City Council candidate David Oh on Friday contested a Philadelphia Daily News report that he misrepresented his military record by describing himself as an officer with the Army's 20th Special Forces Group, an elite unit whose members are popularly known as Green Berets.
"That is not a misrepresentation," Oh wrote Friday in a Facebook post. "I served as a 2nd lieutenant, 20th Special Forces Group [Airborne]. I provided documentation of my service."
Oh added that he was "preparing an official response" to the Daily News front-page article, which quoted his former commanding officer accusing Oh of "stretching" his claim of having been a Green Beret. Oh declined to say anything more on the record Friday.
Oh, 51, a lawyer, is making his third run for an at-large Council seat. In the May primary, he was the top vote-getter among the Republican at-large candidates. Two of five GOP candidates are likely to win seats in November.
His current website describes his military service as follows: "In 1988, David resigned from his position as Assistant D.A. to enlist in the U.S. Army … [W]ith hard work and perseverance, he qualified for Officer Candidates School, was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, and joined the U.S. Army Special Forces ( Airborne). During Operation Desert Storm, David was called to active duty, but before he was deployed, the war ended. He received an honorable discharge and returned to Philadelphia."
The website's only prominent reference to Green Berets is a video clip from Glenn Devitt, president of United Northeast Neighbors, with a quotation pulled out as a headline: "David Oh has served this nation as a Green Beret, served this city as an Assistant District Attorney and served his community as a community leader."
The controversy is based on the stringent training required to become a Special Forces-qualified officer — when Oh was in the service, it involved completion of a three-week Special Forces assessment course followed by nine more months of training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Oh was already an officer when he was assigned to the Special Forces unit for training. He went through the initial three-week assessment course but was not invited to continue at Fort Bragg.
"I was the Special Forces company commander at the time, and Mr. Oh was in my unit," Col. James E. Croall, the commanding officer quoted by the Daily News, told The Inquirer on Friday. Croall said he had a group of about 40 recruits for the Special Forces qualification course.
"Some make it, but a higher percentage of guys don't make it," he said. "David Oh was attached to our company for training, but he was not Special Forces-qualified."
Croall said soldiers have to complete the additional ninemonth training program to be considered Special Forces, with the right to call themselves Green Berets.
But Nicholas Panarella, a Philadelphia lawyer who served in Special Forces in Vietnam and who later became executive officer of the 20th Special Forces Group — part of the Maryland National Guard — defended Oh.
"I know Jim [Croall]. I recruited him, and I recruited David outside a Philadelphia courtroom," Panarella said. "This is not a stolen-valor-type issue. We are not Green Berets, that is something we wear. We are Special Forces. … While David was in our unit he was fully qualified to wear the Green Beret. … He was never Special Forces-qualified, but he didn't have to be."
Panarella dismissed the story as "a nonissue."
"David is a second-generation Korean American who defined his citizenship … as owing something to his country," Panarella said. "After he became a lawyer, when he was already in his career progression at the D.A.'s Office, he gave the government a blank check that said, 'payable in full, even including my death.' That's something to honor, that's not something to degrade."