepted and enrolled in Harvard Law School, graduating in 2002. After a one year judicial clerkship, and two years in private practice at an international law firm, Cotton resigned from his firm in January 2005 and ENLISTED in the Army and asked to be assigned to the Infantry. Two months later he began Officier Candidate School and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in June 2006. By May 2007 he was leading an infantry platoon of the 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad, Iraq. After that combat tour ended, he was promoted and assigned to the 3rd Infantry Regiment at Arlington, Virginia. Less than two years later Cotton asked for a transfer to a NATO unit in Afghanistan to serve as Operations Officer of a Provincial Reconstruction Team whose job it was to conduct counter-insurgency and reconstruction operations in the local villages of Lagham Province. This was directly adjacent to Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where some of the heaviest fighting along the border with Pakistan took place. He spent 11 months deployed to Afghanistan.
He was awarded a Bronze Star and several other medals, as well as earning a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, and Ranger Tab.
Tom Cotton successfully completed the course and graduated from the Army Ranger School. That was the only qualification needed to join the 75th Ranger Regiment. But Sen. Cotton remained with his original unit, the 101st Airborne Division, and was deployed to Iraq.
Enter Salon writer Roger Sollenberger and his story “Sen. Tom Cotton campaigned on “experience as an Army Ranger” — but he didn’t have any.” The story begins with the following:
But when Cotton launched his first congressional campaign in 2012, he felt compelled to repeatedly falsify that honorable military record, even as he still served in the Army Reserve.
…claiming to have been “a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and, in a campaign ad, to have “volunteered to be an Army Ranger.”
In reality, Cotton was never part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the elite unit…
Rather, Cotton attended the Ranger School, a two-month-long, small-unit tactical infantry course that literally anyone in the military is eligible to attend. Soldiers who complete the course earn the right to wear the Ranger tab — a small arch that reads “Ranger” — but in the eyes of the military, that does not make them an actual Army Ranger.
It is Sollenberger who levels the charge that Cotton “falsified” his military record. Sollenberger puts forth the proposition that because everyone in the military is eligible to attend the Ranger School, that alone cannot be sufficient to be deemed a “Ranger.”
It is Sollenberger who makes the claim that Cotton is not “an actual Army Ranger,” and supports it with a story from Glenn Kessler, the “FactChecker” of the Washington Post who attempted to answer the same question in connection with a dispute between two candidates in New Hampshire. Both were US Army veterans and graduates of the Ranger School, but only one referred to himself as an Army Ranger. Kessler ended up getting a written response from the Army, and that response did draw a distinction between being “Ranger Qualified” and being a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment. But even Kessler acknowledged that the answer is far from clear, and the US Army Rangers Association membership includes as “Ranger” any veterans who earned the Ranger Tab.
The Ranger Tab denotes an individual who has graduated from Ranger School. The Tab is not a unit insignia. The Ranger “Scroll” is the insignia worn by members of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the same manner that all Army officers and enlisted personnel wear the insignia of the unit to which they are assigned. The Ranger Scroll is replaced by a new unit insignia when a Ranger leaves the 75th Regiment for a new assignment — but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer a “Ranger.” The Ranger Tab is never removed.
Every Officer who completed Ranger School is authorized to wear the Ranger Tab throughout their career. It is an individual accomplishment, and it signifies that the bearer had achieved a certain set of skills and proficiencies that are taught at the Ranger School. Those skills and proficiencies are not unit-dependent — the Tab represents the status of the individual wearing it.
In the same manner that Cotton was a “Paratrooper” anywhere, he went in the Army — he earned the Parachutist Badge — he was also a “Ranger” anywhere he went in the Army because he earned the Ranger Tab.
Cotton never claimed he was a member of the 75th Regiment. He never claimed he served in Iraq or Afghanistan with a Ranger Unit.
What Sollenberger faults him for are three campaign ads/statements made in his earliest runs for office. Here is the supposedly “offending” language identified in the Salon piece:
“a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan,”
“volunteered to be an Army Ranger.”
“My experience as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan and my experience in business will put me in very good condition.”
“became an infantry officer and an Army Ranger.”
As for claiming he was an “Army Ranger”, it would seem that the US Army Ranger’s Association offers some insights on that as noted above. Further, you have the following which was noted by the guys over at Powerline:
The first ever female graduates of the Army’s notoriously rigorous Ranger school received their elite tabs on Friday along with 94 male soldiers.
Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of all Army infantry and armor training and education, told the graduates… “You’ll leave Victory Pond today with a small piece of cloth on your shoulder, but more importantly, you carry the title of Ranger from here on out,” he said.
Cotton did “volunteer” to go to Ranger School — that’s the only way to get in. So it seems a bit of a stretch to make a claim to that effect as a basis for criticism.
He was a “U.S. Army Ranger” during the time he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, the designation is personal, and not as to a specific unit unless the claim is to have served in a unit of the 75th Rangers.
His experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan both took place after he had graduated from Ranger School. Again, he does not claim to have served with a Ranger Unit in either theater.
Is this “parsing” of the language used by Cotton in his campaign literature? Certainly, it is. But if the Salon writer wants to draw adverse inferences from the combination of words used, this is just an exercise in pointing out that there are other inferences that can also be drawn from those same words.
To just twist the blade a bit in Sollenberger there was this yesterday from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (h/t Powerline):
Saturday, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Merritt, a former regimental sergeant major of the 75th Ranger Regiment, defended Cotton, saying the latter’s statements had been accurate.
Merritt said in a telephone interview that the attacks on Cotton’s record are “so absurd.” “It’s unfair. It’s almost slanderous,” Merritt said. “He’s 100% a Ranger. … He will always be a Ranger.
Sollenberger made a significant factual error himself when he attempted to separate Ranger School from the Ranger Regiment (yes, they are under separate Army commands):
Attending the school, in fact, is not a prerequisite to serve in the Ranger Regiment.
That is actually false. While there is a different selection process for enlisted personnel who volunteer for the 75th Ranger Regiment, if an Army Officer or Non-Commissioned Officer wishes to join the 75th Ranger Regiment in that capacity they must successfully complete Ranger School — it is a prerequisite. It sort of makes sense that the Army’s “Ranger Leadership School” would be deemed a necessity for … the leadership of Army Rangers.
But the Salon article and author could likely not care less about upholding the “honor” of the 75th Ranger Regiment by “calling out” all the “pretenders” who only wear the Tab. That’s not what this is about at all.
As the Arkansas Gazette noted, after the Salon piece ran, similar stories attacking Cotton and his claims about his military record ran on the websites of Rolling Stone, Newsweek, the New York Post, and The Independent.
This is about Tom Cotton and 2024. This is a preview of attacks that will come at Cotton from the Democrats, left-wing interest groups, and the media. Tom Cotton has been a GOP Presidential candidate-in-training since he wrote his famous Letter to the Editor of the New York times while a Platoon Commander in Iraq back in 2006. The Times didn’t publish the letter, but Cotton sent a copy of the guys at Powerline blog — and they published the letter.
Cotton complained to the Editors about their decision to run a story on a program used by the United States government to track terrorist financing through world financial markets. The content of the story was such that it warned such terrorist financiers that they should avoid certain types and routes of transactions. Cotton expressed his anger that young soldiers under his command might be injured or killed as a result of a terrorist act that could now be more safely financed because of the story run by the Times. He ended his letter as follows:
And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others — laws you have plainly violated. I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.
That was Tom Cotton’s coming out party.
The media and the Democrats fear him in 2024. Salon is just getting an early start.