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News Every Day |

EXCLUSIVE: VA Senate candidate says he was 'blown up' in combat. His record doesn’t show that.

WASHINGTON — The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Virginia, a decorated Navy veteran, has made repeated references to becoming disabled after he was “blown up” in combat, and has stressed that he has scars from his military service while Democratic incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine got rich from the safety of Capitol Hill.

Yet the Navy service record for Hung Cao, who won the GOP primary in June, does not show a Purple Heart award, the commendation given to troops who have suffered wounds from “direct or indirect result of enemy action” that required medical attention. Nor does his record indicate that he received the Navy’s Combat Action Ribbon, which requires that a sailor "must have rendered satisfactory performance under enemy fire while actively participating in ground or surface combat engagement.” USA TODAY obtained Cao's record from the Navy.

Cao, 52, through his campaign, declined to answer specific questions about his military service. He has not claimed to have been awarded a Purple Heart or the Navy's Combat Action Ribbon. His record shows that he was awarded a Bronze Star and that he deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bronze Star is awarded to sailors who distinguish themselves by "heroic or meritorious achievement or service."

The Navy designated him a "special operations explosive ordnance disposal/dive officer." He retired as a captain in 2021.

“Capt. Hung Cao is a retired Navy Captain with twenty-five years of honorable service to his country. His service is a matter of public record under his DD 214, as with any retired member of our armed forces," his campaign said in a statement Wednesday, referring to his military personnel form.

In a statement, a Navy spokesperson said there was not a narrative description in the record of why Cao was awarded the Bronze Star. Asked why there was neither a Purple Heart or Combat Action Ribbon, spokesperson Ferry Gene Baylon said the Navy cannot discuss criteria or reasons "someone would or would not have a certain award."

Hung Cao, Republican candidate from Virginia, running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, appears in an undated handout photo provided October 11, 2022.

Cao has been more expansive about his service during campaign appearances. When he ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2022, Cao told an audience that combat wounds had fully disabled him.

"I'm 100% disabled, you know, because just from being blown up in combat many times and everything else, you know, knee, shoulders," Cao said on April 22, 2022. “I've got more surgeries than you could possibly imagine.”

In his campaign against Kaine, Cao has continued to stress his military service on radio shows, podcast episodes and in television news segments. Cao has said that he’s been “shot at,” “blown up,” and has “scars” from his time in the military. He often refers to combat deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia as the origin of those combat wounds.

On a June 21 episode of the podcast Talk of Delmarva with Jake Smith, Cao said he "was getting shot at and blown up in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia."

Again, on a June 21 episode of the podcast The Schilling Show, Cao said, "Are you telling me your air-conditioned office where the worst thing that can happen for you is having a paper cut is the same as me getting, you know, blown up and shot at in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia?"

Four retired Navy and Army officers who reviewed Cao’s service record said it was unusual for a sailor severely wounded in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan not to have received a Purple Heart or the Navy’s Combat Action Ribbon.

Cao, in a Facebook post, criticized USA TODAY for asking about his service record and listed questions posed to him by reporters. USA TODAY reporters called, texted and emailed his campaign manager Tuesday and Wednesday seeking comment on Cao's military record.

The campaign has not addressed the questions directly, issuing only the short statement.

"I want to give you all a window into what it's like being a combat veteran who had the gall to run for public office against a career politician," Cao posted. "Any veteran will read this with the same disgust. Imagine being asked to provide documentation of the dates and times Al Qaeda shot at you. Imagine being asked, if you're a disabled veteran, why don't you have a Purple Heart?"

The contest between Cao and Kaine is one of several across the U.S. that will determine which party controls the closely divided Senate. 

Cao, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the primary decisively. He garnered over 60% of the vote in the field of five candidates, which included retired Army Ranger Eddie Garcia, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Chuck Smith, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Va. Senate candidate's record doesn't back up claims on combat wounds

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