June 29, 2015 10:27 AM

[Editor's Note: Since this story was originally posted, both Deron Santiny and Daniel J. Bentley have since admitted to KATC TV3 that their comments regarding Mark Garber were personal and not made on behalf of the Southwest Louisiana Veterans Coalition or American Legion Post 69 of Lafayette as they both implied in The Daily Advertiser's original report.]

According to an article Sunday in The Daily Advertiser, a group of local veterans is demanding an apology from sheriff candidate Mark Garber over what they claim are Garber’s misrepresentations of his service in Iraq — for which he was awarded the Bronze Star while deployed alongside U.S. soldiers. One local veteran, Daniel J. Bentley, went so far as to call on Garber to step out of the race.

No disrespect, but these claims and The Daily Advertiser’s article are without merit.

From the article that appeared in Sunday’s paper (the story was picked up by the Associated Press and two local TV stations):

The Southwest Louisiana Veterans Coalition board wants an apology, while one Lafayette veteran said Garber should withdraw from the Sheriff’s race.

Garber is pictured in campaign material dressed in military gear with a gun; his Bronze Star medal also is shown. To make it worse, local veterans said, Garber stood up at a banquet recently when military veterans were recognized.

“He slapped the face of every veteran in Lafayette by portraying himself as a veteran,” said Daniel J. Bentley, commander of American Legion Post 69 of Lafayette. “He is not a veteran.”

Garber told The Daily Advertiser, “I have never, ever claimed to be a military veteran.”

But the website for his private legal practice with attorney C. Ray Murry recently stated: “Mr. Garber and Mr. Murry are military veterans.”

The statement was changed Thursday after The Daily Advertiser brought it to Garber’s attention. He said the statement was written long ago and was worded improperly because his law partner is a veteran of the military.

While in Iraq, Garber wore a uniform and carried weapons like military personnel, and was deployed on missions with soldiers. He considers himself a veteran of Iraq, but not a military veteran, he said.

According to the citation that accompanied Garber’s Bronze Star medal, from March 24, 2006, until July 26, 2006, Garber “distinguished himself by meritorious achievement as an interrogator, Special Operations Task Force, while engaged in ground operations against the enemy at Joint Special Operations Command, Iraq.”

Garber was a senior interrogator for Northern Iraq Operations, went on more than 70 missions “at the point of capture,” and twice was targeted by roadside bombs, one of which disabled the military vehicle he was riding in, the citation states.

“I took an oath to defend the Constitution. I was subject to orders and deployed on orders to Iraq,” Garber said. “It was a very compressed, highly, highly intense deployment.”

Garber’s work in Iraq was commendable, and the Bronze Star medal is legitimate, Bentley said. But he believes the images used by Garber’s campaign are deceptive because they imply Garber was a combat veteran.

“He said he was in Iraq with the Air Force,” said Deron Santiny of Lafayette, a member of the Wounded Warrior Project, past commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart chapter in Lafayette and a Southwest Louisiana Veterans Coalition board member. “He’s not saying he was a civilian contractor or whatever his capacity was.

“He’s claiming to be with the Air Force in Iraq and anyone who doesn’t know any better is automatically going to assume he’s a veteran,” Santiny said.

Bentley said Garber is walking a very fine line.

“He was over there. He took the same oath, but he didn’t sign the same paper.” He did not serve in a branch of the military and does not have a DD-214, a form every veteran receives upon discharge, he said.

Santiny, who was injured in Iraq in 2005 when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device, said he served alongside Navy Seals and Special Forces military personnel, but that didn’t make him one of them.

He witnessed Garber stand up with military veterans to be recognized at a Friends of the National Rifle Association banquet a few weeks ago.

“It was totally disrespectful,” Santiny said.

Garber said the NRA representative asked for those who served to stand up.

“I served. I came forward. I didn’t understand it was official military veterans,” Garber said.

Santiny said an apology would not be enough.

“He needs to withdraw from the race because he’s already done the damage that can’t be undone,” Santiny said. “He needs to do the graceful thing, quit being a politician and bow out of the race.”

So what did we learn from reading this?

Essentially, that Garber risked his life in Iraq, and the Bronze Star — a U.S. military decoration awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement to members of the military or other Uniformed Services of the United States — is bona fide.

At the same time, we're left with lingering questions about Garber's character thanks to The Advertiser giving voice to a non-issue.

As noted in the article, the Bronze Star came with an accompanying citation proving its authenticity. The citation states that the Bronze Star was bestowed upon Garber because while in Iraq between March 24, 2006, and July 26, 2006, he “distinguished himself by meritorious achievement as an interrogator, Special Operations Task Force, while engaged in ground operations against the enemy at Joint Special Operations Command.” It was awarded for his work with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Garber, as the citation points out and the Advertiser story notes, went on more than 70 “at the point of capture missions” while a senior interrogator for Northern Iraq Operations. He even found himself the target of two roadside bombs while in Iraq — with one responsible for disabling the military vehicle he was riding in at the time.

No disrespect to the veterans out there who have risked their lives for this country, but Garber has never officially identified himself as a member of the U.S. military (Garber says a statement on his law firm's website referring to him as a military vet was written a long time ago and wrongly grouped him with his law partner who did serve in a branch of the military).

From the outset of his campaign, Garber has specified his involvement with the military in Iraq was through the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

So is it really a problem that his campaign brochures include a picture of him decked out in full military garb?

Considering that’s what he wore while in Iraq, the answer is no.

And when at the recent NRA banquet, Garber stood up because they asked for those who served to stand. Regardless of whether he was there as a member of the military or as a civilian working directly with U.S. soldiers, he was there for the same cause, serving the same country. Is it not OK for Mark Garber to say he served in Iraq? Because just like the men and women of the U.S. military, he too was risking his life in the name of this country.

Mark Garber never received that “DD-214 form” mentioned by the veteran in The Advertiser’s story because he was never discharged from active military duty, but he unquestionably did serve in Iraq.

In giving voice to this non-issue, The Daily Advertiser egregiously overlooked a big question implied by the article: What were the other three candidates doing while Garber risked his life serving his country? Everything else — as Sunday’s story illustrates — is just noise, a distraction from the real issues surrounding the race to replace Mike Neustrom.


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