Paul A. Morin, who was elected Aug. 31 to a one-year term as commander of the nation's largest veterans organization, spent his time in the Army from 1972 to 1974 at Fort Dix, N.J., The Boston Sunday Globe reported.
Neither the federal government nor the 2.7 million-member American Legion makes a formal distinction between veterans who served in Vietnam and those known as "Vietnam-era" veterans.
"I am a Vietnam veteran," Morin, of Chicopee in western Massachusetts, told the newspaper. His biography on the Legion's Web site also describes Morin as a "Vietnam veteran of the US Army."
The Legion's top spokesman, Joe March, backed Morin's position. He said any current service member stationed in the United States at present could claim to be an Iraq war veteran.
But former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia said Morin's claim may undercut the credibility of veterans groups that fight for Congressional funding of veterans' programs.
"For the national commander of the American Legion, who never even served in the Vietnam theater, to call himself a Vietnam veteran is a lie," said Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm during combat in Vietnam, and who has been a Legion member since 1969.
Thomas G. Kelley, the Massachusetts secretary of veterans affairs and also a Vietnam veteran, said Morin is misleading people.
"When someone says he is a Vietnam veteran, it means he served in the theater of the war," Kelley said.
Before his national campaign, Morin was a ranking member of the Legion's state office and was described on its Web site as a Vietnam-era veteran who was stationed in New Jersey.
Morin is the superintendent of the Soldier's Home, a state-run facility in Holyoke for needy veterans. He took an unpaid leave to serve as leader of the American Legion.
Morin did not return two calls from The Associated Press seeking additional comment Sunday. March, the Legion's spokesman, also did not return a call Sunday.