A newly formed group of Navy Vietnam War veterans has joined the political fray over Sen. John F. Kerry’s military experience, demanding that the prospective Democratic presidential nominee release all his service records from the period he spent in Vietnam’s river battle zone.
Preparing to unveil a sharply worded letter today to Kerry from more than 200 veterans, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claims to represent a majority of Navy officers and enlisted men who served on the patrol boat detail that Kerry joined for nearly five months in 1968 and 1969.
The Kerry campaign and its Vietnam veteran supporters questioned the group’s numbers and its influence Monday night, accusing the organization of close ties to Republican loyalists and President Bush’s reelection campaign.
A spokesman for Bush’s campaign denied any connection.
The anti-Kerry group coalesced in recent weeks around a former admiral who had been Kerry’s commander in Vietnam and another Swift boat veteran who publicly debated Kerry in 1971 after he joined the antiwar movement.
Leaders of the group flew to Washington on Monday and planned to rebuke Kerry for his 1971 Senate testimony that referred to American “atrocities” in Vietnam and urge him to sign a waiver authorizing the release of his military records.
“Releasing his records would aid in telling the real story,” said John O’Neill, a Texas lawyer and former Navy lieutenant whose heated debates with Kerry over the Vietnam War were acclaimed by then-President Nixon. “The portrayal of [Kerry] as a hero was absurd. He couldn’t tie the shoes of people I knew who were heroes in Vietnam.”
Others involved in the anti-Kerry group include former Rear Adm. Roy F. Hoffmann, who commanded the swift boat operation that Kerry joined as a Navy lieutenant, and former Lt. Grant Hibbard, who briefly supervised Kerry during his perilous stint in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Hibbard recently questioned whether Kerry deserved the first of three Purple Hearts he was awarded, suggesting that a shrapnel wound Kerry received in December 1968 was no more than a scratch.
The Kerry campaign has found itself on the defensive about a heroic military record that would have seemed to be a prime campaign asset. After dismissing Hibbard’s account, the Kerry campaign released a sheaf of medical records to justify the candidate’s three decorations for war wounds -- only to be caught up in old questions about whether Kerry pretended to have thrown away his own medals during a 1971 protest against the war.
Former Deputy Asst. Secretary of the Navy Wade R. Sanders, a Kerry supporter who also commanded a swift boat during the war, dismissed O’Neill’s group as “a Bush campaign tool.”
Sanders and Kerry campaign staffers questioned the group’s claims of hundreds of supporters.
Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas public relations strategist helping the anti-Kerry group, acknowledged Monday night that “we’re trying very hard to verify all the names on our letter.” Spaeth said that some Vietnam veterans supporting Kerry had been trying to pressure some of the signers to reconsider their support.
“They’ve got an obvious political agenda,” said Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton.
Clanton cited the involvement of Spaeth’s Dallas-based firm, Spaeth Communications, as evidence of the group’s ties to the Republican Party.
Spaeth is a former Reagan administration media official. Her late husband, H.J. “Tex” Lezar, was the Republican nominee for Texas lieutenant governor in 1994, the same year Bush ran for governor. But while Bush won, Lezar lost.