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Veterans Battle Over the Truth

Times Staff Writers

A television ad that has aired in three key battleground states and a new book have created a political furor over John F. Kerry’s Vietnam War record, calling into question his character, credibility and a central tenet of his campaign -- that his combat experience helps qualify him to be president.

The ad, the book and the people behind them have become staples of conservative talk shows and Internet sites. The claims -- that Kerry lied about his war experiences, didn’t deserve his medals and betrayed soldiers everywhere by protesting the war after serving in it -- also have been recited in the mainstream media, along with denials of the allegations.

What military documentation exists and has been made public generally supports the view put forth by Kerry and most of his crewmates -- that he acted courageously and came by his Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts honestly. This view of Kerry as war hero is supported by all but one of the surviving veterans who served with him on the two boats he commanded.

None of the critics quoted in the ad actually served on the boats with Kerry. Some of them also have given contradictory accounts and offered conflicting recollections.

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But what actually happened about 35 years ago along the remote southern coast of Vietnam remains murky. Some of Kerry’s own recollections over the years, as presented in two biographies and many interviews, also have been inconsistent.

Most of the documents offered by critics of the Democratic candidate are signed affidavits by 13 Swift boat veterans -- notarized memories of events that they say they witnessed from a boat or two away.

The Kerry campaign has launched a vociferous defense, denying the charges raised in the ad. It also denounced the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as a Republican-backed effort. His staff has directed critics to the Massachusetts senator’s military records, which have been posted on his website.

“The Swift boat ad is full of lies. Thirteen men who never served with John Kerry lie about knowing him and viciously attack his record,” said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill in an e-mail to supporters last week. “It is a new low for the Republicans.”

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A liberal independent organization is weighing in on the controversy with a new ad today, demanding that President Bush urge that the ad be taken off the air.

The Bush campaign, for its part, says it has nothing to do with the Swift boat group attacking Kerry and has kept a distance -- neither endorsing nor denouncing the ad, which is airing in Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia. When asked about it Thursday on “Larry King Live,” Bush said he had not seen it.

Kerry, long accused of hair-splitting and nuance in his political positions, has left himself open to criticism by giving subtly varying accounts over the years of his Vietnam service and postwar activism. But his critics also have provided conflicting recollections.

“War is by definition chaotic, and people are not taking notes in battle,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “In terms of the type of evidence that might be ideal for making a convincing case, there probably are some holes. They give an opening for people who want to say Kerry was embellishing.”

Members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth say they have received $300,000 in new donations since the ad began airing Aug. 5. The group’s initial ad buy was $500,000.

The group’s leaders confirmed that Robert J. Perry, a Texas homebuilder, was their biggest original financier. Perry has given money to Bush’s last four campaigns and is a major GOP donor in Texas.

John O’Neill, a former Swift boat commander who served in Vietnam and a longtime Kerry foe, has been promoting his book -- “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry” -- on cable-TV talk shows such as “Crossfire” and “Hardball.” The book, which amplifies the charges in the ad, began trickling into stores last week. It already tops the Amazon.com bestseller list, and a chapter has been posted on a conservative website.

It is too soon to tell whether the claims are resonating with voters, but political observers say they could pose a serious risk for the Democratic candidate, particularly in such a close race.

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“If the attacks on [Kerry’s] character continue and they start to take hold with swing voters and casual voters, it would be a big problem,” said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan political newsletter. “The Kerry folks can’t concede this.... A charge like this that’s ignored is a charge that’s believed.”

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The anti-Kerry ad begins with footage of Sen. John Edwards, Kerry’s running mate, saying, “If you have any question about what John Kerry’s made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him 30 years ago.”

Then eight words appear on the screen -- “Here’s what those men think about John Kerry” -- and the allegations begin. They include comments such as: “John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam,” and “He lacks the capacity to lead.”

Many in the Swift boat group seem to be motivated as much by anger about Kerry’s protest activities as they are about his actions in combat. In their affidavits, several write about Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In his April 1971 statement to the Senate panel, Kerry cited Vietnam atrocities that had been alleged by his group of antiwar veterans. And in blunt rhetoric, he questioned government policy that widened the toll among soldiers and civilians: “We learned the meaning of free-fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed cheapness on the lives of Orientals.”

In the anti-Kerry ad, former Navy Lt. Cmdr. George Elliott, one of Kerry’s immediate commanders, says: “John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.”

