WASHINGTON — Campaigning for a northwestern Ohio congressional seat, Republican J.R. Majewski presents himself as an Air Force combat veteran who deployed to Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, once describing "tough" conditions including a lack of running water that forced him to go more than 40 days without a shower.
Military documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request tell a different story.
They indicate Majewski never deployed to Afghanistan but instead completed a six-month stint helping to load planes at an air base in Qatar, a longtime U.S. ally that is a safe distance from the fighting.
Majewski's account of his time in the military is just one aspect of his biography that is suspect. His post-military career has been defined by exaggerations, conspiracy theories, talk of violent action against the U.S. government and occasional financial duress.
Still, thanks to an unflinching allegiance to former President Donald Trump — Majewski once painted a massive Trump mural on his lawn — he also stands a chance of defeating longtime Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in a district recently redrawn to favor Republicans.
Majewski is among a cluster of GOP candidates, most running for office for the first time, whose unvarnished life stories and hard-right politics could diminish the chances of a Republican "red wave" on Election Day in November. He is also a vivid representation of a new breed of politicians who reject facts as they try to emulate Trump.
"It bothers me when people trade on their military service to get elected to office when what they are doing is misleading the people they want to vote for them," Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, said of Majewski. "Veterans have done so much for this country and when you claim to have done what your brothers and sisters in arms actually did to build up your reputation, it is a disservice."
Majewski's campaign declined to make him available for an interview and, in a lengthy statement issued to the AP, did not directly address questions about his claim of deploying to Afghanistan. A spokeswoman declined to provide additional comment when the AP followed up with additional questions.
"I am proud to have served my country," Majewski said in the statement. "My accomplishments and record are under attack, meanwhile, career politician Marcy Kaptur has a forty-year record of failure for my Toledo community, which is why I'm running for Congress."
With no previous political experience, Majewski is perhaps an unlikely person to be the Republican nominee taking on Kaptur, who has represented the Toledo area since 1983. But two state legislators who were also on the ballot in the August GOP primary split the establishment vote. That cleared a path for Majewski, who previously worked in the nuclear power industry and dabbled in politics as a pro-Trump hip-hop performer and promoter of the QAnon conspiracy theory. He was also at the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
Throughout his campaign Majewski has offered his Air Force service as a valuable credential. The tagline "veteran for Congress" appears on campaign merchandise. He ran a Facebook ad promoting himself as "combat veteran." And in a campaign video released this year, Majewski marauds through a vacant factory with a rifle while pledging to restore an America that is "independent and strong like the country I fought for."
More recently, the House Republican campaign committee released a biography that describes Majewski as a veteran whose "squadron was one of the first on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11." A campaign ad posted online Tuesday by Majewski supporters flashed the words "Afghanistan War Veteran" across the screen alongside a picture of a younger Majewski in his dress uniform.
A biography posted on his campaign website does not mention Afghanistan, but in an August 2021 tweet criticizing the U.S. withdraw from the country, Majewski said he would "gladly suit up and go back to Afghanistan."
He's been far less forthcoming when asked about the specifics of his service.
"I don't like talking about my military experience," he said in a 2021 interview on the One American Podcast after volunteering that he served one tour of duty in Afghanistan. "It was a tough time in life. You know, the military wasn't easy."
A review of his service records, which the AP obtained from the National Archives through a public records request, as well as an accounting provided by the Air Force, offers a possible explanation for his hesitancy.
Rather than deploying to Afghanistan, as he has claimed, the records state that Majewski was based at Kadena Air Base in Japan for much of his active-duty service. He later deployed for six months to Qatar in May 2002, where he helped load and unload planes while serving as a "passenger operations specialist," the records show.
While based in Qatar, Majewski would land at other air bases to transfer military passengers, medics, supplies, his campaign said. The campaign did not answer a direct question about whether he was ever in Afghanistan.
Experts argue Majewski's description of himself as a "combat veteran" is also misleading.
The term can evoke images of soldiers storming a beachhead or finding refuge during a firefight. But under the laws and regulations of the U.S. government, facing live fire has little to do with someone earning the title.
During the Persian Gulf War, then-President George H.W. Bush designated, for the first time, countries used as combat support areas as combat zones despite the low-risk of American service members ever facing hostilities. That helped veterans receive a favorable tax status. Qatar, which is now home to the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, was among the countries that received the designation under Bush's executive order — a status that remains in effect today.
Regardless, it rankles some when those seeking office offer their status as a combat veteran as a credential to voters without explaining that it does not mean that they came under hostile fire.
"As somebody who was in Qatar, I do not consider myself a combat veteran," said Christensen, the retired Air Force colonel who now runs Protect Our Defenders, a military watchdog organization. "I think that would be offensive to those who were actually engaged in combat and Iraq and Afghanistan."
Majewski's campaign said that he calls himself a combat veteran because the area he deployed to — Qatar — is considered a combat zone.
Majewski also lacks many of the medals that are typically awarded to those who served in Afghanistan.
Though he once said that he went more than 40 days without a shower during his time in the landlocked country, he does not have an Afghanistan campaign medal, which was issued to those who served "30 consecutive days or 60 nonconsecutive days" in the country.
