Of all the candidates vying to become the nation’s next commander in chief, none has spent as much time in the military as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham. The South Carolina Republican retired from the Air Force this summer after a 33-year career, including two decades as a reservist while serving in Congress.
Graham is running as a national-security hawk, calling himself a “battle-tested leader” with “a lifetime of military service.” Images of him wearing camouflage in the field are a common thread in his campaign.
But a detailed examination of Graham’s military record — much of it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — shows that the Air Force afforded him special treatment as a lawmaker, granting him the privileges of rank with few expectations in return.
During his first decade in Congress, the Air Force promoted Graham twice even though documents in his military personnel file reveal that he did little or no work. Later, the Pentagon gave the military lawyer a job assignment in the Air Force Reserve that he highlighted in his biography for several years but never performed.
After he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, Graham was designated by the Air Force Reserve as a “key federal employee,” a category for a small number of lawmakers and senior government officials.
Lindsey Graham launches 2016 bid
View Photos Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) announced in his home town of Central, S.C., that he will run for president in 2016.
Over the next 10 years, he rarely put on his uniform. According to his personnel file, between January 1995 and January 2005 he received credit for a total of 108 hours of training — the equivalent of less than a day and a half per year.
During that span, however, the Air Force kept awarding him promotions. In 1998, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Six years later, he was promoted to colonel by President George W. Bush.
In interviews with The Washington Post, Graham called that period the “wilderness years” of his military service. He said he struggled to find a useful niche in the Reserve and that his legislative duties left him little time to devote to his military career.
“At one time I almost thought about getting out because I felt like, okay, what am I doing here?” he said.
He added, “I didn’t feel guilty because I wasn’t getting any money.” As a key federal employee, he could earn points for a military pension but was ineligible for a service paycheck.
Even so, Graham said his promotions to lieutenant colonel and colonel were warranted. He said he earned them primarily based on his work as a junior officer, before he became a politician, when he served as a full-time military prosecutor and defense counsel.
“I think when it came to being Colonel Graham that they looked at my entire record, and I’ll put it up against anybody who’s ever served,” he said. “I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but I was one hell of a judge advocate.
“Yeah, I think I deserved promotion.”