- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

It's a familiar refrain and Vice President Al Gore has used it often on the campaign trial: "How many other Vietnam veterans are here?
"Welcome home. I'm a Vietnam veteran."
On some occasions, the rhetoric has been spiced with photographs of his Vietnam-era self in fatigues, carrying an M-16 slung over his shoulder. Other times, he showcases the American Legion hat he likes to wear at a jaunty angle.
He told 4,000 veterans at the national American Legion convention in Anaheim, Calif., last year that "few respected our service, much less welcomed us home."
Mr. Gore's Vietnam experience is "an important piece of his biography and background," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane has often told reporters, contrasting that experience to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's service during Vietnam as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard. Like all reservists, Mr. Bush was subject to call-up, but his unit was never called.
When Dan Quayle was chosen as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1988, Democrats accused him of having avoided the draft and Vietnam War in 1969 by enlisting in the Indiana National Guard, gaining a slot through the influence of his powerful Indiana newspaper family.
Also in 1988, presidential candidate Pat Robertson was accused of having avoided combat service in Korea in 1951 through the influence of his father, Willis Robertson, then a U.S. senator from Virginia.
While there's no doubt that Mr. Gore went to Vietnam when others of his generation, like President Clinton, chose educational deferments, conscientious-objector status or fled to Canada or Sweden, there are questions about the nature of his Vietnam experience.
After enlisting in the U.S. Army on Aug. 8, 1969, Spc. 5 Albert A. Gore Jr. arrived in Vietnam Jan. 2, 1971. "The country was at war. If I didn't go, someone else would have to go in my place," he said at the time.
Questions about his service have been raised over the past decade. There were questions whether he and his staff have always been forthcoming about the 141 days he spent in Vietnam, and what he did there. There were suggestions that he exaggerated his military exploits and whether he got a relatively safe field assignment in Vietnam when he had just eight months remaining on his two-year enlistment. There were suggestions that he got out early to return to Tennessee to help his father's re-election to the U.S. Senate.
Evading the draft, as thousands of other young men at the time had done, could have harmed his father's Senate race. His deferment status was dropped five days after his June 12, 1969, graduation from Harvard. Within a month, he enlisted at the Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station in the federal building in downtown Newark, N.J.
Recruiters at the Newark facility told him his chances of being sent into combat in Vietnam were lessened because he had joined the Army instead of being drafted. After a battery of tests, the 21-year-old Harvard graduate was classified as a military journalist and sent to Fort Dix, N.J., for basic training. Mr. Gore told recruiters he worked as a "newspaper trainee" for the New York Times between his sophomore and junior years at Harvard. He was a "copy boy" and did no reporting.
He went to Vietnam after serving in the public affairs office at Fort Rucker, Ala., where the Army trained helicopter crews. He wrote press releases and worked on the fort's newspaper. He left the Army on May 22, 1971, after receiving an early out to attend Vanderbilt University's divinity school. He quit school after a year, taking a job in Nashville as a reporter for the Tennessean.
A normal tour of duty in Vietnam was 12 months. Mr. Gore spent less than five months there. He received an early release from the Army and a ticket out of Vietnam on May 22, 1971, to go to divinity school.
Former Army Warrant Officer Paul A. Hoven, who flew helicopters in Vietnam as part of the 9th Infantry Division, said it was "unheard of" for the Army to post someone in Vietnam with less than 12 months remaining on his enlistment. Even more "puzzling," he said, was Mr. Gore's early release.
"It didn't happen to anyone I knew," said Mr. Hoven, a Virginia-based weapons expert and terrorism consultant who received the Distinguished Flying Cross in February 1969 for heroism in Vietnam. "The only people I knew who went home early," he says, went home in body bags.
Questions were first raised in 1987, not by Republicans but by his Democratic opponents in his first presidential race. A Gore campaign brochure showed him carrying an M-16 rifle in Vietnam, suggesting he had been an infantryman.
Some Democrats tipped reporters that Mr. Gore had actually been a correspondent for the Army's 20th Engineers Brigade headquarters, a noncombat "information specialist" and not a rifleman. They said he served at the huge Bien Hoa military base near Saigon, and his only life-threatening experience beyond the real threats to life everywhere in Vietnam was to save a fellow soldier, Michael O'Hara, who got caught in a riptide while the two were bodysurfing at Vung Tau, a South China Sea resort.
They also noted that at the time of Mr. Gore's posting to Vietnam, in the autumn of 1970, his father, Sen. Albert Gore, a Democrat, was in a tough re-election race against William Brock, the Republican nominee, a Chattanooga congressman who portrayed his opponent as a dove. Despite his announced opposition to the war, the Democrats suggested the elder Gore sought to use his son's active duty status to his advantage even making a television commercial showing his 21-year-old son in uniform preparing to head off to Vietnam.
