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Kerry's Vietnam record draws praise, questions

As a senior at Yale, John F. Kerry harbored doubts about the war in Vietnam, and as a Navy veteran he became famous for opposing it. But in between, he fought aggressively during an extraordinary four-month tour in that country, earning some of the nation's highest commendations for valor — and then he abruptly returned to the United States.
KERRY
John Kerry, in a 1969 photo as a Navy Lt. j.g., with members of his crew in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam war.Courtesy Of John Kerry / AP file
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As a senior at Yale, John F. Kerry harbored doubts about the war in Vietnam, and as a Navy veteran he became famous for opposing it. But in between, he fought aggressively during an extraordinary four-month tour in that country, earning some of the nation's highest commendations for valor -- and then he abruptly returned to the United States.

Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, was in the Navy from 1966 to 1970, leaving with the rank of lieutenant, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for wounds he received in combat. Most of the citations were awarded during his command of two "swift boats" on Vietnam's perilous coastal waterways.

Today, that record has become both an asset and an issue as he seeks the presidency. The senator from Massachusetts has used it to define his qualifications for the office, his experience in foreign policy, his leadership -- and, regarding the conflict in Iraq, his firsthand knowledge of war. But critics have cited it as evidence that he was opportunistic and have questioned whether he deserved one of his medals.

An examination of his record, supplemented by interviews with the candidate, his crewmates and some skeptics, found little to undermine Kerry's portrayal of his service.

Veterans of various wars greet him at the airport on his campaign stops, and John Hurley, national director of Veterans for Kerry, said 11,000 have signed up to support Kerry. With few exceptions, those who fought by his side, and the other veterans who support him today, are startled that anyone would question his valor.

Kerry's service evaluations, many of which were posted on his Web site this week, effusively cite his gallantry, his commitment to his service and the admiration of his men. In the coming weeks, his campaign will launch a series of ads promoting his military record -- an indication that he will continue to run on his military résumé.

But a group of Vietnam veterans, some of them partisans, portray him as an ambitious young officer who attempted to collect undeserved Purple Hearts for minor injuries and used those medals to cut short his tour. A military policy allowed those who received three Purple Hearts, regardless of the extent of their injuries, to leave Vietnam. Kerry could have requested to stay but did not.

A Web site -- www.vietnamveteransagainstkerry.com -- is dedicated to raising questions about his record and reminding voters that he returned home to become a leader in the antiwar movement, which critics allege demoralized the very troops he fought beside.

The issue made its way into the presidential contest this week when the Kerry campaign, facing Republican pressure to provide a more detailed account of his combat experience, decided to make public all his military records, except for his full medical report. Those documents did not add materially to information that had already been given to some news organizations on request, including The Washington Post last year.

'Totally exposed'
Throughout the last decade of Kerry's political career, his crewmates have defended him when his credentials and record have been questioned; they are now campaigning for him. In a recent interview, Kerry dismissed the current questions about his first Purple Heart as partisan politics. He also said he left early because he had turned on the war. One of his crewmates, Michael Medeiros, said Kerry ensured that his men were given a non-threatening assignment before he left Vietnam.

"For anybody to say that anyone who commanded a swift boat went there to earn medals is just ludicrous. They were totally exposed . . . If anything, they went there to get killed," said Jim Rassman, a Green Beret whom Kerry, wounded himself, pulled out of the water while under fire -- the act for which he received the Bronze Star. "John Kerry is lucky to be alive."

Kerry's tour in the Navy began in August 1966 at Officer Candidate School, in Rhode Island and then in California. In the class oration he delivered at Yale that spring, Kerry voiced doubts about the reach of American power into Southeast Asia. But throughout his senior year he had been surrounded by fellow members of Skull and Bones, Yale's most elite club -- young men with rich legacies of family military service. He and three of his closest friends had already decided to serve.

"Everyone wants to talk about this excruciating decision, but by and large it was four guys with some sense of family tradition in military," said David Thorne, one of those friends, who also joined the Navy. "There was no 'anything but the military' sentiment at that time."

