Mike McCalister, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, violated U.S. Army regulations by wearing his uniform to a political fundraiser — a move that further fuels the criticisms of veterans and service members who say he's misleading voters to seem like more of a soldier than he ever was.
A retired colonel in the Army Reserve, McCalister has made his military record central to his campaign, which has launched the political newcomer into the top tier of a crowded field of Republican candidates.
But his website and campaign speeches have been full of so many strong-sounding claims that he's now drawing fire from former subordinates, a high-ranking general at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa and the veterans group Stolen Valor. The group obtained photographs of McCalister wearing his ceremonial uniform at a Feb. 16 fundraiser, the Highland County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner.
"The retiree is not authorized to wear his uniform to political events," said U.S. Army spokesman Troy Rolan. He cited regulations that say current and former service members should only wear the uniform to ceremonial events, such as Memorial Day, and should not wear the outfit to political functions.
"This is inappropriate," said Ed Maxwell, a Jensen Beach Vietnam veteran and member of Stolen Valor, a nonpartisan group of vets committed to blowing the whistle on candidates who misrepresent their service.
"He's exploiting his military service and he's embellishing it. It's improper," Maxwell said. "It (the uniform) shouldn't be used in a political setting. It shouldn't be used for commercial purpose."
Maxwell, like nearly all of McCalister's military critics, is a Republican who's not supporting one of the other candidates, including Adam Hasner, George LeMieux or Craig Miller.
McCalister, 59, has refused to answer specific questions from reporters and Stolen Valor about his record. His campaign called Stolen Valor a "front group," but failed to provide any evidence.
After vets complained, his campaign changed his website to no longer say he was a "special operations colonel" — a non-existent title that could lead someone to believe he was in the Special Forces. He wasn't.
McCalister had also claimed he once "testified before Congress" on a national-security matter. He then claimed he never said he testified.
After the Miami Herald noted the misstatement by producing video, he issued a letter to supporters saying he was being nitpicked.
"Although I didn't recall saying it when asked by the reporter, I did say that I testified," McCalister admitted. He went on to say that, when he served at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, he accompanied Lt. Gen. W. P. Tangney, to a hearing as an expert.
"I sat under the bright Capitol lights with General Tangney, who relied upon my research and counsel to give accurate testimony to Congress," McCalister wrote. "Although I wasn't the person sitting behind the microphone, my position on the team was integral to the mission and I considered it our testimony, and the testimony of the United States military, which I so proudly served in for 33 years."
Tangney, however, doesn't remember it that way — and he barely recalls McCalister.
"He could've been in the back of the room someplace holding a brief case. There were no 'bright lights'… it's a gross embellishment and exaggeration, if he was indeed even there," Tangney said. He said McCalister's statement "sounds like he had a position of prominence and importance. And he didn't."
Tangney, now retired and living in South Carolina, said he didn't remember McCalister, who noted in yet another press release that the general and others praised him in a 2002 evaluation report calling for his promotion.
Army Major Gen. Eldon Bargewell and Army Lt. Gen. Bryan D. Brown also said they barely recall McCalister, who cited snippets of their praise in the press release. Like Tangney, they said, they didn't directly supervise McCalister. Two other generals, Marine Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik — whose last name McCalister misspelled in his press release – and Navy Vice Admiral Eric Olson couldn't be reached.
Tangney said he heard McCalister's name about a week-and-a-half ago when a high-level officer in Tampa who served under the general told him that there was "this flake… apparently claiming he had done things that didn't ring true with people in the community."
For instance, McCalister has repeatedly said he was involved in "black ops" and has seen "scary things." But he never served in combat and was really a "paper pusher," said Jeffrey Shera, a former sergeant major who served in Special Forces. Shera said he worked with McCalister from about 2001 to 2003.
"Anything he said associated with black ops is not the truth," Shera said.
He said McCalister was in charge of a team evaluating fire-and-training range capacity and "most of that work was done by a Marine reservist major who worked for him. McCalister spent most of his time going to the MacDill Air Force Base gym and sitting at the juice bar at the time."
On McCalister's first day on the job at MacDill, McCalister wore the wrong cap to work, Shera said. Shera said the first time he met McCalister made him suspicious because the then-lieutenant colonel wore a name badge that said "Mike McCalister, PHd."
Shera researched McCalister's record and found he obtained the higher-education degree from a correspondence school.
Another co-worker, Kat White, said McCalister was good at delegating responsibilities and at climbing the ladder of promotions, going so far as to outmaneuver a well-respected colonel in the office.
"If you get in his way, he will step on you," said White, who was then an executive assistant to McCalister's supervisor. She also said McCalister was told to "stand down, cut it out" when he tried to describe himself as an office "director" of the team that oversaw range reviews.
When McCalister started making waves in the office, they said they checked to make sure he hadn't served in Special Forces or in combat.
Maxwell, the Stolen Valor vet, analyzed McCalister's record and said there's a good chance McCalister enrolled in the National Guard to avoid being drafted in the Vietnam War in 1971.
Stolen Valor also noted that his active duty service was about 3 years and was "extremely limited" to training, though he suggests on the campaign trail that he actively served for longer periods as a "combat arms officer."
Maxwell and fellow members of Stolen Valor aren't the only ones offended by McCalister's decision to attend a fundraiser in his military uniform. Every former military officer interviewed by the Miami Herald said high-ranking officers should know better.
Though the regulations prohibit the wearing of the uniform to partisan political events, there's no real penalty — unless McCalister continued to do it after an officer with higher rank complained.
Tangney said he wasn't too surprised with McCalister's situation, however.
"It is not all uncommon with these guys in the reserve components to blow themselves up to be a hero that they never were and never could be," he said. "This is just nothing but a case of someone claiming what they're not for personal and political gain."
St. Petersburg Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.