In the commercial, the elder Gore reaches out to his only son and says, "Son, always love your country." The elder Gore lost the election anyway. It was another two months before the younger Gore headed to Vietnam.
Although a noncombat information officer, Mr. Gore often has said he carried a reporter's notepad and pencil in one hand and a fully loaded M-16 in the other: "You carry an M-16, a fully loaded M-16, for a reason. You hope to never have to use it."
In March 1988, he also alluded to brushes with enemy fire, telling Vanity Fair magazine he "took my turn regularly on the perimeter in these little fire bases out in the boonies. Something would move, we'd fire first and ask questions later." At the same time, he told The Washington Post that he was "shot at" and "spent most of my time in the field."
He told the Baltimore Sun that he "carried an M-16" and "pulled my turn on the perimeter at night and walked through the elephant grass and I was fired upon." In an interview with the Weekly Standard, he described flights aboard combat helicopters, saying: "I used to fly these things with the doors open, sitting on the ledge with our feet hanging down. If you flew low and fast, they wouldn't have as much time to shoot you."
The helicopter flights were dangerous enough, but as a correspondent Mr. Gore did not pull guard duty in the field, only at his base near Saigon. Some soldiers have said they usually felt it unnecessary to take their weapons when on guard duty at Bien Hoa, which was considered a "safe posting" in Vietnam with hot meals, showers, movies and "mama-sans" who cleaned their "hootches" and shined their boots.
At the 20th Engineers Brigade headquarters, GIs whiled away the time by playing poker, drinking cold beer and smoking marijuana. Mr. Gore has acknowledged smoking marijuana while stationed in Vietnam.
Many of the combat troops in Vietnam had a name for those posted to safe areas: REMF, or Rear Echelon Mother F's. The riflemen called the information specialists "Remington Raiders," referring to the Army-issue Remington typewriters.
Several of those who served with him say Mr. Gore never saw any combat, never participated in a firefight and was kept out of harm's way to ensure that the son of a prominent U.S. politician was not injured or killed in the war. They say he was on a "watch list" of sensitive persons the Army believed needed to be protected.
Former Army Spc. 5 H. Alan Leo served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a photographer and reporter. He said he was told by Brig. Gen. Kenneth B. Cooper, who commanded the 20th Engineers Brigade, to look out for Mr. Gore because he was the son of a senator. He said the confidential instructions were given to him prior to Mr. Gore's arrival in Vietnam because of his wide-ranging experience as a combat photographer.
"General Cooper called me into his office and said that because of my seniority and experience in combat situations, it would be appropriate for the new guy to be assigned to someone who could show him the ropes," he said in a telephone interview.
"Initially, I didn't know the new guy's name, but I was told he was the son of a senator and that he was going to get preferential treatment."
That preferential treatment, he said, included instructions that Mr. Gore was "not to be sent on any dangerous missions or into field areas where we couldn't get him out quickly.
"My responsibility was to keep an eye on him," he said. "I wasn't anyone's bodyguard, although I have seen that term used, but I did make sure he wasn't going to get in trouble."
Mr. Leo, who went on to become a Green Beret with the 11th Special Forces Division, said the "Gore-watch" included his attendance at daily intelligence briefings to determine where North Vietnamese soldiers were operating and the Viet Cong had been spotted. The briefings were used to determine the level of risk for the assignments given to the brigade's reporters including Mr. Gore.
"While you could never be sure of anything in Vietnam, it was true that we sought not to put Gore in jeopardy," he said, adding that he was "not very happy" about the assignment. "Nobody else got similar treatment."
But, Mr. Leo said, Mr. Gore "did a good job."
"I think he wanted to go out in the field and would have liked to have seen a little more of the country and the war," he said. "But, at least he went to Vietnam, and he did serve. Many others didn't"
Gen. Cooper has said he does not remember the conversation with Mr. Leo, but does not argue that it did not occur.
Mr. Gore, who will receive the Democratic presidential nomination this week in Los Angeles, says he has no knowledge of special treatment by the Army while in Vietnam. He said he never sought any. He and his staff have over the years revised his account of his role in Vietnam. He now says he was never shot at, but reminds reporters he was in areas of the country "where there was firing."
Regarding the use of the photograph of him carrying an M-16, Mr. Gore told the New York Times last year it was "an accurate picture… . That's what I looked like when I was doing my job. The fact is, I carried a pencil and a loaded M-16 A1 outside the base camp and I worked in areas where I had to be armed.
"I've never claimed to have been in combat. No way I would compare what I did with people who came through the fire and did brave things. But Vietnam is a subject people hear about in funny ways. If they see a picture of you with a gun, they'll see that as an exaggeration. Well, excuse me, but that's reality. People have such charged feelings."
Mr. Gore's decision to enlist in the Army came after months of deliberation and talks with family members, friends and college associates. He, like his father, was opposed to the Vietnam War and while at Harvard had participated in anti-war protests. He helped his father write the senator's landmark speech against the war, delivered at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

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