- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

John F. Kerry has succeeded in making his military service in Vietnam an issue in the campaign, but not quite in the way he expected.

The war hero who threw away his medals (or medals borrowed for the occasion) thought his Silver Star and three Purple Hearts would render him the Sergeant York and Audie Murphy of his generation.

Maybe those medals will do it yet. The jury is still out on exactly who and what Lieutenant Kerry was in Vietnam, but it’s a jury that Candidate Kerry never expected to be called to sit in late judgment on what he did, and where, three decades and more ago. He thought George W. Bush would be the candidate with the explaining to do.

Monsieur Kerry trotted out most of his crewmen from Swift Boat PCF 94 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, to tell tales of valor and blooded courage in the Mekong Delta in that war now fading swiftly into the murk and memory of the past. They told tales of a handsome Boston naval officer walking tall into the jungle, dispatching a fearsome enemy with a single burst of gunfire, returning to his boat to prowl again the swamps and brown water of a deadly delta, searching for more evil to dispatch to the nether regions. (Whatever those heroics were, and maybe all the tales are true, “PCF 94” doesn’t quite evoke the poetry and romance of the real JFK and “PT-109.”)

Nobody who was actually there will question the valor of any man who went to war when his country called, which is more than some of Monsieur Kerry’s Republican critics did. The “chickenhawks” who, no better than Bill Clinton, pursued “other priorities” when country called have no right to question anyone’s military service. Those of us who were there as witnesses to the war will never cavil at honorable duty done.

However. The questions raised in the book “Unfit For Command,” by John E. O’Neill, who succeeded Lieutenant Kerry as commander of PCF 94, and Jerome Corsi, who has written extensively on the Vietnam anti-war movement, will have to be answered by more than ad hominem attacks on the authors, or by sneering references to their publisher simply because Regnery has published several best-sellers by conservative writers.

Mr. O’Neill, who was a John Edwards man during the Democratic primary season, and Mr. Corsi, who has never been particularly identified as a partisan, portray Lieutenant Kerry as a reluctant warrior who stayed “in country” just long enough to acquire his medals, some by fraud, and retired from the battlefield as soon as he could for stateside duty.

Robert Hildreth, who commanded a swift boat at the side of PCF 94, is devastating in his critique: “I would never want Kerry behind me. I would wouldn’t want him in front of me, either. And I sure wouldn’t want him commanding our kids in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Grant Hibbard, who was Lieutenant Kerry’s squadron commander in Vietnam, told the authors: “I didn’t recommend him for a Purple Heart. Kerry probably wrote up the paperwork and recommended himself.” Adm. Roy Hoffmann, who commanded swift boat squadrons in the Mekong Delta, tells of receiving a telephone call from “Senator Kerry” last year with the news that he was running for president. He was “enthusiastic” until he realized that he was talking to John Kerry, not Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska who won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Says the admiral now: “I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States.”

Many Vietnam veterans are still angry about how they were treated when they returned from the war. They’re entitled. By and large, the nation did them dirt. They have good reason to be particularly angry at John Kerry, who returned with his medals after only four months in Vietnam to spread calumny and slander about the men he had left behind. He made common cause with the most virulent slime of the anti-war movement, spreading the tale to a U.S. Senate subcommittee that the Americans in Vietnam had “personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

These were lies, and John Kerry knew it. The men who served with him are determined to set the record straight. Who can blame them?

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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