By Ken Stone
Assemblyman Randy Voepel should resign for lying about his service record, says his Republican rival and an allied military critic in the wake of new videos of Voepel claiming combat experience.
In one, Voepel says he was a machine-gunner on a patrol boat in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1969-70. In another, he says he “did some infantry fighting” and describes the smell of a blood-soaked uniform.
“You get a weird coppery taste in the back of your mouth,” he told a Veterans Day ceremony last year in El Cajon — intimating that he had experienced that odor.
On Monday, after sharing videos he said were provided by a local Tea Party leader, 71st Assembly District candidate Larry Wilske labeled Voepel’s boasts “despicable” and “kind of disgusting.”
“Especially what gets me is doing ‘SEAL insertions,'” said Wilske, a Navy SEAL veteran who had a friend “who got shot through the teeth doing a SEAL extraction.”
“These are … honorable people that this guy is bandwagoning on,” Wilske said. “And that’s not cool by any stretch.”On Tuesday, Voepel said in a statement that in 1970, he served on the USS Gurke, “which participated in support operations with Task Force 116 and Task Force 117 within the Mekong Delta region and other coastal areas.”
He said: “Those operations included supporting SEAL Team inserts, PBR operations and other activities in the area. During that time period, in multiple instances, I would man a single .50-caliber machine gun under supervision of our gunner mates for defense and possible offense.”
Voepel, in his statement to Times of San Diego, said earlier attacks on his service record have been shown to be false by multiple media outlets. (They include reports by NBC San Diego, KGTV-Channel 10 and The San Diego Union-Tribune.)
“When my opponents were given evidence that contradicted their claims, they stated that evidence was altered,” he said. “When given additional evidence supporting my record from the Pentagon, they claimed it was the Navy that was wrong, not them. Last week, they dug up videos of committee hearings, recorded three months apart, and ran them together in order to allege I had made claims I never made. With prior false accusations falling flat, they are throwing whatever they can at the wall and hoping it sticks.”
Voepel said he was proud of his service record, and “I won’t be responding to further attempts to discredit my service.”
Voepel is vice chair of the Assembly Committee on Veterans Affairs, but fellow members including San Diego Democrat Todd Gloria and North County Republican Rocky Chávez did not respond to requests for comment.
Wilske and “stolen valor” researcher Terence Hoey of New York say Voepel’s own military records indicate the former Santee mayor never was part of Task Force 117, as Voepel asserted at an East County Tea Party meeting in November.
Voepel, in the video, is heard identifying himself and his service:
“Randy Voepel. Last held rank — petty officer 1st class in the world’s greatest nuclear-powered Navy. So 1969-1970, Mekong Delta, Task Force 117, patrol boat river front machine gun, and doing SEAL team inserts. What could go wrong?” he began.
“(In) 1972, I was on the USS Buchanan, … the only ship off the DMZ where the North invaded the South in ’72, in April, and the ship got hit with 130mm artillery. We had one killed and seven wounded. So I couldn’t get any luck at all. I got shot at the whole damn time.”
Wilske said the part about the guided-missile destroyer Buchanan (once ported in San Diego) was accurate.
“If all he did was stick to the truth, we say: ‘Thank you for your service’ and call it a day,” Wilske said.
But the Task Force 117 account isn’t true, Wilske insists, calling it evidence of “irrefutable stolen valor” that “completely meets the threshold” of state and federal laws against wrongly claiming military service or honors.
Violators can be removed from public office.
“I would say the right thing to do at this point is to have the appropriate law enforcement agencies look into this, as well as the state Assembly,” Wilske said. “And call on him to immediately resign from office.”
Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Hoey, whose April 16 news conference in front of the USS Midway laid out other accusations of valor theft by Voepel, said in a statement to Times of San Diego:
“Randy Voepel never served one day with Task Force 117. He was not stationed on small boats operating in the riverine and intercoastal waterways of Vietnam, and he was never a bow gunner inserting and extracting U.S. Navy SEALs. This story is a long and bizarre string of lies.”
Hoey challenged the Republican lawmaker to tell what squadron and Army or Navy unit he served in, plus hull or boat numbers. “And give us the name of one person who can verify your accounts.”
“Voepel’s ghastly false accounts of bravery, heroics and combat action are a direct slap in the face to all who legitimately served honorably and fought so courageously in Vietnam,” Hoey said. “The Stolen Valor community is calling on Voepel to resign NOW!”
Hoey says Voepel’s service record — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — indicates the Navy radarman was in boot camp, “A” school and then aboard the USS Gurke during the time he claims he was serving with TF-117.
“The claim is foolish because most legit vets would cite their unit,” he said. “That would be like me sayin’ I was with the Sixth Fleet in the [Mediterranean].”
(Voepel’s office did not respond to a request for his unit or boat numbers.)
Monday night, after viewing a video first posted to YouTube, two leaders of the Mobile Riverine Force Association — made up of Vietnam veterans who served in Task Force 117 — responded with suspicion.
“As far as I know, no destroyers were ever part of 117 and sure never worked with insertions, ambushes, search and destroy missions,” said Ralph Bigelow of Livonia, Michigan.
In the late 1960s, Bigelow said, he was with River Assault Squadron 13 (RAD 13), River Division 131 (RivRon 13) on Tango Boat T-131-8.
If Voepel’s released service record is true, Bigelow said via email, “It would seem his speech [raises] some questions.”
Don Blankenship of Ramona, secretary of the association, said: “It seems we may have a wannabe in Mr. Voepel. He mentions he was on a Patrol Boat River, which is also referred to as a PBR. PBRs were a part of Task Force 116, not 117, which was the Mobile Riverine Force, or MRF.”
However, Blankenship said too many question marks exist to declare Voepel guilty of stolen valor. He said he wanted more facts than the video provides.
“By the way, TF 117, and I believe TF 115 Swift Boats and TF 116 PBRs, were all turned into Task Force 194 under the direction of Admiral Zumwalt in the summer or fall of 1969,” he said — contradicting Voepel’s contention he served in Task Force 117 in 1970.
Wilske said he didn’t consider political advantage in disclosing the videos now — when Democrats might decide to wait until after the June primary to make a move against Voepel.
“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Wilske said. “I’m not hedging the campaign on this — the timeliness of any of this.”
He called the Voepel claims “a separate issue” and said: “I don’t care if it takes one week or one year. He needs to be held accountable for this.”
Wilske said if Voepel wanted to do the “dignified thing with some class,” he would return more than $100,000 in campaign donations “to the people who gave him money in earnest and in good faith.”
“There’s no unringing this bell,” he added.
Voepel concluded his Veterans Day remarks by saying: “Now that I’ve painted that wonderful picture in your mind [of the coppery smell of a blood-soaked uniform], when you see a veteran, you don’t know what they’ve been through. You don’t know what’s skidding around in their head.”
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