The antiwar movement was just coalescing. Thorne recalled that that summer, he and Kerry watched a swelling crowd protest the war in Century City, Calif.

"We just didn't understand what was happening in the country," Thorne said. "We were shocked that the police opened up and attacked the crowd without any provocation." But they were in no position to oppose the war, he said. "It's hard to explain, but you just couldn't go there," Thorne said. "You were in."

'Swift boats'
By 1967, Kerry received his commission and his first assignment: cleaning the USS Gridley, a missile frigate.

During that tedious stint off the Vietnamese coast, Kerry took note of light aluminum boats that were patrolling the coastal waterways with small crews and were mostly out of harm's way. The 50-foot open boats were known as patrol craft fast (PCF) -- "swift boats."

He decided that was the assignment he wanted -- his own boat and his own crew; and action that was not necessarily deadly. In February 1968, he requested to go to "in country" in Vietnam, seeking swift-boat duty.

The USS Gridley and Kerry arrived back in California on June 5, 1968, the day that one of his heroes, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), was shot. Kerry was devastated by Kennedy's death the next day and increasingly concerned about the war, he said. "By 1968, I began having an uneasiness about our strategy, what we were learning about what was happening in the country itself, and the deceptions that were being reported by the government," he said.

Still, he was in the Navy: He trained for his new mission and arrived at the U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam that November.

The duty was far more dangerous that what Kerry had signed up for. Under a program called Operation Sea Lords, swift boats were ordered to be more aggressive, to penetrate deeper into the Mekong Delta and Viet Cong enclaves -- and to smoke out the enemy. They were sitting ducks, loudly cruising the rivers with no cover.

"If given a choice, I didn't want particularly to be in a foxhole," Kerry said. "I preferred to be in war on a boat -- not in the day-to-day battle. There wasn't as much risk and constancy of battle at the time [in the boats]. Obviously, it didn't end up that way. But I had volunteered, so you do what you have to do." In his four months in country, he would command two swift boats.

He arrived in the jungle as a Yalie with a Boston Brahmin résumé and the initials JFK -- a different breed from his crewmen, barely out of their teens and with working-class roots. Kerry would also spend his free time chronicling his experiences in letters home, which historian Douglas Brinkley used in his recently published book "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War."

'I wanted to win'
But the consensus among crewmates is that he bridged the differences and connected with his crew immediately. In combat, eight of nine of them say, he was daring and unflinching, never tentative. The ninth, Stephen M. Gardner, an avowed Bush supporter, recently told Brinkley: "Whenever a firefight started he always pulled up stakes and got the hell out of Dodge." Once, famously, Kerry -- in violation of regulations -- beached his boat and went after the enemy, chasing down and killing a Viet Cong guerrilla carrying a rocket launcher.

"I didn't want to just react and respond. I wanted to win," Kerry said. "I went there with a purpose, and that was to be successful on the missions."

Medeiros, who in 1969 was a crewmate of Kerry's, said Kerry "wanted to be aggressive."

"I liked him immediately . . . He was a strong leader willing to take calculated risks. We were the seasoned ones; he respected that. He took the approach that we didn't have to prove anything to him. He had to prove something to us," Medeiros said.

Two weeks into his new assignment, before he was even given his own crew, Kerry was wounded on a swift-boat mission on Dec. 2, 1968. For that, he received his first -- and most controversial -- Purple Heart.

Grant Hibbard, Kerry's commanding officer, questioned the injury after Kerry first put in for the medal. Now 69 and living in Florida, Hibbard recently told reporters for the Boston Globe and USA Today that Kerry had only "a scratch" on his forearm and that Hibbard had no evidence that Kerry was under enemy fire when he was injured. In an interview with The Post, Hibbard stood by his remarks but declined to elaborate on them.

Kerry told Brinkley for his book that he and a crew were patrolling an enemy area north of Cam Ranh Bay when they set off a flare and startled Viet Cong drug smugglers. "The light from the flares started to fade, the air was full of explosions," Brinkley quoted him as saying. "My M-16 jammed, and as I bent down to grab another gun, a stinging piece of heat socked into my arm and just seemed to burn like hell."

