MONTGOMERY, AL—In a major scandal that could cast doubt on his political future, U.S. Senate candidate Chris Wilfred came under fire this week for comments he made alleging he had died heroically while fighting in the Vietnam War.
Wilfred made the controversial claim during a speech Monday honoring three American soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan.
"I know all too well the depth of their sacrifice, for I myself was killed on a battlefield far away from home," Wilfred, a three-term Democratic state representative, said to a crowd of hundreds. "But we who have laid down our lives—whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan—have done so with the knowledge that our deeds have kept our country safe."
Added Wilfred, "Their deaths, like mine, were not in vain."
Following the speech, critics pounced on Wilfred's comments, accusing him of overstating his military record for the sake of scoring political points. Rep. Mike Hubbard, who acts as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said that a close examination of Wilfred's history shows his claims don't add up.
"There's a lot of evidence here that contradicts his statements," Hubbard said. "For one thing, there's no official record of anyone by his name dying as a member of the armed forces during that time. And public documents clearly show that he was married in 1982 and has renewed his driver's license a number of times over the past four decades."
"I'm not calling Mr. Wilfred a liar," Hubbard added. "But I think the American people deserve to know the full truth."
Footage from various campaign stops in recent weeks reveals a number of inconsistencies in the way Wilfred has portrayed his wartime death. At a rally in Albertville, for example, Wilfred described how he had been fatally wounded during a raid on a Vietcong tunnel complex.
Yet at a town hall meeting in Montgomery later that week, he touted his patriotism by pointing out that he had, after all, been gunned down by a sniper while patrolling the Mekong Delta.
And in a video from the Calhoun County Fair's annual pie-eating contest, at which Wilfred acted as honorary timekeeper, the Senate candidate is heard recounting his death by rocket-propelled grenade. At one point Wilfred tells participants, "They still haven't found my head."
When approached by reporters, Wilfred acknowledged the possibility of minor misstatements but vehemently defended the substance of his comments.
"It's natural over the course of a long campaign to misspeak in some small way now and again," Wilfred said. "But I know what I gave for my country. I know where my last drop of blood was spilled. I was there."
Continued Wilfred, "How dare you dishonor my memory to my face?"
Nevertheless, a new conservative advocacy group called Truth 2010 has unveiled an attack ad assailing the candidate's credibility. Called "Where's The Grave?" the 30- second spot slowly pans across a row of veterans' headstones as a voice-over intones, "Come clean, Chris Wilfred. Or tell us which one of these is yours."
When told of the ad, a spokesman for the Wilfred campaign accused Truth 2010 of trying to distract voters from the real issues.
"Folks in Alabama are worried about their jobs and providing for their families, not this junk," Wilfred campaign spokeswoman Deana Riggs said. "Come November, voters aren't going to care about who did or didn't die in this or that war."
"Chris Wilfred is the man for the job," Riggs continued. "God rest his soul."
Public reaction to the controversy has thus far been mixed. Bob Melick, a self- described independent voter, told reporters that while he would withhold judgment until all the facts were in, he hoped the allegations against Wilfred proved untrue.
"I guess I don't want to believe the worst about him," Melick said. "But whatever happens, I'll always respect him for being the man who killed Hitler."