Mark Kirk questioned about military claim

May 31, 2010 (SPRINGFIELD, Ill.)

Mark Kirk said he was named the Navy's intelligence officer of the year. But he now acknowledges it was his unit that was given the honor.

Kirk is an officer in the Navy Reserves. His challenger in the Senate race, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, wasted no time in criticizing Kirk for the error. Kirk fired back Monday, calling it an innocent mistake.

Giannoulias says Kirk has played with the truth. Kirk says his military record is being denigrated by an opponent who is desperate.

The centerpiece of this exchange is Congressman Kirk's claim - held for more than a decade - that he was named "naval intelligence officer of the year in 1998.

In reality, Kirk did not win an individual distinction It was the unit he led that won the award for intelligence efforts in Operation Allied Force. The U.S. led assault on Serbia in the late 90s.

"I made the error," said Kirk.

At the end of the Arlington Heights Memorial Day parade Kirk portrayed the error as an innocent mistake, saying that as the unit leader he personally accepted the award during a busy congressional campaign.

"My commanding officer said this is a big deal. You know the top award of the year, and I simply didn't remember it correctly, but when my staff showed me the actual title of the award, which is the Rufus Talyor Intelligence Award, then we put it correctly in the biography," said Kirk.

That happened last week as several reporters began asking questions - questions the Kirk campaign says were orchestrated by Giannoulias.

"I think he's got an honorable record, and I don't know why he feels the need to embellish the record and not tell the truth," said Giannoulias.

Giannoulias says Kirk owes a more detailed explanation than what he's offered thus far. Borrowing what he says is a media term, Kirk describes Giannoulias as a mob banker and someone who hasn't served a day of his life in the military.

"When I was serving in Afghanistan with RC South as part of General Nicholson's staff, he was making loans to convicted felons and mobsters," said Kirk.

"This is not about me and Congressman Kirk. This is about Congressman Kirk and the truth," said Giannoulias.

Despite his acknowledgement of a mistake and a making a correction, it's not entirely clear from his explanation how Congressman Kirk confused a unit award with an individual distinction - even though he was the unit's leader, and had won other individual commendations for his intelligence service.

Beyond that, the question is does the issue have political traction? In largely Republican Arlington Heights Monday, a number of people told us that while the issue gave them pause, they don't regard it as they would somebody claiming to be in a theater of war when they were in fact never there

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