Carlisle, Pa. — Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s published account of having dinner with a top commander in the Vietnam War after marching in a Memorial Day parade in 1969 as a high school ROTC cadet in Detroit does not match historical records.
In Carson’s 1990 best-selling autobiography, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” the neurosurgeon tells of being offered a scholarship to West Point as a high school senior sometime after having dinner with the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, Gen. William Westmoreland, on Memorial Day 1969.
But Westmoreland’s personal schedule shows the general was not in Detroit on Memorial Day or during the days preceding and following the holiday. His schedule says he was in and around Washington, D.C., that weekend, according to Army archives The Detroit News reviewed Friday.
Carson’s compelling life story of escaping poverty in Detroit to become a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon is facing increased scrutiny as new polls show him at the top of the GOP presidential candidate field. It also comes a few days before Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee.
Carson acknowledged Friday he never sought admission to West Point and was informally offered a scholarship that he later didn’t pursue.
“I interpreted it as an offer,” Carson said Friday night during a televised press conference from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “... I never said I received a full scholarship.”
In his autobiography, which was the basis of a movie about Carson’s life, Carson wrote that the dinner with Westmoreland took place after he “marched at the head of the Memorial Day parade.”
“I felt so proud, my chest bursting with ribbons and braids of every kind,” said Carson, who was a top ROTC cadet at Detroit’s former Southwestern High School.
Westmoreland’s Memorial Day schedule on May 30, 1969, indicates he was in Washington. The schedule says Westmoreland had a morning meeting with national security adviser Henry Kissinger, laid a wreath at an 11 a.m. memorial service in Arlington National Cemetery and had a 5 p.m. “boat ride on the Potomac.”
The Detroit News on Friday reviewed Westmoreland’s schedule for the dates in question among his official papers housed at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pa.
The Army records and Detroit News archival records show Westmoreland was in Detroit on Feb. 18, 1969, for a dinner honoring a Vietnam War veteran. The banquet was for Congressional Medal of Honor winner Dwight Johnson, a Detroit African-American who risked his life “beyond the call of duty,” according to a website about black participation in the Vietnam War.
Carson spokesman Doug Watts could not immediately explain the discrepancies in Carson’s published account of meeting Westmoreland on Memorial Day 1969 and the general being in Washington that day.
“Dr. Carson was the top ROTC student in the city of Detroit,” Watts said in an email to The News. “In that role he was invited to meet General Westmoreland. He believes it was at a banquet. He can’t remember with specificity their brief conversation but it centered around Dr. Carson’s performance as ROTC City Executive Officer.”
Carson’s spokesman could not pinpoint whether Carson met Westmoreland in February 1969 in Detroit or on Memorial Day 1969 as detailed in his memoir.
“We believe he met Westmoreland at the banquet,” Watts told The News.
On MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” Friday evening, Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett conceded Carson’s published account of when he met with Westmoreland is inaccurate.
“It’s in February, not in a Memorial Day parade,” Bennett told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd.
In the book, Carson details how he excelled at ROTC military training from 10th grade to his senior year when he became a colonel and “executive officer over all (Detroit) city schools.”
Carson said the Memorial Day parade march capped his senior year in high school.
“To make it more wonderful, we had important visitors that day,” Carson wrote.
“Two soldiers who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Viet Nam were present. More exciting to me, General William Westmoreland (very prominent in the Viet Nam war) attended with an impressive entourage.”
Carson wrote that his ROTC instructor — identified as Sgt. Hunt — introduced him to Westmoreland “and I had dinner with him and the Congressional Medal winners.”
“Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point,” Carson said.
West Point has no record of Carson applying for admission or being nominated by the Army’s adjutant general that year, spokeswoman Theresa Brinkerhoff said Friday.
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, Brinkerhoff said.
“Candidate files where admission/acceptance was not sought are retained for three years; therefore we cannot confirm whether anyone during that time period was nominated to West Point if they chose not to pursue completion of the application process,” she said in an email to The Detroit News.
Carson did not indicate in the book that he applied for the prestigious West Point appointment, only that he supposedly was offered a scholarship.
As a taxpayer-funded institution, West Point does not have scholarships. Cadets attend for free, Brinkerhoff said.
Watts said Carson was “introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC supervisors.”
“They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC,” Watts said. “He considered it but in the end did not seek admission.”
Carson said Friday he’s been “perfectly clear” about how he was offered a chance to attend West Point.
In the book, Carson wrote that he did not refuse the West Point appointment outright.
“But I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going,” Carson wrote. “As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn’t really tempted. The scholarship would have obligated me to spend four years in military service after I finished college, precluding my chances to go on to medical school.
“I knew my direction — I wanted to be a doctor and nothing would divert me or stand in my way.”
‘Rage episodes’ questioned
Earlier this week, CNN published an article questioning Carson’s claims in his book “Gifted Hands” that he was a violent teenager before his faith in God inspired him to become a surgeon.
Carson’s autobiography contains accounts of him attempting to stab one friend with a knife, striking a seventh-grade classmate in the head with a padlock and attempting to hit his mother with a hammer during an argument over clothes.
CNN said it interviewed several former elementary, junior high and high school classmates of Carson’s who could not recall him being violent.
Carson has acknowledged he used “fictitious names” of the people he tried to injure as a youth.
“I’m not proud of the fact that I had these rage episodes, but I am proud of the fact that I was able to get over them,” the candidate said on CNN.
In a Fox News interview, Carson was more dismissive of the CNN story.
“I would say to the American people: Do you think I’m a pathological liar like CNN does or do you think I’m an honest person?” Carson said on Fox News this week.
“And I’m going to leave that to the American people to make that decision.”
During Friday’s press conference, Carson argued with reporters about why the news media ignored aspects of President Barack Obama’s educational background while he was running for president in 2007 and 2008.
“I do not remember this level of scrutiny for one President Barack Obama when he was running,” Carson said. “In fact, I remember just the opposite.
“Why aren’t you guys not interested in why his (college) records are sealed?”
Carson predicted the media scrutiny will help his campaign.
“My prediction is that all you guys trying to pile on is actually going to help me,” he said.
“Because when I go out to these book signings and I see these thousands of people, they say, ‘Don’t let the media get you down. Don’t let them disturb you. Please continue to fight for us.’ ”