- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Eric Greitens’ time fighting terrorism as a Navy SEAL is a centerpiece of his bid for Missouri governor. By contrast, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt’s Vietnam War draft status was a little-known footnote in his 45-year political career, until recently.

But with both men vying to occupy the state’s top two elected offices, their military records are coming under increased scrutiny by journalists, political opponents and in the case of Greitens, by other soldiers.

Greitens, a one-time Democratic congressional prospect who is now one of four candidates seeking the Republican nomination to succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, quickly fired back after an anonymous online video accused him of embellishing his battlefield service and exploiting it for political gain.

The Afghanistan and Iraq War veteran whose accolades include a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and numerous leadership commendations, posted a video in response that includes a point-by-point rebuttal. He also released more than 100 pages of his military records and enlisted dozens of other veterans to vouch for his combat bona fides at a recent news conference.

“We’re coming out so strongly not only because this is a slander against me, and every day that I’ve served, it is a slander against every veteran who’s worn the uniform of the United States of America,” Greitens said. “That video is filled with falsehoods.”

Dave Robertson, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, called Greitens’ aggressive counter-attack a “gamble” in the sense that it could draw more attention to his unnamed critics than if he had simply ignored the YouTube challenge. But he said that given Greitens’ personal and political narrative, he didn’t have much of a choice.

“He had to defend his strength, which is his resume,” the UMSL professor said. “Military service is his calling card.”

Greitens, a best-selling author whose battlefield stories are central to his writing, is running against former U.S. attorney and onetime Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and suburban St. Louis businessman John Brunner in the August primary.

Blunt, who formally kicked off his campaign for a second term on Friday, has opted for a more low-key response to a Kansas City Star report that he received three draft deferments while in college, saying he’s always been open about that status.

The newspaper reported that Blunt’s office didn’t disclose the deferments in a 2015 inquiry about the his draft history and that he instead indicated that he had a high draft number that would have made it unlikely he’d be selected for combat duty. The former high school history teacher, 66, spent 15 years in Congress before he was elected to the Senate in 2010.

A Blunt spokesman called the omission a former staffer’s oversight. However, Blunt’s likely Democratic opponent, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, pounced on the disclosure.

“I don’t sit in judgment of anyone who chose not to serve in Vietnam, but hiding three deferments and saying you couldn’t remember them is completely inexcusable,” said Kander, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan.

Blunt subsequently told reporters, “I don’t think it has taken 40 years for this to become public. Any time anybody ever asked me about that, I have said that I had student deferments, and was then included in the first year of the lottery.”

Student deferments were commonly sought before the nation’s first draft lottery in December 1969, by both war opponents and those who merely wanted to remain in college. Vietnam War deferments have dogged baby-boom generation politicians from Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race to Donald Trump in the current presidential campaign.

On Friday, the Missouri Democratic Party unveiled a website attacking Blunt’s explanations of his draft status. Like Greitens, the party enlisted its own veterans to help push its message - only in this case to bolster its case, not refute allegations.

For Robertson, the newfound attention to Blunt’s draft record invokes a whiff of “nostalgia” that, with nearly nine months until the November general election, he doubts will linger.

“I don’t think after Clinton’s experience and many more years after the Vietnam war this is going to have much in the way of legs,” he said. “I think a lot of campaigns and their surrogates and their supporters are throwing a few things at walls and hoping they’ll stick.”


Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier

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