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I have the following line in a document i'm working on:

"Col. Stevens, who has served in the First Iraq War, took part in the heated debate."

Seeing how that war was quite a few years in the past, shouldn't it be "who had served", or simply 'who served"?

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    The 'has served' usage is quite common. It is used to hint (at least) that 'he hasn't finished yet' (though perhaps his role is very different now). Thus at UN General Assembly 58th Session Press Kit we find 'He has served in various capacities with many other organisations'. Aug 13 '15 at 18:33
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There are only two choices here: simple past and present perfect. The simple past denotes a finished activity in the past, and the present perfect denotes that the speaker's past is relevant to the present and future decisions. The use of "had served " is incorrect as past perfect, because PP is used to denote the order of events in the past and the reference point is in the past, not the present. Your sentence doesn't have a past reference point. Your sentence has every indication that SP or PP are the correct choices.

I feel that for writing, you should use the simple past, "Col. Stevens, who served in the Irag war..."

I feel that for a spoken introduction the PP should be used, "Col. Stevens, who has served in the Iraq war..." This usage signifies to the audience that Col. Stevens' experience in the war will be relevant today and that the past will "come alive" so-to-speak.

Because you are working on a document, I would chose the simple past.

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Here's how I would interpret has served in this context: Col. Stevens shared his point of view in the debate. As someone who has served in an armed conflict -- in the first Iraq war, to be precise -- he has practical experience in the trenches.

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Interesting question.

In the "had served" version, I feel the prose is mainly a report on the debate; for all we know, Stevens may now be live or dead - all we know from the prose is that, at the time of the debate, he spoke and that he had previously been in the Iraq war.

In the "has served" version, we may deduce that Stevens served in the Iraq war, that he spoke in the debate, and that he is still alive.

In the "served" version all we know is that he served in the war and that he spoke in the debate; the prose gives no information about his present existence or not. This case is very similar to the "had served" case.

The point about the war being a few years in the past is largely irrelevant. The distinction between has and had is not determined by some arbitrary choice of time scale. For example, "By the time he had eaten dinner this morning, he had seen the eclipse."

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