Perhaps John Kerry and the New York Times should have adhered to the old adage to let sleeping dogs lie. It appears the Times’ Kate Zernike used Kerry campaign talking points rather than the facts in her breathless account of how the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth “smeared” John Kerry over his Vietnam record during the 2004 presidential campaign. In her 1,283-word “Veterans Fight to Reclaim the Name ‘Swift Boat,’” Zernike came across as a Kerry campaign spokesman rather than as an independent journalist.
Zernike wrote, “‘Swift boat’ has become the synonym for the nastiest of campaign smears.” She is correct, of course, but Zernike failed to report that it was the political left, led by the New York Times’ own reporters and columnists including Frank Rich, Glen Justice, Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman who only a weeks after the 2004 election turned the noun into a verb, and with that, implied that to “swiftboat” someone is to smear them.
In her article Zernike maligned T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who donated funds to the SBVT effort. According to Zernike, Pickens offered he “would give $1 million to anyone who could disprove anything in the group’s campaign.” However, that was not the offer made by Pickens. I know because I attended the November 2007 dinner at which Pickens made the million dollar offer. Pickens said he would pay someone if they could disprove the accuracy of the claims made in the SBVT television advertisements. That is a far cry from what Zernike claimed. Nonetheless, Zernike wrote that Pickens “refused to pay on his challenge” because a handful of Kerry supporters made unsubstantiated claims purportedly building the case that the Swift Boat veterans lied.
In an exchange of letters in November 2007, Kerry informed Pickens he was taking the oilman up on his offer and the junior senator from Massachusetts explained how he intended to spend the million dollar prize. In response, Pickens reiterated his earlier challenge for someone to “disprove the accuracy of the Swift Boat ads” and he requested Kerry’s complete military records from 1971 to 1978, Kerry’s wartime journal, and his home movies and tapes in order for Kerry to make his case. Kerry has not met these requirements.
The overall tenor of Zernike’s article is that Kerry was smeared because the Swift Boat veterans lied. Zernike wrote that the SBVT “accused Mr. Kerry of fabricating exploits to win his military decorations and a discharge just four months into a yearlong tour. Navy documents contradicted many of their accusations.” Zernike offered no proof to back up her claim of Navy documents contradicting the Swift Boat veterans. She failed to provide proof for good reason. John Kerry-related Navy records that were conspicuously absent from the dozens of documents supplied by the Kerry campaign have actually supported SVBT eyewitness accounts.
THROUGHOUT HIS POLITICAL CAREER, Kerry has long offered a John Wayne Kerry version of the February 28, 1969 events that led to his being awarded the Silver Star. Eyewitnesses offered a far different account. The core of the dispute is the details surrounding the killing of a suspected Viet Cong guerilla by Kerry. The heroic version of events offered by Kerry was presented in his 2004 campaign book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. This version described a guerrilla “standing on both feet with a loaded rocket launcher, about to fire” before Kerry shot first and killed him.
Kerry buttressed his version of events with a narrative of the events in the Silver Star certificate signed by Navy Secretary John Lehman. The problem is that Lehman served as Navy Secretary under President Ronald Reagan and this certificate promoted by Kerry on his presidential campaign website was generated 16 years after the 1969 awarding of the Silver Star.
Shortly after he was elected to the Senate, Kerry contacted Lehman’s office, alleged he lost his Silver Star certificate and requested a new one. A staff member in Lehman’s office told me that Kerry offered language for the replacement certificate. The staffer recognized the sensitive politics involved in the request: Kerry was a sitting U.S. Senator. The Secretary’s office treated the use of Kerry’s proffered language as harmless since Kerry had left military service a decade earlier. The Navy quickly issued a replacement certificate utilizing Kerry’s language. The problem with this turn of events was that a copy of Kerry’s original Silver Star certificate existed and could have been easily found. Because an award certificate is a public record I quickly obtained a copy from Navy archives.
While the overall tone of the two certificates is similar, the 1986 version contained superlative language not found in the original certificate signed by then-Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt in 1969.
I also obtained a copy of the now-declassified after action report from PCF 94 (Kerry’s Swift boat) regarding the actions of Kerry on the day in question. The contents of the after action report is the personal responsibility of the Swift boat’s officer-in-charge, then-Lieutenant junior grade John Kerry, and it is the official account of the day’s activities.
The events as described in the original Silver Star certificate and the after action report are nearly identical to the account reported in Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. Moreover, these accounts differ dramatically from Kerry’s version of events as portrayed in Tour of Duty.
Most Swift boat veterans believe Kerry’s actions on February 28, 1969 were contrived as a way for Kerry to earn a medal for valor. Unfit for Command reported that Kerry concocted a plan ahead of time with his crewman Michael Medeiros “to turn the [Swift] boat in and onto the beach if fired upon.” There was even “a prior discussion of probable medals for those participating [in the plan].” It was the view of other Swift boat veterans that “Kerry did follow normal military conduct and displayed ordinary courage, but the incident was nothing out of the ordinary and to most Swift and Vietnam veterans, Kerry’s actions would hardly justify any kind of unusual award.”
“Whether Kerry’s dispatching of a fleeing, wounded, armed or unarmed teenage enemy was in accordance with customs of war, it is very clear that many Vietnam veterans and most Swiftees do not consider this action to be the stuff of which medals of any kind are awarded,” according to the Unfit for Command account.
As noted in Unfit for Command, Kerry received the medal only two days after the event occurred and without proper review. This was done, the book’s authors pointed out, to boost morale.
In the eyewitness accounts in Unfit for Command, “A young Viet Cong in a loincloth popped out of a hole, clutching a grenade launcher which may or may not have been loaded, depending on whose account one credits. Tom Belodeau, a forward gunner, shot the Viet Cong with an M-60 machine gun in the leg as he fled. At about this time, with the boat beached, the Viet Cong who had been wounded by Belodeau fled. Kerry and Medeiros (who had many troops in their boat) took off, perhaps with others, following the young Viet Cong as he fled, and shot him in the back, behind a lean-to.”
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