The Kerry campaign provided a copy of a Navy medical report saying he received treatment for the wound the next day. "Shrapnel in left arm above elbow," the report says, with military abbreviation. "Shrapnel removed and appl bacitracin dressing. Ret to Duty." "What's the difference between a small piece of shrapnel and losing an arm or leg?" Thorne said about the skepticism. "It's all second-guessing at this point. Everyone put their life on the line, and everyone said, 'There [but] for the grace of God go I.' It's a specious argument [to say it was a minor injury], and it makes veterans go so crazy."

In an interview, Brinkley said Kerry "was not medal-hunting." In Vietnam, the historian said, there was "historical medal inflation," to keep soldiers engaged in the war. "That was not John Kerry's fault," he said.

"The fact is, John Kerry was exceedingly lucky in Vietnam that his three wounds were minor," he said.

On the Delta
Before the end of 1968, Kerry received his first command, the PCF-44. Within a month, he was assigned a new crew and was skippering the PCF-94 on the Mekong Delta, where he faced the most combat and received most of his citations. In February 1969, he took shrapnel in his left leg, earning his second Purple Heart. The next month, he killed the Viet Cong who was holding the rocket launcher -- for which he earned the Silver Star.

During Kerry's bid for re-election to the Senate in 1996, the media raised questions about whether the enemy was down and wounded when Kerry killed him. For the first time in 27 years, the men of PCF-94 gathered that year in Boston to help defend their former skipper and credit him with saving their lives that day.

They said this was the situation: They were ferrying troops up a river when they started taking fire. Kerry ordered his boat turned to face the bank and charge the enemy. As they approached the bank, the Viet Cong jumped up and began running away from their boat.

Several of the crew believe the Viet Cong had been wounded; they all believe that he could have been trying to get far enough from their boat so he could fire a rocket at it. Kerry, they said, chased him down and eliminated a grave potential threat.

In March 1969, Kerry was wounded again, this time taking shrapnel in the buttocks and right forearm when a mine exploded near his boat. Under fire from the riverbank, Kerry gave orders to get out of the area. But in the getaway, Kerry realized that he had lost a man overboard -- Rassman, whom Kerry had been transporting out of the area. He ordered the boat back.

"Lt. Kerry directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire," says the citation for Kerry's Bronze Star, which he earned on this mission, along with his third Purple Heart, "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."

Rassman nominated Kerry for the Silver Star -- and to this day, he is perplexed that it was downgraded to the Bronze. "I figure I was dead, because so many people were shooting at me," Rassman said. "He came right up to the bow of the boat and pulled me in. That was stupid."

Rassman had not seen Kerry for 35 years when he called the campaign in January and offered to work a phone bank. Within a day, the campaign flew him to Iowa and had him talking to voters and the media in Iowa.

By the end of March 1969, four months into his assignment, Kerry had "moved to a place that was very clear and deep opposition," he said. "I thought the war was wrong."

He had also lost a number of friends to the war, but his thinking about the war went beyond his grief.

'I felt the contradictions'
He said he was influenced by the tumult in the United States in 1968 and by what he was seeing firsthand.

"From the moment I stepped on the ground, I felt the contradictions -- the corruption of the local government, the nature of our missions, the unwillingness of some of the Vietnamese troops to carry out missions. . . . A long list of realities hit me in the face," Kerry said.

With three Purple Hearts to his name, he was allowed to leave Vietnam. Returning stateside, he served as a personal aide to an admiral at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

He wanted to speak out about what he saw and what he knew, he said, but felt he could not do so in uniform.

Seven months later, he requested early release from duty to run for Congress, and by January 1970 Kerry was released. "I just said I'm going to go home to talk about this," he said, "and try to figure out how to stop this."

His congressional campaign proved ill-fated, but Kerry would become nationally famous the following spring, as a decorated veteran opposing the war.

Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.