- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

John Kerry yesterday accused Vietnam veterans who say he didn’t deserve his combat decorations of lying and blamed President Bush for not denouncing their television commercials laying out their charges.

After two weeks of ignoring the commercials, Mr. Kerry denounced them as “lies about my record.”

“They’re a front for the Bush campaign, and the fact that the president won’t denounce what they’re up to tells you everything you need to know,” the Massachusetts senator said. “He wants them to do his dirty work.”

The veterans said they will run the commercials regardless of what Mr. Bush says, and one of them, Larry Thurlow, stood by his accusation that Mr. Kerry lied about an incident on March 13, 1969, for which Mr. Kerry won the Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart.

Mr. Kerry and his crew mates say their boat came under enemy fire while rescuing an Army Special Forces lieutenant who had fallen off Mr. Kerry’s boat.

Del Sandusky, the pilot of Mr. Kerry’s Swift boat, said the boat was under fire as it cleared obstructions in the river, then raced back to pick up Jim Rassmann, the Special Forces officer who had tumbled into the water. Mr. Rassmann says he, too, remembers enemy fire.

The Washington Post reported that the citation for a Bronze Star awarded to Mr. Thurlow for heroism in the incident refers to “enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire,” contradicting his account and bearing out Mr. Kerry’s.

The Kerry campaign posted the article from The Post on its Web site, and sent an e-mail to supporters saying the article “completely discredited” Mr. Thurlow and “marks the end of the dishonest and disgusting smear campaign against John Kerry and his crew mates from Vietnam.”

Mr. Thurlow said the citation was in error and said an administrative officer must have used Mr. Kerry’s description of the events that began when one of five Swift boats hit a mine.

“After the mine exploded, leaving Swift Boat three dead in the water, John Kerry’s boat, which was on the opposite side of the river, fled the scene,” Mr. Thurlow said.

That, he said, was when Mr. Rassmann fell. “Kerry’s boat returned several minutes later — under no hail of enemy gunfire — to retrieve Rassmann from the river only seconds before another boat was going to pick him up.”

Mr. Thurlow is a member of the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, 254 Vietnam veterans who served duty similar to Mr. Kerry’s on PCF (Patrol Craft Fast) boats. They are sponsoring commercials and a new book, “Unfit for Command,” which argues that Mr. Kerry did not deserve decorations he received in the four months he spent commanding two different PCF boats. Mr. Kerry received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

Mr. Kerry yesterday aimed most of his fire at the president. “If he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on.”

With the television commercials beginning to dominate the campaign, Mr. Kerry has discarded plans to keep his own messages off the air during August. He said he will begin running a response advertisement, featuring Mr. Rassmann, who credits Mr. Kerry with saving his life.

Both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush have said the other served honorably during Vietnam — Mr. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, assigned to duty in the United States — but others have questioned the service of both men.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan yesterday said Mr. Kerry’s attempts to tie Mr. Bush to the ads were “false and baseless.” He would not specifically denounce the Swift boat ad, and repeated the White House assertion that all ads paid for by “soft money,” large unregulated contributions to tax-exempt “527” organizations, should end.

“Senator Kerry should join us in calling for an end to all this soft money,” Mr. McClellan said. “Senator Kerry has declined to do so. The president has been on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative false attacks from these shadowy groups.”

John E. O’Neill, a leader of the group and co-author of the book “Unfit for Command” with Jerome R. Corsi, said it is “totally and completely untrue” that they are connected to Mr. Bush. Several columnists have, in fact, speculated that their ads are hurting Mr. Bush, he said.

“The truth is, we don’t care. We don’t care if it hurts or helps,” he said. “If President Bush told us to stop, we wouldn’t.”

He said it’s a matter “deeply personal to our own unit. It goes far beyond politics.”

“If Kerry was running as a Republican, every one of us would be here, and the facts would still be the facts about his service in Vietnam,” he said.

Mr. O’Neill, who succeeded Mr. Kerry in commanding PCF 94 in Vietnam, called the March 13, 1969, incident only one of Mr. Kerry’s embellishments, and he challenged Mr. Kerry to answer the other charges.

“He has yet to address many of the other factual materials, and instead of screaming at the messenger he simply ought to put out the facts — the truth,” Mr. O’Neill said.

He said Mr. Kerry’s version of the Rassmann rescue, of taking the boat through a 3-mile gauntlet of enemy fire, is not credible. “That would be the battle of Gettysburg,” he said. “We think it was admirable for him to come back to where all the other boats were and pick up Rassmann, but this was hardly the story he told the American public at the convention.”

Mr. Sandusky told reporters earlier this week that saying Mr. Kerry first fled the scene is “a stretch of the truth so far it’s a bald-faced lie. I had to clear the obstructions to let the boat behind me get out of the way so we could get back over where all the other boats were at. And the firefight started immediately after the three boat got hit. All the four remaining boats were shooting.”

A poll taken by a Republican survey firm in 19 electoral battleground states and released more than a week ago found that a majority of voters were aware of the Swift Boat Veterans’ ad. Among those voters, it was having a slight but negative effect on Mr. Kerry’s standing.

James G. Lakely contributed to this article from Crawford, Texas.

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