Special Report

Continued Unfitness for Command

John Kerry and his apologists keep fighting and losing their last war.

By 7.8.08

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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."

Kerry's original account written in his after-action report the very same day of the incident stated, "PCF 94 beached in center of ambush in front of small path when VC sprung up from bunker 10 feet from unit. Man ran with weapon towards hootch. Forward M-60 gunner wounded man in leg. OinC [Officer-in-Charge, Kerry] jumped ashore and gave pursuit while other units saturated area with fire and beached placing assault parties ashore. OinC of PCF 94 chased VC inland behind hootch and shot him while he fled capturing one B-40 rocket launcher with round in chamber."

The after-action report account closely resembled the Unfit for Command version and not the nerve-tingling kill or be killed version presented in Tour of Duty.

SERVING AS PROXIES for Kerry, a handful of his longtime supporters sent a June 19, 2008 letter to Pickens claiming they refuted the Unfit for Command account of the events of February 28, 1969, and demanded Pickens' million dollars. The Kerry supporters offered little more than unsubstantiated personal accounts and an ABC Nightline news report later judged to be seriously misleading.

Their 14-page letter is filled with holes, but let us examine just one. The evidence suggesting Kerry shot a man in the back that was fleeing from battle proved damaging to Kerry's 2004 electoral efforts. Kerry's supporters did him no favors in their rebuttal letter to Pickens. According to their account, one Kerry supporter remembered seeing the dead guerilla "laying on his back" with the bullet "exit wound on the side of the VC." If the guerrilla was laying face up and the only visible wound was an exit wound on his side, then this suggests the entry wound was in the man's back.

The Kerry supporters should have left well enough alone with their feeble defense of Kerry's Silver Star heroics. Instead, they opened another can of worms by endorsing Kerry's claim he was wounded by the enemy on December 3, 1968, resulting in his first Purple Heart medal. Acting on a policy in place at the time that was available to those who were thrice wounded, Kerry requested an immediate transfer out of Vietnam only four months into his one-year assignment.

Kerry claimed to have been wounded during a nighttime patrol in a Boston Whaler only days after he arrived in Vietnam. Tour of Duty provided an account of a wild firefight between Kerry and Vietnamese enemy during which a piece of enemy shrapnel "socked into my arm and just seemed to burn like hell."

Again, an eyewitness account in Unfit for Command offered a markedly different sequence of events. William Schachte, who later rose to the rank of Rear Admiral, was in the Boston Whaler alongside Kerry. According to Schachte's recollection, "Kerry picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and fired a grenade too close [to the Whaler], causing a tiny piece of shrapnel (one to two centimeters) to barely stick in his arm....There was no enemy fire."

Then-Lieutenant Commander Louis Letson was the Navy medical officer who treated Kerry's wound. "Dr. Letson used tweezers to remove the tiny fragment, which he identified as shrapnel like that from an M-79 (not from a rifle bullet, etc.), and put a small bandage of Kerry's arm."

THERE WERE TWO very critical documents that were generated during the Vietnam war when someone was wounded by enemy fire. The first is a combat casualty card, a 3x5 inch typewritten card. This card contained the main facts such as the wounded serviceman's full name, military service number, rank, branch of service, the date and description of the wound and the prognosis for recovery. Navy officials described combat casualty cards as "valuable as gold" and they are "protected like Fort Knox" because they are a key record often used to determine disability benefits after military service.

The second required document was a personnel casualty report. It is a mandatory report transmitted to Washington, D.C., with the details of anyone wounded as a result of enemy action.

Combat casualty cards and personnel casualty reports exist for the wounds resulting in John Kerry's second and third Purple Hearts. However, Navy officials have never located a combat casualty card or a personnel casualty report for Kerry's injury for which he received his first Purple Heart. In fact, no Navy record has ever been unearthed documenting that there was any hostile action that occurred that specific night involving Kerry and the Boston Whaler. Officers in Kerry's chain-of-command recall turning down Kerry's request to be given a Purple Heart for his scratch.

The possibility certainly exists of Navy officials losing a combat casualty card or personnel casualty report. According to a Navy archivist, the possibility of losing both documents for the same individual and for the same event is "virtually impossible."

As a back-up to his claim, Kerry could make public his Navy medical records detailing the extent of his injury from the night of December 3, 1968, and the subsequent medical treatment. Kerry did not respond when given the opportunity to provide a copy of his combat casualty card, personnel casualty report, or the release of his medical records in order to bolster his claim he was wounded by enemy fire in December 1968.

The lack of any definitive Navy documents, the absence of a combat casualty card and a personnel casualty report, and the failure by John Kerry to provide a full release of his medical records for public scrutiny speaks volumes. Embarrassingly for them, neither the New York Times nor the wager-chasing Kerry supporters are listening.

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.