Wednesday, August 25, 2004

John Kerry’s own wartime journal is raising questions about whether he deserved the first of three Purple Hearts, which permitted him to go home after 4 months of combat.

The re-examination of Mr. Kerry’s military record, prompted by commercials paid for by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the book “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry” by two of the group’s members, continued even as Mr. Kerry stated that voters should judge his character based on his anti-war activities upon returning from Vietnam.

A primary claim against Mr. Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans is that Mr. Kerry’s first Purple Heart — awarded for action on Dec. 2, 1968 — did not involve the enemy and that Mr. Kerry’s wounds that day were unintentionally self-inflicted.

They charge that in the confusion involving unarmed, fleeing Viet Cong, Mr. Kerry fired a grenade, which detonated nearby and splattered his arm with hot metal.

Mr. Kerry has claimed that he faced his “first intense combat” that day, returned fire, and received his “first combat related injury.”

A journal entry Mr. Kerry wrote Dec. 11, however, raises questions about what really happened nine days earlier.

“A cocky feeling of invincibility accompanied us up the Long Tau shipping channel because we hadn’t been shot at yet, and Americans at war who haven’t been shot at are allowed to be cocky,” wrote Mr. Kerry, according the book “Tour of Duty” by friendly biographer Douglas Brinkley.

If enemy fire was not involved in that or any other incident, according to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, no medal should be awarded.

“The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy,” according to the organization chartered by Congress. According to regulations set by the Department of Defense, an enemy must be involved to warrant a Purple Heart.

Altogether, Mr. Kerry earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

A Kerry campaign official, speaking on background, told The Washington Times yesterday that the “we” in the passage from Mr. Kerry’s journal refers to “the crew on Kerry’s first swift boat, operating as a crew” rather than Mr. Kerry himself.

“John Kerry didn’t yet have his own boat or crew on December 2,” according to the aide. “Other members of the crew had been in Vietnam for some time and had been shot at and Kerry knew that at the time. However, the crew had not yet been fired on while they served together on PCF 44 under Lieutenant Kerry.”

Mr. Kerry’s campaign could not say definitively whether he did receive enemy fire that day.

The newly exhumed passages were first reported by Fox News Channel in a televised interview with John Hurley, national leader of Veterans for Kerry.

“Is it possible that Kerry’s first Purple Heart was the result of an unintentionally self-inflicted wound?” asked reporter Major Garrett.

“Anything is possible,” Mr. Hurley replied.

The Swift Boat Veterans say that means Mr. Kerry is now backing off of his first Purple Heart claim, just as he has apparently changed his claim that he spent Christmas 1968 on an operation in Cambodia.

“It’s a house of cards,” said Van Odell, one of the veterans. “What he wrote in ‘Tour of Duty’ and how he used that is nothing but a house of cards, and it’s exposed.”

At a fund-raiser last night in Philadelphia, Mr. Kerry defended his anti-war activism upon his return from Vietnam, which also has come under attack by the Swift Boat Veterans, as “an act of conscience.”

“You can judge my character, incidentally, by that,” he said.

“Because when the time for moral crisis existed in this country, I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was taking care of public policy,” Mr. Kerry told his audience. “I was taking care of things that made a difference to the life of this nation. You may not have agreed with me, but I stood up and was counted, and that’s the kind of president I’m going to be.”

The Swift Boat Veterans’ claims and the political storm that surrounds them has dominated the presidential campaign for the last two weeks.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs said that from Aug. 9 to 15, the first week after the group’s ads were released, there were 92 mentions in major papers and 221 mentions in all news reports. By last week, Aug. 16 to 22, there were 221 mentions in major papers and 696 mentions in all news reports the center tracks.

“The Swift Boat veterans commercial is the ‘Blair Witch Project’ of campaign ads — an enormous return on a small investment,” said Matthew T. Felling, media director for the center. “Everyone is talking about it, and no one can agree on where the line between fact and fiction exists.”

He said the commercial has become “a national player in its own right,” nearly equaling Vice President Dick Cheney’s 733 mentions in all news reports last week.

Mr. Kerry himself is making personal phone calls trying to stamp out the controversy.

On Monday morning, a day after former Sen. Bob Dole questioned Mr. Kerry’s Purple Hearts on CNN, Mr. Kerry called the former Republican presidential candidate.

“There’s respect there. We were in the Senate together,” Mr. Dole told interviewer Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “But we’re talking about the presidential race, and I tweaked him a little on the Purple Hearts.”

And on Sunday, Mr. Kerry called Robert Brant, one of the members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

A source associated with the veterans group and familiar with the 10-minute conversation said Mr. Kerry asked whether Mr. Brant knew about the group. When Mr. Brant said he was part of it, there was “kind of a silence” on the line before Mr. Kerry continued the conversation.

The source said Swift Boat Veterans is considering sending a cease-and-desist letter to Mr. Kerry asking him not to contact their members anymore because it might be a violation of campaign-finance laws.

In a speech at the Cooper Union school in New York yesterday, Mr. Kerry said the “Bush campaign and its allies have turned to the tactics of fear and smear.”

Asked by reporters about the Swift Boat furor later yesterday, Mr. Kerry said he’s trying to focus on “the economy, jobs, health care — the things that matter to Americans.”

Asked specifically if he has been calling Swift Boat veterans, Mr. Kerry said, “I am talking about the things that are important to Americans — jobs, health care, how we are going to fix our schools.”

In last night’s Philadelphia speech, even while defending his activities with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Mr. Kerry called the criticism of his service “so petty it’s almost pathetic in a way.”

But the issue is not likely to go away, in part because Mr. Kerry’s defenders want their full say.

A new documentary, “Brothers in Arms,” will be released in a theater in New York and on DVD everywhere on Friday that highlights Mr. Kerry and the veterans who served with him, and filmmaker Paul Alexander said he found the veterans’ stories very convincing.

“What’s remarkable to me is when you see the interviews in the movie, how consistent they are on what happened,” said Mr. Alexander, who said he interviewed all the men who served on PCF 94, and interviewed them several times over several months. Mr. Alexander previously wrote “Man of the People: The Life of John McCain.”

He said the movie particularly sheds light on the incident for which Mr. Kerry earned his Bronze Star, for rescuing a Special Forces officer from the water under what he and his crew said was enemy fire.

The Swift Boat Veterans, including Mr. Odell, say there was no enemy fire, but Mr. Alexander said after making the movie and talking with crewmates Mike Medeiros, Del Sandusky and David Alston, he believes there was enemy fire.

“Mike described the mortar rounds that were going over the top of the 94, and David and Del described the sound effects — specifically down to what kind of machine gun it was — the AK-47,” Mr. Alexander said. “Their description is so specific they’re not mistaken.”

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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