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Questioning Kerry's third Purple Heart

Dueling accounts about what happened to five swift boats in Vietnam in 1969 are stirring controversy 35 years later. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

"Thirty-five years ago John Kerry saved my life," says former Green Beret Jim Rassmann.

Rassmann says on March 13, 1969, an injured John Kerry plucked him from the river in the face of enemy fire — a rescue for which Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star and a third Purple Heart.

Thirty-five years later, a former swift boat skipper is leading the charge to discredit this key chapter of Kerry's story — claiming there was no enemy fire and that Kerry exaggerated his injuries.  

"He lied to manufacture that third Purple Heart. The plan was to use his Vietnam experience and use that as a platform basically for a career in politics," says Larry Thurlow.

Here's what everyone agrees on:

Five swift boats come to a series of poles and fishing nets stretched across the river. Three boats go around to the left, and two — including Kerry's — go right. A mine explodes under the lead boat on the left, badly injuring the crew. Kerry's boat races through on the right.  In the ensuing chaos, Rassman falls into the river and Kerry pulls him out. Kerry was honored for "great personal courage under fire."

But Thurlow, two other swift boat skippers and an enlisted man are now saying there was no enemy fire.

"We took no enemy fire from either bank. There's not one man wounded. There's not a bullet hole that day in any boat," says Thurlow.

A battle damage report from Kerry's boat does not show any bullet holes, but one from Thurlow's boat notes "three .30-caliber bullet holes." Thurlow claims that damage was from a sniper the day before.  

What's more, Thurlow also received a Bronze Star for heroism that day and his own citation repeatedly refers to "enemy bullets flying about him."

Thurlow says if being under enemy fire is required to earn the medal, he will give it back.

"I knew it was false. But nobody else was going to see it. I accepted it because I felt at the time I'd been given the thing because I'd saved the wounded on the boat and saved the boat," he says.

Rassmann, Kerry's crew and an enlisted man on another boat insist Kerry was under significant enemy fire.

"There was fire there. He thought he was going to get killed; I was amazed he didn't," says Rassmann.

Thurlow admits that for his version to be right all available military documentation would have to be wrong. And all those vets supporting Kerry would have to be mistaken or lying.

But there also are inconsistencies in Kerry's version of events. His medal citation says his arm was "bleeding and in pain," but a doctor's report refers only to a contusion or bruise.

Thurlow, a Republican, acknowledges that his memory may be colored by anger over Kerry's subsequent public opposition to the Vietnam war — a war still being waged today.