The question surfaced again during their most recent debate earlier this week. Mr. Kirk's opponent, Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, again raised the issue. You'd think that voters in the land of Lincoln might be more concerned about the failure of Mr. Giannoulias's family bank, its long history of lending to mobsters and other convicted felons, and his own calls for higher taxes. But this is the silly season in politics, so Mr. Kirk's war record is (again) a matter for public scrutiny.
This much is certain: Mr. Kirk, currently a member of the U.S. House, joined the Navy Reserve almost 22 years ago. He has served as an intelligence officer during the First Gulf War; Operation Allied Force, and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kirk has been consistently praised by superiors as an outstanding leader, analyst and briefer. During the Kosovo conflict, he led intelligence support efforts for EA-6B "Prowler" squadrons at Aviano AB, Italy.
That may seem like a rather routine assignment; after all, virtually every attack, fighter and patrol squadron in the Navy has its own intelligence staff, updating threat information, briefing aircrews and debriefing them upon their return. But the EA-6B performs a vitally important mission; for the past decade, it has been DOD's only dedicated aerial radar jammer, providing both standoff and close-in support for Allied strike packages.
In a moderate-to-high threat environment, the presence of a Prowler can mean the difference between a pilot making it home, or becoming a casualty of war. And, as you might expect, the EA-6B requires precision intelligence, so that its jamming and HARM missile capabilities can be optimized for expected threats.
At Aviano in 1999, then-Lieutenant Commander Kirk led the charge in melding the intel personnel from four deployed Prowler squadrons into a single team, providing round-the-clock support for their crews. In his fitness reports, Kirk is continually cited as an outstanding intelligence officer; his commander at Aviano described him as the top officer in his unit ("#1 of 20 if compared to all officers in this command.").
That's a laudatory rating, even when you account for the inflation that invariably creeps into all performance reports. But the commander's endorsement is even more impressive when you consider that most of the officers in Kirk's squadron were aircrew members. Historically, it's been difficult for intel officers in flying units to compete for promotion and awards, simply because they "don't wear wings." I know this from personal experience, having served in two unit-level intel assignments (supporting F-4s and F-16s) during my Air Force career.
Clearly, Mr. Kirk's military record speaks for itself. So, it's a bit puzzling that he tried to embellish his accomplishments earlier this year by claiming he received a pretigious Navy intelligence award. Actually, it was given to his unit at Aviano, but as Kirk's commander noted, "without Mark, there would have been no award."
Which brings us to the "under fire" controversy. Navy records indicate that Mr. Kirk flew at least one mission as an observer in Kosovo, and three more during a deployment in support of Operation Northern Watch over Iraq. It was during those flights that Kirk claims he came under anti-aircraft fire, though he now says he can't be sure if it was directed specifically at his aircraft.
And, that's a fair assessment. Aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq constantly came under enemy fire, although it was wildly inaccurate. In some cases, that was a product of poorly-trained Iraqi crews; on other occasions, AAA and SAM crews didn't want to utilize fire-control radars for fear of being targeted with a HARM, or they were employing some of Saddam's improvised air defense systems (dubbed "science projects" in the spook world) that never worked as advertised.
In other words, it's quite possible that Mr. Kirk came under fire during those missions over Iraq, and (possibly) in the skies above Kosovo as well. There is, of course, one way to resolve the controversy once and for all. A mission debriefing report (or MISREP) was prepared for each of those missions that Mark Kirk participated in as an observer. Sightings or encounters with enemy fire are noted in those reports. If the MISREPs from his flights can be located, there should be some notation if the crew was targeted by enemy anti-aircraft fire, or observed it from a distance.
Hopefully, Mark Kirk--and other candidates--have learned a lesson from this. Your military accomplishments can stand on their own merit, without emphasizing the few "Top Gun" moments of your career. Still, we can't help but note the hypocrisy in this matter. By our reckoning, Mr. Kirk's flights over Kosovo and Iraq are getting more attention down the stretch than Mr. Giannoulias's role as a "take charge" loan officer at a failed bank with ties to the mob.
But then again, Mr. Kirk is a Republican. Go figure.