Since then, the GOP routinely has appealed to voters' fear of the “other” — be it Soviet Communists, black parolees, Libyan dictators or Middle Eastern terrorists — to scare them into compliance. Often the tactic works, sometimes it doesn't.
To counter the strategy, Democrats like to endorse candidates with military experience when they can. Think Sen. John Kerry and his presidential bid in 2004 or Paul Hackett and his Congressional bid in 2005, both of whom ran during the height of the controversy over the Iraq War. (Apparently, only by having a military service record does one earn the right to criticize the United States' foreign misadventures, or so the conventional wisdom goes.)
Finding such a candidate usually scares the crap out of Republicans, who then resort to questioning that person's accomplishments in an under-handed manner.
By most accounts, Kerry performed above and beyond the call of duty while serving in the Naval Reserve during the Vietnam War, earning several medals including a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his exploits, some of which occurred on a swift boat — a type of small and extremely fast naval vessel.
But “swiftboating” has now entered the vernacular as slang for any smear that alleges one is lying about his or her past, or exaggerating their actions to look better to voters. In Kerry's case, that occurred because a group of about 250 people formed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group questioned the circumstances under which Kerry won his military honors.
Tellingly, most of the group's members never served with Kerry. A few members served in the same unit but only one actually served on the same boat as the senator. In reality, the group seemed to be seeking retribution over Kerry's later criticism of the Vietnam War and his allegations that some soldiers had committed war crimes.
A review of military records from the era upheld Kerry's version of events, but no matter — the damage to his reputation had been done and no doubt played a factor in his defeat to President George W. Bush, earning Dubya a second term by the slimmest of margins in the popular vote — a difference of about 3 million votes, or the smallest of any sitting president since Harry Truman in 1948.
All of this is relevant now because right-wing critics on the Internet have begun a whisper campaign against Ohio State Rep.
Connie Pillich (D-Montgomery), who represents the 28th District. Although the seat mostly has been held by Republicans in recent years, Pillich won it in 2008, helped partially by the surge in Democratic voters attracted by Barack Obama's candidacy.
Pillich, 50, is a mother of two who owns her own law firm. Beginning in 1983, she served for eight years in the U.S. Air Force, then served another eight years in the Reserve, retiring as a 2nd lieutenant.
Pillich's opponent this time is Republican Mike Wilson, a Springfield Township resident who is leader of the Cincinnati Tea Party.
Beginning this summer, some conservative blogs — most notably Free Republic — started questioning the number of military medals and ribbons that Pillich wore during campaign appearances. The bloggers are all atwitter that the number has increased compared to some earlier photos of Pillich. She wore seven ribbons in her official Air Force photo, but has 18 in more recent ones.
“What is troubling is that this politician goes around wearing a chest full of military ribbons as if she were some sort of war hero,” wrote someone named paulbunyan69 on Free Republic.
“I have identified awards she initially sported. They appear to be legitimate. However, I cannot identify the rest (11 others). I have searched through (various sites) as well as other military award charts and just cannot find any of them,” paulbunyan69 wrote. “Any help exposing this potential fraud would be greatly appreciated … I could be wrong and she might have earned them, whatever they are. But we need to know for sure to protect the honor of all servicemen & women.”
Unlike “Mr. Bunyan,” we doubt the men and women currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan could give a rat's ass about Pillich's ribbons, but to quell his alarm and stop a potential smear tactic, we decided to ask the representative herself for an explanation.
As it turns out, Pillich was awarded eight medals in the Air Force: the Commendation Medal with Two Oak Clusters, the Outstanding Unit Award with Two Oak Clusters, the Occupation Medal, the Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, the Longevity Service Award Ribbon with One Oak Leaf Cluster, the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, and the Training Ribbon.
But she also has been wearing 10 ribbons she received. They include ribbons for specific achievements, awarded while on active duty, and commemorative ones marking items like locations where she was stationed and specific activities during her service.
“They're not official Air Force recognitions,” Pillich said. “They're commemorative signposts of where you've been.”
Her ribbons include ones for Outstanding Unit, American Defense, Liberation of Kuwait, Cold War, Overseas Tour, NATO, Honorable Discharge, National Guard and Reserve and Expert Marksman. (Several of those arise from serving in the occupied city of West Berlin during the Soviet era.)
Under military regulations, only the medals can be worn with her Air Force uniform, but she can wear both the medals and ribbons while in civilian clothes. The rules state, “Honorably discharged and retired Air Force members may wear full-size or miniature medals on civilian suits on appropriate occasions such as Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day.”
Pillich said wearing the ribbons and medals while campaigning was cleared, and she's offended that her military service is being impugned.
“It's just preposterous that they think I'm making this stuff up,” she said. “I'm very proud of my service. I served honorably. The number and placement of my ribbons comply with Air Force regulations.”
Amy Newman, a U.S. Army veteran who served during the Gulf War in the '90s, blames overly zealous Tea Partiers for the smear.
“It really upsets me,” Newman said. “I heard about these baseless attacks and they're outrageous. As a veteran, it's unacceptable. She has done more for our veterans in the last two years she's been in office than most lawmakers have in their lifetime.
“To see people attacking a veteran instead of honoring her just makes me sick,” Newman added. “It's being done for political reasons and most of these people have never even served themselves.”
For her part, Pillich believes the tactic reveals a lack of character.
“Maybe this is what the Tea Party thinks of veterans,” she said.
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