Until Saturday, Bui Thi Luom had never heard the name Bob Kerrey. She had no idea that he served as governor of Nebraska and U.S. senator and once ran for president.
But she did know that 32 years ago, seven American commandos sneaked into her village in the Mekong Delta and killed 15 members of her family--all women and children. Luom, wounded in the knee, was the only one to escape. She was 12.
"They killed people in cold blood," she said Saturday as she recounted the incident to journalists for the first time. "They should have been punished."
Kerrey, now 57, was the leader of an elite Navy SEAL unit that attacked Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 1969. After three decades of silence, the former senator recently admitted that his team killed innocent women and children during the raid.
Luom and another witness from the village, Pham Thi Lanh, say the Americans killed 20 civilians during the two-stage attack, including 13 children and a pregnant woman. Luom asserts that some of the children were shot from as little as a yard away. Lanh contends that three of the children were stabbed to death.
Kerrey, then a lieutenant, was awarded a Bronze Star after his squad falsely reported that it had killed 21 Viet Cong in the attack.
Today Kerrey, president of the New School University in New York, maintains that most of the civilians were killed after his unit was fired on.
"It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it," he said this month in a speech at a Virginia military academy. "Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years."
Both sides in the Vietnam War committed atrocities against civilians, but few of the perpetrators have been called to account for them.
The Vietnamese government last week welcomed Kerrey's show of remorse and suggested that he and other troubled veterans find peace of mind by taking "concrete and realistic actions" to help heal wounds left by the war.
The killing of civilians by Kerrey's Raiders, as his squad was known, came to light as a result of a joint 2 1/2-year investigation by the New York Times and the CBS-TV program "60 Minutes II."
"To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it," Kerrey said during an interview for the program, which is scheduled to air Tuesday.
In an article in today's New York Times Magazine, one member of Kerrey's unit, Gerhard Klann, gives a version of the raid similar to the accounts of the two Vietnamese women. Lanh, now 62, also is quoted in the article. Another member of Kerry's unit offered the paper an account that alternately supported both men.
The Vietnamese government allowed a group of journalists to visit Thanh Phong on Saturday and interview both women.
The hamlet of about 200 people on the South China Sea has changed little since the war. Farmers still eke out meager livings growing rice. Many live in thatched huts with dirt floors. Few villagers have cars, and none of the roads are paved.
In 1969, the Americans believed that a Viet Cong leader was operating in the village, and Kerrey's unit planned to kill him.
On Feb. 13, the squad entered the village, interrogated some of the residents and left without having found him.
Twelve days later, the team returned by boat in the dead of night and attempted to slip into the village unnoticed.
Things began to go wrong when the commandos came across a hooch they had not expected. There were five people inside.
According to Klann and Lanh, the commandos slit the throats of a man and woman, Bui Van Vat and Luu Thi Canh. According to the headstones on their graves, he was 65 and she was 62. Then the SEALs allegedly stabbed the remaining three inhabitants--the couple's young grandchildren.
Lanh, who lived nearby, says she heard noise and went to investigate. She says she hid behind a banana tree and watched as the commandos killed the two adults. While she earlier claimed to have witnessed all the killings, she said Saturday that she had actually seen only the first two.
After allegedly killing the five, the commandos moved on to the house they had targeted.
According to Kerrey's account, someone shot at the unit and the commandos returned fire, blasting 1,200 rounds in the direction from which the shots seemed to come. In the darkness and confusion, Kerrey said, the commandos killed the women and children 100 yards away.
Luom, now 44, gave this account: She and her relatives, including her grandmother, four aunts and 10 cousins, were asleep in an earthen shelter commonly used at the time to protect villagers from bombs and gunfire. The structure consisted of a zigzag trench as much as a yard deep with a thatched roof and an opening at each end.
The commandos, she said, woke them and ordered them to come outside. Luom, 12, was the oldest of the children. The youngest was about 3.
She couldn't see the commandos' faces clearly in the dark, but she knew that they were Americans because they had "big noses" and were speaking a foreign language.
At first, the villagers believed they would be questioned and released, just as when the Americans came two weeks earlier.
The commandos ordered them to sit on the ground outside the shelter. When a woman coughed, Luom remembers, one of the soldiers put his gun in her mouth and ordered her to be silent.
Luom's grandmother knelt and began to plead for mercy. The soldiers talked among themselves, she recalled, and then opened fire at close range.
She said she happened to be sitting close to the shelter door and scrambled inside when the shooting started. She was struck in the knee by a bullet or a grenade fragment, she isn't sure which.
She was able to escape out the far end of the shelter and limp to safety. Today, she has a scar nearly the size of a half-dollar on her left knee.
"Everyone was screaming and very frightened when they began shooting," she recalled. "All of them were killed except me."
Squad member Klann described a similar scene, telling the New York Times that the Americans began shooting from a distance of six to 10 feet, raking the women and children with automatic rifle fire.
"The baby was the last one alive," Klann told the paper. "There were blood and guts splattering everywhere."
Luom said she had not heard about the controversy over the killings until she met with journalists Saturday. The mother of four said she works on a fishing boat and had returned Friday from a monthlong voyage.
She lives in the village of An Thuan, about an hour away by motorbike. She said she never reads newspapers because she is illiterate and never watches television because she is too poor to own one.
After 32 years, there is no question in her mind that the crimes of the commando unit should not go unpunished.
"At the time, I was too small," she said. "If I could, I would like to get my revenge on them. If I could kill them, I would."