Everyone’s first reaction is incredulity. How could state Rep. Cord Byrd claim to have served in the U.S. military when his service was limited to one freshman year of college at the Air Force Academy in Colorado almost 30 years ago?
For one year, the time from 1989 to 1990, Byrd attended the prestigious military school under a pledge to serve his country as an Air Force officer upon graduation. In return, he would receive a free education, a monthly stipend, and have all of his expenses paid, including housing, meals and healthcare.
An academy spokesperson confirmed the attendance of James Cordray Byrd, who was registered at the school under his full legal name, and said students who leave the public university without fulfilling their pledge–as Byrd did–are correct to say that they served in the U.S. military and can drop out without penalty until the end of sophomore year. But, said Meade Warthen, chief of media relations and directorate of public affairs, they are not eligible to receive veteran benefits.
“Congress decided that they could claim service,” he said by phone last month. “The idea was to open all doors to find qualified military leaders.”
Allowing student dropouts to claim military service is not the same as granting veteran status, however. On Monday, academy officials, through the media office, confirmed that Byrd is not a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
In June, Byrd, 47, told Folio Weekly that he left the academy after deciding that he did not want to pursue a military career. “I’m proud of my service,” he said. “It wasn’t for me.”
Byrd maintained that he could have been called into active duty and, therefore, has a well-earned right to claim his time at the academy as military service. While that is a technically true statement, said Warthen, he maintained that the Air Force is unlikely to ever call a student for an active duty assignment.
After leaving the academy, Byrd enrolled in the University of North Florida and, after graduating in 1993, attended St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens. He graduated in 1997, became an attorney, and now works in private practice in Jacksonville Beach with a focus on Second Amendment cases and firearms laws.
Byrd, a Republican, is seeking re-election to the state legislature in District 11, representing 125,998 registered voters in Nassau County, the beach communities in Duval County, Jacksonville’s Northside and Mayport, which is home to Naval Station Mayport, a major U.S. Navy seaport and air facility. Byrd understands the local emphasis on service and his biography ticks the right boxes for the community: married, children, A+ rating from the NRA, hunter, fisherman and military serviceman. Byrd’s page on the Florida House of Representatives website includes his Air Force service, as well as a recreational interest in military history and ocean kayaking. It does not mention attendance at the Air Force Academy as part of his education, or that his service totaled only one year at the school.
There are two other candidates in the race for the District 11 seat and neither Republican Joe Zimmerman, 32, the owner of a tech company and former legislative aide to Janet Adkins, who held the seat before Byrd, or Democrat Nathcelly Leroy Rohrbaugh, 33, a stay-at-home dad, served in the military. The primary is Aug. 28. The general election is Nov. 6.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed Byrd for re-election, calling him an ‘Air Force veteran’ on its “Get to Know Your Legislator” webpage, which, presumably, Byrd saw and sanctioned. A Chamber spokesperson said by phone on Friday, July 20 that the organization’s Political Institute “thoroughly” vets all candidates through interviews and voting records but could not confirm if Byrd’s military status was independently verified.
Folio Weekly reached out to area veterans for their assessment of Byrd’s Air Force service. By and large, there were howls of complaints and a clamor for transparency.
“You can’t just drop out of school and tell everyone you served in the Air Force,” said Navy veteran Kelly Rice, who served as a gunner for four years on the USS Gettysburg. “Is he trying to prove he’s a badass?”
Reached by phone at American Legion Post 129 in Jax Beach, where she tends bar between computer science studies at the University of North Florida, Rice chatted with Folio Weekly while serving customers. “Hell, yeah, he’s wrong,” she said. “He’s misleading veterans and voters.”
City of Fernandina Beach Commissioner Len Kreger, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a master sergeant after 24 years of service, including 19 months in combat in Vietnam for which he received the Bronze Star, said Byrd is wrong to claim military service as part of his résumé. “That claim is not going to sit well with military veterans,” he said by phone Sunday, July 22. “I think it’s foolish of him.”
Navy veteran Sue Marden, who handled weather reporting while stationed in Guam in the 1970s when military personnel traveled through the base on their way to back the States after service in Vietnam, offered a blunt assessment of Byrd’s time in the military: “He was sitting in a school. He was sitting at a desk. His service is bogus.”
Marden spoke with Folio Weekly on Saturday, July 21 at American Legion Post 54 in Fernandina Beach, where preparations were underway for the installation ceremony of the new Post Commander Christian Watrous, who shared his thoughts on Byrd’s service by phone last week. “My personal opinion is, if you didn’t put on a uniform and actually physically serve, you shouldn’t be claiming service,” he said. “Realistically, his time at the academy is not service.”
Watrous spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, Korea, Bosnia and Iraq. He served in the Gulf War as a mechanic and also worked over the years as a combat engineer, drill sergeant and recruiter. He wondered why Byrd left the academy. “You have to go through a rigorous process to get into that school,” he said. “It’s elite.”
The U.S. Air Force Academy maintains high academic and fitness standards and admission is a serious effort, involving interviews, essays, teacher assessments and a letter of recommendation from a congressman, a senator, or the vice president of the United States. Admission Liaison Officers help students through the process. Lt. Colonel Samuel Arieff, an Air Force reservist who lives in Atlantic Beach and works as a pilot for Delta out of Atlanta, advises students at 10 high schools, including Duncan U. Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach, Byrd’s hometown. He doesn’t know Byrd and wasn’t aware that a local politician claimed Air Force service out of the academy, even for the brief time there. He also doesn’t care. “I think it’s an uninteresting point,” he said by phone last week. “Many politicians claim service or heritage they don’t have.”
If he has a complaint, it is the lack of resources. Arieff said he doesn’t have time to personally meet with students face-to-face and typically interacts with them on FaceTime or through email. “They’ve got some of the best kids in the country applying to the military school and that’s saying something important because it's not cool or in fashion to serve,” he said. “That’s where I put my attention.” The academy has a freshman retention rate of more than 90 percent and, since 1959, has commissioned 47,889 officers, according to the school website.
Byrd said he parted from the Air Force Academy honorably. This June, he agreed to provide his disenrollment paperwork in an email. The information has yet to arrived and Byrd did not respond to follow-up email and phone call requests for the records. Warthen, the academy spokesperson, said the school cannot release disenrollment documents unless the former student provides signed authorization.
Al Lorentson, commander of VFW Post 4351 in Fernandina Beach, which is tucked under the Shave Bridge west of the Intracoastal Waterway, said the organization makes it a point to stay out of politics. Still, he said, “If you asked me for my discharge status, I’d pull out my DD214. Claim service if you served and be able to prove it.”
David Lewis, commander of VFW Post 10095 in Hilliard, on the far northwest side of Nassau County, said, “There are all kinds of vets,” but Byrd’s service, he maintained, “is kind of sketchy.” He served in the Marines as a C-130 mechanic in Korea and said many of the Post’s newest members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He readily tells them that he was never in combat, like they were. “It is important to be clear about your service,” said Lewis.
Earlier this month, Jeff Rodgers, a Navy veteran who lives on Jacksonville's Northside, in District 11, sat in his car, listening to the radio, near the Veterans Memorial at Central Park in Fernandina Beach. He said he was aware of Byrd’s service at the academy. “It’s not enough,” he said. “If you’re going to serve, serve.”