In his affidavit, Elliott said that when Kerry returned from Vietnam, he was “comparing his other commanders and me to Lt. Calley of My Lai, comparing the American armed forces to the army of Genghis Khan, and making similar misstatements.”

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Joe Ponder, a Swift boat crewman who did not serve on either of Kerry’s two boats, says in the ad that Kerry “dishonored his country.” In his affidavit, Ponder says he was badly wounded in an ambush in Vietnam. But “the greatest wounds I have ever suffered were from John F. Kerry, who dishonored my country, my honor and my friends by falsely charging the United States Army Forces with war crimes, claiming that all of us, living and dead, were war criminals.”

Although these are powerful statements, they are not entirely accurate.

In his Senate testimony, Kerry did liken some American actions to Genghis Khan’s. But he did not mention Elliott by name, nor did he mention his Navy superiors. And he did not claim that every soldier was a war criminal. Rather, he cited atrocities described by veterans who opposed the war. Kerry has acknowledged that, at times, he used a poor choice of words as a young man protesting the war, but he has continued to insist that atrocities were committed.

During the war, Elliott gave Kerry high marks in fitness reports and recommended Kerry for the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. “John was one of 50 young officers who performed extremely well,” Elliott said in an interview in May. “I wrote his fitness report, and I stand by that.”

But in his affidavit, Elliott backed away from the Silver Star nomination he wrote for Kerry in 1969. Kerry won the award for chasing down and killing a wounded Viet Cong guerrilla who had confronted his boat with a grenade launcher.

In his affidavit, Elliott questioned Kerry’s actions, suggesting he might have shot the guerrilla in the back. Elliott was not present during the action, and there have been no credible eyewitness accounts affirming his version.

Kerry’s Swift boat mates have long insisted that Kerry’s action was appropriate and saved their lives.

A day after the ad appeared, Elliott said in an interview with the Boston Globe that he regretted signing the affidavit and that he believed Kerry still deserved the Silver Star. Then he issued a second affidavit standing by his first sworn statement, saying he had been misquoted by the Globe.

But in his second affidavit, Elliott also admitted, “I do not claim to have personal knowledge as to how Kerry shot the wounded, fleeing Viet Cong.”

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There are three other allegations raised by the anti-Kerry group -- questioning his first Purple Heart, his Bronze Star and a Christmas Eve mission to the Cambodian border.

The awarding of Kerry’s first Purple Heart has been challenged by a former surgeon at the Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay. “I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury,” Dr. Louis Letson said in the television ad.

In a Times interview in May, the retired Alabama doctor said he recalled administering treatment to Kerry for a flesh wound incurred on Dec. 2, 1968.

Kerry had been on a mission in a “skimmer” boat north of Cam Ranh Bay. Noticing Viet Cong on a beach, Kerry fired on the guerrillas. Two crewmates, Bill Zaladonis and Pat Runyon, have confirmed that they also fired on the fleeing guerrillas.

That same night, Jim Wasser, who was stationed on a boat near Kerry’s and who would later serve on Kerry’s Swift boat, heard a radio report from Kerry’s boat that “someone had a slight wound.”

The next morning, according to Letson, Kerry showed up at the Cam Ranh Bay medical unit asking for treatment. Letson said the wound was slight and that he removed a tiny shard of shrapnel with tweezers. He said Kerry reported being in a firefight with Viet Cong guerrillas.

But later, Letson said, he learned from some medical corpsmen that other crewmen had confided that there was no exchange of fire and that Kerry had accidentally wounded himself as he fired at the guerrillas.

Letson said he didn’t know if the crewmen giving this account were in the boat with Kerry or on other boats. The crewmen “were just talking to my guys,” Letson said. “We weren’t prying into it. There was not a firefight -- that’s what the guys related. They didn’t remember any firing from shore. It’s Kerry who made the issue of him being a war hero. That opens it up for some question.”

In a June interview, Kerry described taking fire from the guerrillas but was unsure whether he was wounded by others or by himself. “I didn’t see where it came from,” he said.

The Kerry campaign has questioned Letson’s role, noting that a medical account detailing Kerry’s treatment is signed by a “J. Carreon” -- not Letson. But Letson insisted he was the one who treated Kerry. Carreon was a Filipino corpsman, a “hospitalman first class,” not a doctor, Letson said, and routinely made entries on his behalf.

