In the battle to capture the 3rd Congressional District, the Republican frontrunners have enlisted two retired major generals from the Louisiana National Guard to fortify their campaigns and, in certain cases, to attack the opposition.
Jeff Landry, a New Iberia attorney and businessman, fired the first volley Wednesday with an endorsement from retired Maj. Gen. Frank Catalano, who also voiced a recorded message for Landry's campaign that started playing on phones across the district overnight.
Hunt Downer of Houma, a former state veterans affairs secretary and a retired major general himself, has been at odds with Landry this week over each other's record of service in the Guard.
"I served with both Mr. Landry and Mr. Downer," Catalano says in the robocall. "I can assure you that Mr. Jeff Landry served honorably and will fight for veterans and to protect our nation. Jeff Landry spent over 10 years in uniform. Jeff Landry is the candidate I trust."
In an interview Wednesday, Catalano said Landry served as his driver while working with military police in Texas-based Fort Hood. "Jeff is a salt of the earth kind of guy," he said.
Downer was there, too, during the early 1990s as America braced for what would be Operation Desert Storm. All three men are considered veterans of Desert Storm, but Downer is the only one who traveled to Iraq in the war's wake.
Military records show Downer spent 17 days in February 1992 in Saudi Arabia on active duty. Catalano said he was suspicious about how Downer got assigned to a U.S. Army Reserve unit and accused him of using political connections to get into Iraq. "He's political," Catalano said. "That's just Hunt's nature." He said Downer should have never been given a Third Army arm patch and should have never worn it in a fashion that indicated he was in a combat zone.
Catalano, who now resides in South Dakota, also said he was "disappointed" that Downer's campaign questioned Landry's status as a veteran of Desert Storm.
In an interview earlier this week, Landry said he earned the distinction during active duty service at Fort Hood.
"To say that [Downer] is a veteran because he made a trip one year after cessation isn't fair to Jeff and is disingenuous," Catalano said.
Downer issued a one-sentence response later that afternoon. "Public service in America used to be about building things for our future," he said, "but somehow, this election has become about destroying my past." His campaign manager, Buddy Boe, was less diplomatic and accused Landry of misleading voters, particularly in an Aug. 19 debate where he said he had "seen what happened" after touting his status as a veteran of Desert Storm. "Since Jeff continues to lie about his military service I guess we can expect him to lie about everything," said Boe. "It is amazing that Landry, who never served overseas, has consistently tried to give the illusion that he had boots in the sand during Desert Storm."
Retired Maj. Gen. Gary Whipple, who signed off on Downer's assignment to the Third Army in 1992 for the Iraq mission, said Landry is overreaching. "Every criticism [Landry] has of Hunt has an explanation," he said.
For example, Whipple said the Third Army patch is standard for everyone assigned to the Third Army. "Everyone gets one," he said. As for Downer being assigned to the Third Army, Whipple said there were "very few" instances of Guard transfers prior to the 1992 mission and that Downer was among them. "This is not uncommon for the Army to pick up people like that," he said, adding that Downer's unique skill set that led to his assignment involved his background as an attorney. "[Downer] was in a liaison position because of his legal skills, but I can't remember the specifics of the assignment," Whipple said. "Look, he could have stayed at Fort Hood and kept doing legal work. But he volunteered. He went through air assault school. It's a damn hard school. It's very demanding."
Kristian Magar, an oilfield manager from New Iberia, is the only other Republican on the primary ballot Saturday. He is also a former second lieutenant in the Louisiana National Guard. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote Saturday, a primary runoff will be held Oct. 2.