Jack Kelly: Not so swift

Real questions remain on Kerry's war record

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Accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president, John Edwards said of John Kerry, "If you have any question of what he is made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him then." The Democratic National Committee is trying hard to keep you from spending a minute with most of the sailors who served with Kerry during his abbreviated tour in Vietnam, because they have unflattering things to say. The DNC is threatening to sue television stations which run a commercial produced by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Jack Kelly is national security writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

Of the 23 officers who served with Kerry in Coastal Division 11, only one supports him for president. Two others are dead, and four want nothing to do with politics. The remaining 16 have declared him "Unfit for Command," the title of the book written by former Lt. John O'Neill, who took over Kerry's swift boat, PCF-94, when Kerry left Vietnam.

The Swifties charge Kerry didn't deserve two of the three purple hearts he was awarded, or either of his medals for valor, the silver star and the bronze star.

According to Kerry, his first taste of combat came on his first mission, on the night of Dec. 2, 1968. He was with two sailors in a Boston whaler on a night patrol. They saw sampans, presumably crewed by Viet Cong, unloading on a peninsula. They opened fire, and the Vietnamese ran for cover. In the "engagement," Kerry suffered a scratch on his arm from a piece of metal.

Kerry's account to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, gives the impression that he was in command of the whaler. This was not so. Lt. William Schachte, later an admiral, was the officer in charge. Shachte said the Vietnamese never fired on the boat, and the sailors who were with Schachte and Kerry said they couldn't remember any return fire.

Shachte said Kerry's scratch was self-inflicted. He had fired an M-79 grenade launcher too close to the shore. It struck a rock, and a fragment of metal ricocheted and struck Kerry. Louis Letson, the doctor who treated Kerry (he put a Band-Aid on the cut) said the metal fragment looked like a piece from an M-79 grenade.

The Kerry campaign has charged that Letson didn't treat Kerry, because the log recording his treatment was signed by J.C. Carreon. But Letson was the only physician assigned to Cam Ranh Bay at the time. If you've ever been to a doctor's office, you may have noticed that the doctors themselves rarely do the paperwork. Carreon (who died in 1992) was Letson's corpsman.

Kerry received his third purple heart, and his bronze star, for an action on March 13, 1969. Kerry alleges he was wounded in the right buttock by the explosion of an underwater mine under an accompanying swift boat. Jim Rassmann, an Army Special Forces officer, was knocked off Kerry's boat by the mine explosion. Kerry was awarded the bronze star for coming back "under heavy fire" to fish Rassmann out of the water. Rassmann and the sailors on Kerry's boat support Kerry's story.

But sailors on the other swift boats say there was no enemy fire. From the text released by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: "The force of the explosion disabled PCF-3, and threw several sailors, dazed, into the water. All boats, except one, closed to rescue the sailors and defend the disabled boat. That boat -- Kerry's boat -- fled the scene. ... After it was apparent there was no hostile fire, Kerry finally returned, picking up Rassmann who was only a few yards away from [Jack] Chenoweth's boat which was also going to pick Rassmann up." (Chenoweth is one of the members of the group.).

There is no reason to suppose that Rassmann is lying, but there is also no physical evidence to support the Kerry/Rassmann account. No sailors were injured by gunfire; there were no bullet holes in Kerry's boat, or any other boat.

Kerry's wound, moreover, had occurred not during the mine explosion, but earlier, when he tossed a concussion grenade into a pile of rice, according to Larry Thurlow, an officer who was with Kerry at the time.

Rassmann, in his Aug. 10 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, said Kerry was injured in the mine explosion. But Kerry told his biographer, Douglas Brinkley that "I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice bin explosions."

The Kerry campaign so far has responded to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth not by refuting their accusations, but by attacking their motives and their character. The Swifties are a Republican front group, Democrats charge, even though O'Neill says he voted for Al Gore in 2000. Co-author Jerome Corsi is an "anti-Catholic bigot." Since Corsi is a Catholic who regularly attends Mass, this charge is unlikely to be true, and is in any case irrelevant, since it has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of what the Swifties charge.

Kerry could clear up much of the confusion if he would authorize release of all his military records. His failure to do so suggests there may be something he doesn't want Americans to know.


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