Kerry won the Purple Heart for the wound, but Letson said he did not deserve it because it was too slight and reportedly self-inflicted. Letson conceded in The Times interview that he made no effort then to officially question Kerry’s account.

Navy rules during the Vietnam War governing Purple Hearts did not take into account a wound’s severity -- and specified only that injuries had to be suffered “in action against an enemy.”

Self-inflicted wounds were awarded if incurred “in the heat of battle, and not involving gross negligence.” Kerry’s critics insist his wound would not have qualified, but former Navy officials who worked in the service’s awards branch at the time said such awards were routine.

A Times review of Navy injury reports and awards from that period in Kerry’s Swift boat unit shows that many other Swift boat personnel won Purple Hearts for slight wounds of uncertain origin.

When Kerry reported the injury to his commander, Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, he only asked Hibbard to file an injury report, Kerry told The Times.

In a Swift Boat Veterans for Truth affidavit, Hibbard said Kerry came into his office “to apply for a Purple Heart,” but that he turned down Kerry’s “Purple Heart request.” He said he was “shocked to later learn that [Kerry] subsequently received an undeserved Purple Heart for his wound.”

But in a conflicting interview this summer, Hibbard said Kerry did not directly ask for the medal but a medical report. (The report would have been automatically forwarded to Navy administrators in Saigon who oversaw Purple Heart awards.) Hibbard said he believed the wound was too minor to warrant a report but that later he “took some heat” from military superiors for refusing to write it up.

Kerry acknowledged to The Times that he later asked about the Purple Heart. He said he “asked a guy where it was or something,” but could not recall whom he pressed for the award.

The decoration was approved by Navy administrators in Saigon before he left Vietnam in March 1969.

*

The second specific allegation was made by Van Odell, who served as a gunner on PCF-23, one of the boats involved in the incident that earned Kerry the Bronze Star. “John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. I know. I was there,” Odell says in the ad.

Kerry received the Bronze Star for rescuing Army Lt. Jim Rassmann, a Green Beret who had been knocked off Kerry’s Swift boat on March 13, 1969, when a mine exploded nearby, disabling another craft. Kerry also received a Purple Heart for being injured in the process.

In one of the defining moments of the Democratic primary season, Rassmann, who is a Republican, reunited with the candidate in an emotional meeting. He talked about Kerry’s bravery and his gratitude. Since then, he has campaigned for him regularly.

Kerry’s website gives a brief account of the rescue and then quotes the Bronze Star citation signed by Vice Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., then the Navy’s top commander in Vietnam:

“Lt. Kerry directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire, while from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain, with disregard for his personal safety, he pulled the man aboard. Lt. Kerry’s calmness, professionalism and great personal courage under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. naval service.”

Rassmann, in a Times interview, said Kerry and several of his crew were on shore as Rassmann and his unit took small arms fire from Viet Cong guerrillas. The U.S. troops then moved to destroy a cache of contraband rice they suspected was being used to supply the enemy.

Kerry and Rassmann hurled grenades at the contraband, and from the resulting explosion they were hit with shrapnel, including some that lodged in Kerry’s buttocks.

Later that day, Rassmann recalled, he was sitting on the side of Kerry’s Swift boat eating a chocolate chip cookie just as PCF-94 was heading out of the Bay Hap River toward the Gulf of Siam. One mine went off underwater, and then a second.

Rassmann fell overboard, he recounted, “and John got thrown off the bulkhead. I went to the bottom, dumped my gear, and when I came up the boats were gone. The VC are shooting at me.” Then, Rassmann said, he saw a boat coming to his rescue. From the edge of the Swift boat, the wounded Kerry “kneeled down and grabbed my arm and pulled me over. Neither of us said a word. I grabbed an M-16 and fired back. I burned the barrel out. We finally got out of this kill zone.”

There are discrepancies in the official stories and documentation about the incident.

The Bronze Star citation describes Kerry’s arm as bleeding, as do two biographies, “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War” by Douglas Brinkley, and “John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By The Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best.”

But the official March 13 Navy report of Kerry’s injuries said that “Lt. Kerry suffered shrapnel wounds in his left buttocks and contusions on his right forearm when a mine detonated close aboard PCF-94.”

His wounds also earned him his third Purple Heart and allowed him to leave Vietnam early -- in late March 1969 -- after four months of a yearlong tour.

Several others, who are now members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, were on nearby boats on the Bay Hap River during the incident. They say that there was no hostile gunfire when Kerry pulled Rassmann out of the water and that one of their own, Jack Chenoweth, was already speeding to Rassmann’s aid.

