updated 8/28/2004 2:31:14 PM ET 2004-08-28T18:31:14

After a month of charges and countercharges about John Kerry's record in Vietnam, his critics have not come up with documented proof to back up their primary charges. It's a tangled case of conflicting memories, and lingering questions.

There's a new challenge from Adm. William Schachte (USN, ret.), who contributed to two Bush campaigns. Schachte raises questions about Kerry's first Purple Heart.

"I was in command of those missions and I was in the boat that night," he says.

In an interview with NBC News, Schachte claims Kerry was not wounded in combat, but accidentally hurt himself when he fired a grenade launcher too close to the boat and a piece of shrapnel came back and hit his arm.

"I'm saying that he did not deserve the first Purple Heart from what I saw," says Schachte.

Lisa Myers: There was no enemy fire involved?

Adm. William Schachte: None.

Myers: You're absolutely certain.

Schachte: Yes.

Myers: 36 years later?

Schachte: Hey, listen, when (laughter) somebody's shooting at you, you know it."

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No after action report has been found. Schachte says as officer in charge he did not write one because there was no combat.

The skipper of another boat that night, Mike Voss, tells NBC News, "I don't know what went on in the skimmer, but I'm pretty certain Schachte was there, in the skimmer."

Two other officers —  both Kerry critics — also support Schachte's account.

But not everyone involved shares Schachte's memory. Bill Zaladonis and another enlisted man back up Kerry's story. They say they were in that boat with Kerry that night and Schachte was not there.     

"I don't remember every incident or everything that happened that night. But I do remember who was on that boat and I remember it very plainly, very plainly," says Zaladonis.

The big unanswered question: Why was the Purple Heart awarded three full months after the incident? Kerry's commander claims he turned Kerry down for the award. Kerry says he does not recall that.   

On other incidents questioned by Kerry's critics, the weight of the evidence clearly favors Kerry.  

On the Bronze Star, all available documents — including citations for other men honored for heroism that day — all repeatedly refer to enemy fire.

On the Silver Star, former swift boat skipper William Rood came to Kerry's defense, pointing out that Kerry's decision that day to deliberately face an enemy ambush drew praise from then-Capt. Roy Hoffman — a leader of the vets now attacking Kerry.

Del Sandusky was on Kerry's crew for all but one of the missions in question.

"I was with John Kerry for his Silver and Bronze, and two of his three Purple Hearts. John Kerry earned every one of his medals," he says.

Kerry's critics say he invited this kind of scrutiny when he made his Vietnam record a central part of his campaign. But even they acknowledge that Kerry volunteered for duty in Vietnam. And now that the president has said he doesn't think Kerry lied, it may be difficult for critics to sustain their attacks.


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