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Why the Vietnam War could upend a Trump Pentagon nominee

Democrats oppose Anthony Tata's nomination over Islamophobic social media posts, but it's a fight with a GOP senator that could upend him.
Sailors inspect damage to the Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans after it was cut in half in a collision with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne of the Royal Australian Navy during joint maneuvers in the South China Sea on June 3, 1969.
Sailors inspect damage to the Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans after it was cut in half in a collision with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne of the Royal Australian Navy during joint maneuvers in the South China Sea on June 3, 1969.AP file

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he is opposing the nomination of Anthony Tata for undersecretary of defense for policy unless the Defense Department changes its position on adding the names of sailors killed on the USS Frank E. Evans a half-century ago to the memorial in Washington.

"If the department does not make significant changes to its policy, I plan to oppose Tata's nomination," Cramer said in a statement last week ahead of a hearing Thursday on Tata's nomination before the Armed Services Committee.

There are 14 Republicans and 13 Democrats on the committee. If Cramer maintains his position and votes against the nomination, he would tip the balance against Tata.

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Democrats on the committee oppose the nomination of Tata, a retired Army brigadier general, for different reasons — tweets in 2018 in which he called former President Barack Obama a "terrorist leader" who did more to hurt the United States "and help Islamic countries than any president in history." In a separate radio appearance, he attributed the Iran nuclear deal to Obama's "Islamic roots," saying the deal was an attempt "to help Iranians and the greater Islamic state crush Israel."

But Cramer's issue is the "Lost 74" — crew members who were killed in the South China Sea in 1969 when the Evans was hit by another ship during maneuvers with the Australian and New Zealand navies. An Australian aircraft carrier "broadsided" the destroyer, severing the Evans' bow, survivors said.

"Our ship was cut in half and the bow half of the ship sank in five minutes and took 74 sailors to their death," Richard Grant, one of the 199 survivors, wrote in a letter to the editor in The Forum newspaper of Fargo-Moorhead, North Dakota, in 2018.

Among the dead were the three Sage brothers of Niobrara, Nebraska — Gary, 22, Gregory, 21, and Kelly, 19.

Because the ship was more than 100 miles from Vietnam at the time, the sailors weren't considered war dead, and their names were not included on the memorial wall.

"It made no sense to me that a ship of sailors who had just left the combat zone and was going to return to the combat zone, and in the meantime doing exercises in preparation for war, aren't worthy of being memorialized," Cramer told The Bismarck, North Dakota, Tribune last year.

A relative of Grant's brought the issue to Cramer's attention at a town hall meeting in 2018, when Cramer was in the House.

"I was deeply moved by the story, and I introduced an amendment to last year's National Defense Authorization Act to inscribe the names of the 74 sailors to the memorial. While the measure unanimously passed the House, it failed to pass the Senate," he wrote in an essay last year marking the 50th anniversary of the crash.

Despite strong bipartisan support for a similar measure in the Senate, the bill has yet to pass. Cramer tried to push it through using a process called unanimous consent this year, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, blocked it. Murkowski cited "practical legal and technical considerations" for the objection.

Besides the Defense Department's position that the ship was outside the 100-mile combat zone, the agency has resisted adding names to the wall because they're organized by date, which would make adding the 74 names to the more than 58,000 already on it logistically difficult.

In testimony last year before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, Daniel Smith, then the deputy director of the National Park Service, said that including the 74 names "will be hard to accomplish the way the wall is currently constructed" and that it would "necessitate substantial modification, and possibly a wholesale replacement, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall."

David Fraser of Canada, then a brigadier general, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata answer questions from reporters in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April 2006.Murray Brewster / AP file

Now Cramer is strong-arming the Defense Department to add the names, challenging what he called "a policy based on arbitrary Defense Department guidelines enforced by unelected bureaucrats."

The White House has maintained its support of Tata, who has been a pro-Trump commentator on Fox News.

In the statement he released last week, Cramer said of Tata, "I hope to hear some positive news at his hearing next week."