He also did not receive a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, which was issued to service members before the creation of the Afghanistan campaign medal if they deployed overseas in "direct service to the War on Terror."
Matthew Borie, an Air Force veteran who worked in intelligence and reviewed Majewski's records at AP's request, said it's "odd" that Majewski lacks many of the "medals you would expect to see for someone who deployed to Afghanistan."
There's also the matter of Majewski's final rank and reenlistment code when he left active duty after four years of service.
Most leave the service after four years having received several promotions that are generally awarded for time served. Majewski exited at a rank that was one notch above where he started. His enlistment code also indicated that he could not sign up with the Air Force again.
Majewski's campaign said he received what's called a nonjudicial punishment in 2001 after getting into a "brawl" in his dormitory, which resulted in a demotion. Nonjudicial punishments are designed to hold service members accountable for bad behavior that does not rise to the level of a court-martial.
Majewski's resume exaggeration isn't limited to his military service, reverberating throughout his professional life, as well as a nascent political career that took shape in an online world of conspiracy theories.
Since gaining traction in his campaign for Congress, Majewski has denied that he is a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory while playing down his participation in the Capitol riot.
The baseless and apocalyptic QAnon belief is based on cryptic online postings by the anonymous "Q," who is purportedly a government insider. It posits that Trump is fighting entrenched enemies in the government and also involves satanism and child sex trafficking.
"Let me be clear, I denounce QAnon. I do not support Q, and I do not subscribe to their conspiracy theories," Majewski said in his statement to the AP.
But in the past Majewski repeatedly posted QAnon references and memes to social media, wore a QAnon shirt during a TV interview and has described Zak Paine, a QAnon influencer and online personality who goes by the nom de guerre Redpill78, as a "good friend."
During a February 2021 appearance on a YouTube stream, Majewski stated, "I believe in everything that's been put out from Q," while characterizing the false posts as "military-level intelligence, in my opinion." He also posted, to the right-wing social media platform Parler, a photo of the "Trump 2020" mural he painted on his lawn that was modified to change the zeros into "Q's," as first reported by CNN.
Then there's Majewski's participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Majewski has said that he raised about $25,000 to help dozens of people attend the "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. He also traveled to the event with his friend Paine, the QAnon influencer, and the two later appeared in social media postings near the Capitol.
Majewski acknowledged he was outside the Capitol, but denies entering the building. Still, he lamented the decision on a QAnon livestream a week after the attack, stating that he was "pissed off at myself" for not going into the building.
"It was a struggle, because I really wanted to go in," Majewski said on the livestream, which was first unearthed by the liberal group Media Matters.
Majewski has not been charged in connection with the attack. But he has falsely stated that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and said that the insurrection "felt like a setup" by police who were targeting Trump supporters.
In his statement, Majewski said, "I deeply regret being at the Capitol that day" and "did not break the law," while calling for those who did to be "punished to the fullest extent of the law."
The mischaracterizations extend to his professional career, in which he has repeatedly described himself as an "executive in the nuclear power industry," including in a campaign ad last spring.
But a review of his now-deleted resume on the website LinkedIn and a survey of his former employers do not support the claim.
He most recently worked for Holtec International, a Florida-based energy conglomerate that specializes in handling spent nuclear fuel. But he is not listed among the executives and members of the corporate leadership teams in current or archived versions of the company's website.
A spokesman confirmed Majewski was a former Holtec employee, but declined to offer details on his position or role, which Majewski's LinkedIn page described as "senior director, client relations."
Majewski's campaign declined to address his claim of being an executive, but said he participated in weekly conference calls with executives.
Majewski also described himself on LinkedIn as "project manager - senior consultant" for First Energy, an Ohio based power company, a position that he stated he held since shortly after leaving the military. The company, Majewski explained in a biography posted to his website, quickly recognized him for his "intellect and leadership capabilities"
Yet records from his 2009 bankruptcy raise questions about his seniority. They show he was an "outage manager" who earned about $51,000 a year. In the bankruptcy, Majewski and his wife gave up their home, two cars and a Jet Ski to settle the case, court records show.
Still, in a nationalized political environment, some Republicans suggest none of this will matter to voters.
"At the end of the day, this will be a question of whether they want Nancy Pelosi leading the House or Kevin McCarthy," said Tom Davis, a former congressman who led the House Republican campaign arm during George W. Bush's presidency. "These elections have become less about the person. I wouldn't say candidates don't matter, but they don't matter like they used to."
Kaptur released the following statement when records related to Majewski's service were made public:
"The truth matters. As the only Ohioan on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, I know so many veterans — including those in my own family — who have served our grateful nation with honor. I have listened closely to their stories; their valor and unselfish heroism drives me to deliver for them each and every day. The idea that anyone, much less a candidate for the United States Congress, would mislead voters about their service in combat is an affront to every man and woman who has proudly worn the uniform of our great country. J.R. Majewski owes each of these heroes a full explanation about his deception."
LaPorta reported from Wilmington, North Carolina. AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
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This story has been corrected by deleting the reference to the social media platform Parler as being defunct.