Thousands of Vietnam veterans and their families and friends applauded, yelled support and waved signs and flags for more than two hours yesterday at an anti-John Kerry rally outside the U.S. Capitol.
“John Kerry is not fit to tie the shoes of the heroes we have here at this rally,” said John O’Neill of Houston, a member of the Swift Boat crews who have disclaimed the Democratic presidential candidate’s statements about his military service.
“Leave John Kerry to command the largest vessel he’s ever competently handled — his surfboard,” said another speaker, B.G. Burkett, 60, another veteran and author of “Stolen Valor,” which is about the legacy of the Vietnam generation.
The comments drew hearty approval from a crowd that organizers estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000.
Park and Capitol officials no longer provide crowd estimates, but some veteran observers estimated that the crowd numbered in the low thousands.
About a half-dozen pro-Kerry boosters stood with a banner, Veterans For Kerry, near the stage. John Grant, 57, of Philadelphia, entered the crowd, got in an argument and was escorted out by police.
“It’s not right,” Mr. Grant said, complaining that the rally was really a campaign to re-elect President Bush and that a permit for a similar rally in opposition to Mr. Bush would have been denied.
Several speakers and audience members said the rally was not political. There were no statements urging the re-election of Mr. Bush. But Mr. Burkett criticized CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who has become embroiled in a controversy over the network’s reporting on “military records” of Mr. Bush’s that appear to be forged.
Other speakers included Jim Warner of Rohrersville, Md., who said he was a prisoner of war when Mr. Kerry returned to the United States and criticized the conduct of American troops in Vietnam.
The Viet Cong interrogated Mr. Warner and used Mr. Kerry’s quotes in an effort to persuade Mr. Warner to sign a statement about U.S. military cruelties.
The audience cheered and obviously agreed with all speakers.
“I have some real problems with Kerry,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Ben Swartz, 66. “We feel that he degraded the servicemen who were serving their country.”
Mr. Swartz and brother-in-law, retired Sgt. Bryant Bowman, and their wives came from Charleston, W.Va.
Mr. Bowman put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “She had to stay home and worry about me. She had our first baby while I was in Vietnam,” he said, pausing as tears welled in his eyes. “And John Kerry is stirring it up all over again.”
Debbie Ewert, 53, wore a T-shirt that read: “Kerry lied while good men died.”
Mrs. Ewert’s son is in the Marines. “I don’t want him coming back to the same things the Vietnam vets came back to,” she said.
Veterans, many holding flags and military banners aloft, stood or sat in lawn chairs listening. A smattering of younger protesters, many wearing anti-Kerry T-shirts, were sprinkled among the mostly middle-aged crowd.
Christy Williams, 28, and Olivia Tauthus, 27, said they were members of the conservative group Protest Warriors. “We are here to support the troops,” Miss Williams said.
“This has nothing to do with political affiliation,” said David Skocik, 56, who drove from Dover, Del., for the rally. His son was partly disabled serving in the military during the Persian Gulf war era, and his son-in-law recently returned from active duty in Afghanistan.
“I feel very strongly that we have to look out for our vets and to be sure that their best interests will be in mind from the White House,” he said. “I don’t think Kerry can do that.”