- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

John Kerry is an authentic hero, and he has the medals to prove it. So we can be sure there are good answers for the persistent questions swirling about his celebrated war stories.

Just because Sergeant York and Audie Murphy never had to answer questions about their medals doesn’t mean that Monsieur Kerry — who never got the French Legion d’Honneur, come to think of it — doesn’t have the right answers to questions about his.

Monsieur Kerry is busy on the hustings, posing as the dashing, decisive, straight-shooting, torpedos-be-damned commander in chief the nation needs, and he will have answers soon.

But not soon enough for many of his fellow veterans. Only this week, he got a chilly reception at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cincinnati, where the applause ranged from tepid to lukewarm and his salute went unreturned. Some of the veterans stood to turn their backs.

The monsieur’s friends at The Washington Post attempted to muddy the waters for him yesterday, asserting that official military records dispute a fellow officer who says that Monsieur Kerry did nothing to deserve a Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart on a memorable night in March 1969. The Post cites the official Navy account that young Lt. Kerry pulled an injured crewman from the water “despite enemy bullets flying about him.”

The official account is the stuff of a John Wayne movie, but Larry Thurlow, a lieutenant commanding the Swift boat next to the Kerry boat, says it was stuff as fraudulent as Hollywood heroics. There was no fire, hostile, enemy or otherwise. “I never heard a shot,” he said in an affidavit disputing the Kerry accounts of dash and derring-do in the delta. He recalls that his boat, like Lt. Kerry’s, had gone to the aid of a third boat that had detonated a mine in the Mekong River and was taking on water, in peril of sinking.

Mr. Thurlow won a Bronze Star for his part in that rescue, and it was his citation that The Washington Post, in trying to pull Monsieur Kerry himself from the water rising about his campaign, quotes in asserting contradictions in Mr. Thurlow’s account.

Mr. Thurlow says the Navy account, based on “after-action reports” routinely filed by officers after such incidents, sounds as if the particulars were taken directly from Lt. Kerry’s own after-action report. “My personal feeling was always that I got the award for coming to the rescue of the boat that [hit a mine],” he told The Post. “This cast doubts on anybody’s awards. It is sickening and disgusting.” He would consider his Bronze Star “fraudulent” if he got it for performing duty “under enemy fire” on that occasion. Neither his boat nor Lt. Kerry’s boat, he said, was under enemy fire. The skippers of two other Swift boats in the encounter say they don’t remember “enemy fire,” either.

Mr. Thurlow is one of 250 veterans who served with Lt. Kerry who have organized to argue that the Democratic nominee is not fit to command. They were there, and those of us who were not can only stand aside and listen to the accounts of those who support Monsieur Kerry and those who don’t and sometime before Nov. 2 decide which accounts to believe.

The Post is getting to the story late (not for the first time), but most of the other organs of the big media have not yet arrived at all. They no doubt will, reluctant as they may be. So far they have only thrown spitballs at the Kerry critics for the sin of skepticism of a Democratic candidate. Someone who has never worn the uniform and heard shots fired in anger, which includes nearly everyone in nearly every newsroom, is usually puzzled by why medals and ribbons, and why they were awarded, are so important to men who once put their lives on the line for others. The boys and girls in the newsrooms are only now getting a late education.

Monsieur Kerry and his campaign surrogates have changed the details of his war stories several times. When his account of spending a Christmas in Cambodia was disputed by crewmen on his own boat, a campaign spinner said, well, ummm, he was actually in “the watery borders” between Vietnam and Cambodia. One crewman says he was with him on that particular Christmas and they were 50 miles from the Cambodian border, watery or otherwise.

Waving the bloody shirt is an old American campaign custom. Our earlier pols exploited their heroics at Antietam and Chancellorsville for 40 years after our Civil War. But they usually did it with more lan and clat than John Kerry has shown so far. Surely we were entitled to expect better from a monsieur.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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