“I’m here to tell you there was no fire from either bank. The only incident was the mine, detonated under the ... boat,” Chenoweth said in an interview.

The Swift boat group members critical of Kerry said that he wrote the after-action reports that led to his getting the Bronze Star. They said they saw no blood on his arm as described in the citation for the Bronze Star. And they argue that the buttock wound that that led to the Purple Heart was caused by his own grenade.

They also say they did not complain 35 years ago because they did not see the reports until Kerry posted them online.

But the anti-Kerry faction has not definitively proved that Kerry was the sole source of the Bronze Star battle account. And according to Elliott, Kerry’s immediate commander, Swift boat officers involved in battles normally were involved in drafting the after-action report, which in this case described repeated fire from small arms and automatic weapons.

Rassmann, whose life was saved, stands by Kerry.

“Their new charges are false; their stories are fabricated, made up by people who did not serve with Kerry in Vietnam,” he wrote in a commentary last Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal. “They insult and defame all of us who served in Vietnam.”

*

A third and new allegation surfaced last week as part of the publicity campaign for O’Neill’s new book.

O’Neill and several members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allege that in statements to Congress and in news accounts, Kerry lied in claiming that on Christmas Eve 1968, his Swift boat -- PCF-44 -- sailed into a Cambodian river.

Cambodia was supposed to be off-limits to the U.S. military because it was not an official combatant. However, U.S. troops made secret incursions into the country to stem Viet Cong operations and supply lines.

“I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia,” Kerry said in a March 1986 Senate speech. “I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians.”

At other times, Kerry has said he was near -- but not in -- Cambodia.

In a Times interview last June, Kerry said: “I celebrated Christmas Eve on the border of Cambodia.” And he added that on a later mission, “I went into Cambodia with the CIA.”

Kerry’s critics have seized on his varying recollections to impugn his credibility and suggest he has embellished his war record.

Steven Gardner, the only member of Kerry’s former crews to join Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and actively campaign against Kerry, has told some reporters that PCF-44 was 50 miles away from Cambodia that Christmas Eve.

But two of Kerry’s crewmates -- Wasser and Zaladonis -- both told The Times the boat was in the vicinity of the Cambodian border and even fought an engagement with a Viet Cong sampan on Christmas Eve day.

“We patrolled a river on the border,” Zaladonis said last week. “Unless I’m out of my mind or mistaken, that river was part of the border.”

There are no after-action reports that pinpoint where Kerry’s boat was in late December 1968. But a file from Navy archives in Washington obtained by The Times provides support for both sides.

An entry in a monthly summary of engagements for December 1968 reports that on Christmas Eve, “PCF-44 fired on junk on beach. Results: 1 sampan destroyed.”

The entry was made by then-Capt. Roy Hoffmann, the overall commander of Swift boats and now one of Kerry’s most vocal critics. There is no written location for the engagement, but it contains a coordinate used by the military to plot locations. The coordinate points to an area about 40 to 50 miles south of the Cambodian border, near an island called Sa Dec.

The entry also notes that the incident took place about 7 a.m., which would have given Kerry’s boat another 12 hours to make it to the Cambodian border by nightfall. At a cruising speed of 23 knots, the boat could have covered the distance in about two hours.

This would be consistent with the contention of Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan that Kerry was in Sa Dec but reached the Cambodian border later the same day.

Since the anti-Kerry ad first surfaced, Kerry’s crewmates have fanned out in his defense. Along with Rassmann, crewmates Del Sandusky, leading petty officer with Kerry on PCF-94, and Gene Thorson decried the allegations as politically inspired “garbage.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam veteran who has endorsed Bush, called the ad “dishonest and dishonorable.” He said that “none of these individuals served on the boat [Kerry] commanded,” adding that he believed “John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam.”

In a lengthy interview between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s first news conference in May and the controversy last week, Kerry called the group’s allegations pure “politics.”

“Some of them don’t like the fact that I opposed the war, and 35 years later some people still want to argue about that,” Kerry said in the June interview. “It’s way beyond me, can I tell you? It’s so far beyond and past now. I feel sad about it.”

He said he respected the service all Swift boat crews gave to their country and lauded their courage.

“So I’m at peace with myself, and I’m sorry they feel the way they do,” Kerry said, “because I respect them. I really do.”


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