Fact Check

Did Sen. Tom Cotton Falsely Claim To Have Been an 'Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq'?

Are "Ranger qualified" troops allowed to call themselves "Army Rangers"?

Published Jan 24, 2021

Updated Feb 2, 2021
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) questions President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the U.S. Capitol on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. Previously Gen. Austin was the commanding officer of the U.S. Central Command in the Obama administration. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images) (Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)
Image Via Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images
Sen. Tom Cotton falsely claimed to have served as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Snopes first published this fact check on Jan. 24, 2021. Following publication, we received comments disputing our primary assertion that U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton's past statements that he had "experience as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan" or that he "made tough decisions as an Army Ranger in Iraq” were misleading. In response, we solicited further expert opinion on the matter. While we add new context in this Feb. 2, 2021, update, our rating remains unchanged.

A primary point of contention was Snopes' overbroad statement that the term "Ranger" was reserved only for members of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Our characterization was inaccurate. In brief, there are two groups of people (not including veterans who served in Ranger regiments in conflicts that predate creation of the 75th Regiment) who can fairly describe themselves as Army Rangers: soldiers who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, and soldiers who have completed a rigorous two-month training program at the U.S. Army Ranger School. As we reported originally, Cotton completed U.S Army Ranger School.

At issue is not whether Cotton is misleading people by saying he is an Army Ranger. He and anyone else who completed the program have earned the right to call themselves Rangers. The issue, instead, is the context in which he uses that term to describe himself, according to retired Maj. John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at West Point's Modern War Institute, whose 25-year military career included teaching at the U.S. Army Ranger School.

"Each graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger School can call themselves a Ranger or Ranger qualified," Spencer told us by email, "but the context of how that reference is made would distinguish whether they are being referred to as a Ranger for their completion of the school or for being a member of the Special Operating Force, 75th Ranger Regiment." Crucially, serving as a Ranger qualified officer in a non-Ranger regiment is not, Spencer told us, the same as "serving as a Ranger" in a conflict. Cotton's statement that his service abroad was "as an Army Ranger" falsely implies service in the Special Operating Force, 75th Ranger Regiment. This was our argument in the original piece, and it is why our rating remains unchanged.

"Ranger qualified officers who served in other units do not describe their service 'as a Ranger,'” Spencer told us. The statement that someone "served 'as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan' would only be used to discuss a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment. In my 25 years of military service I have never heard of a ranger qualified soldier being referred to in a statement about military service using Ranger unless in a ranger unit," he said. Our original fact check, with corrected statements on which individuals can call themselves Rangers, appears below:

On Jan. 23, 2021, Salon published an expose accusing Sen. Tom Cotton of overstating his military experience during past political campaigns in claiming that he was "a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan." Cotton is, indeed, a military veteran with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he was not an Army Ranger when he served in those conflicts.

Cotton did complete a two-month Army Ranger training program, allowing him to be termed "Ranger qualified" and put a Ranger "tab" on his uniform. Such a training program, however, is not the same as serving in a conflict as an Army Ranger. Serving "as" a Ranger implies service with an elite set of troops “who served with the 75th Ranger Regiment based out of Fort Benning, Georgia,” to Military.com. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, wrote about the difference between the two statuses in a July 2020 article:

Simply put, there’s the Ranger School, and there’s the Ranger Regiment, a Special Operations unit. Anyone in the military can attend the Ranger School, whether or not they served in the Ranger Regiment. The Ranger School is an intense 62-day small-unit tactics course for dismounted infantry that only about 40 percent manage to complete. If a soldier makes it through the course, he or she earns the right to wear a uniform “tab” — a small cloth arch — that reads “Ranger.”

In response to the Salon article, a Cotton spokesperson told Business Insider that "To be clear, as he's stated many times, Senator Cotton graduated from Ranger School, earned the Ranger Tab, and served a combat tour with the 101st Airborne, not the 75th Ranger Regiment."

Several examples provided by Salon and others on social media, however, made it clear that Cotton had, at times, suggested that he served as an Army Ranger while in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is factually indefensible for Cotton to suggest he served as a Ranger during his tours of duty.

And indeed, Cotton has explicitly made such a claim on more than one occasion. As Salon reported, Cotton told the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record in February 2012 that his "experience as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan and my experience in business will put me in very good condition." As highlighted on Twitter, Cotton made a similar claim in a 2014 ad for his Senate campaign, saying "I made tough decisions as an Army Ranger in Iraq":

Although other examples exist in which Cotton does not explicitly make the argument that he served as a Ranger during his tours of duty, the ones that do make that claim are undisputedly false, as Cotton never served in Iraq or Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment. Because Cotton nevertheless implied or asserted that he did, the accusation he misstated his military history is here rated "True."


CORRECTION [Jan. 31, 2021]: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a Military.com report to Military Times.

UPDATE [Feb. 2, 2021]: Clarified statements about Ranger terminology; Added commentary from Maj. John Spencer.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.