- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

John E. O’Neill is the former Swift Boat commander in Vietnam who has led a rapid-fire assault on Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, causing a media furor and an angry response from both the Kerry campaign and the candidate himself.

He has called Mr. Kerry a liar, said he falsified his war records to receive combat medals and scurrilously tarnished the reputation of other Vietnam veterans for political gain. He accused the Massachusetts Democrat of having serious character flaws that made him unfit to serve as commander in chief.

As the most visible face of the newly formed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Mr. O’Neill has led the charge to counter what he and his fellow members have called “the false war crimes charges John Kerry repeatedly made against Vietnam veterans who served in our units and elsewhere, and to accurately portray Kerry’s brief tour in Vietnam as a junior grade lieutenant.”

“It was important for me to be involved in this because everything is not just politics,” Mr. O’Neill said yesterday in a telephone interview. “All of us spent a year of our lives in Vietnam and the truth of what happened and what we did is important.

“Kerry is a guy who deeply lied about what happened and that has been demeaning to those of us who were really there. He misrepresented his record and ours in Vietnam, and there’s no question some names on the Vietnam Memorial belong to him once he began to criminalize our troops and give voice to the anti-war movement,” he said.

Democrats have portrayed Mr. O’Neill as a shill for the Bush campaign, but he says he is not a partisan and he actually voted against Mr. Bush in 2000, supporting Al Gore, and Ross Perot in 1996.

But just who is John O’Neill and why is he saying those things?

The answer to that question is best summed up by the Swift Boat veterans organization itself, which began its newest and undoubtedly last mission for one single reason: “For more than thirty years, most Vietnam veterans kept silent as we were maligned as misfits, addicts and baby killers. Now that a key creator of that poisonous image is seeking the presidency, we have resolved to end our silence.”

Roy Hoffmann, a retired rear admiral who is one of the founders of the Swift Boat Veterans, which formerly was known as the “Group of Twelve,” as in 12 months’ duty rather than the four served by Mr. Kerry, called Mr. O’Neill “a very intelligent man … with an impeccable record as far as being a man of integrity.”

Adm. Hoffmann described himself as chairman of the organization, but called Mr. O’Neill “the brains.”

Mr. O’Neill, a 1967 cum laude graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and now senior partner at a Houston law firm, served as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 as part of Coastal Division 11.

Receiving two Bronze Stars and other decorations, he succeeded Mr. Kerry as commander of PCF-94.

Under Mr. O’Neill’s command, PCF-94 was fired on several times as it patrolled near the Cambodian border, as well as the Uminh and Namcan forests in southern Vietnam. He said his boat patrolled an area about 100 yards outside the Cambodian border for nearly three months.

But his current criticism of Mr. Kerry is not new — not to this year or to this presidential campaign.

He first challenged Mr. Kerry on the U.S. role in Vietnam in a 90-minute debate in June 1971 on the “Dick Cavett Show” — just two months after Mr. Kerry, then a new member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, had mesmerized the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a national television audience with gruesome tales of Vietnam War atrocities.

Mr. O’Neill said he learned of the testimony while in a Texas hospital, where he was being treated for a knee injury. He wrote to the committee for a chance to rebut the accusations, but was not called to testify. He said he was “outraged” by the comments “because I had many close friends killed in Vietnam.”

Mr. Kerry told the committee that U.S. soldiers and sailors in Vietnam “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 a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

Dressed in combat fatigues, Mr. Kerry also said the acts “were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”

Mr. O’Neill vigorously challenged the accusations in the Cavett debate, saying he served in the same unit as Mr. Kerry and had seen nothing to “shock the conscience.” At one point during a heated exchange, Mr. O’Neill demanded that Mr. Kerry explain why, if he saw atrocities taking place, “you didn’t do something about them.”

Mr. Kerry then said the incidents had been relayed to him by other veterans, although several members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War later were discovered to have never actually seen combat.

Although contacted by the Nixon administration before the debate to serve as a counter to the Kerry accusations, he said the White House had nothing to do with getting him on the show.

“Cavett and the White House didn’t speak,” he said, adding that Mr. Cavett had been on Mr. Nixon’s enemies list at one point.

Wearing the only suit he owned, Mr. O’Neill paid his own way to attend the Cavett broadcast.

“Before the debate, I thought Mr. Kerry was going to be an angry guy,” he said. “I was shocked to find out that he was not. There was no passion to his rhetoric. At one point, I called him a moral coward and his only response was to say ‘Wow.’ I would have responded differently.”

Mr. O’Neill’s ties to the U.S. Navy are long-standing. His grandfather taught at the Naval Academy and his father also graduated from Annapolis in the 1930s, later serving as a fighter pilot before retiring as an admiral. His two brothers also are academy graduates.

Following his Navy service, Mr. O’Neill received a law degree from the University of Texas in 1973, graduating first in a class of 550, and went on to serve as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, now chief justice, from 1974 to 1975. He now specializes in large-scale commercial litigation at the Houston law firm of Clements, O’Neill, Pierce, Wilson & Fulkerson, a firm he helped found.

Mr. O’Neill said his recent call to political action again occurred in a hospital room. He said he was recovering from surgery after donating a kidney to his wife of 28 years, Anne, when he saw Mr. Kerry on TV in February.

“I was in the recovery room at Methodist Hospital and saw John Kerry on television, laying claim to his Vietnam War record. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.

It was then he helped form the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose primary projects have included its Web site, a book “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry,” and campaign ads challenging Mr. Kerry’s military record and anti-Vietnam War activities.

He said Mr. Kerry “grossly and knowingly” distorted the conduct of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam, calling his anti-war statements a “betrayal” that put soldiers and sailors still in Vietnam in harm’s way.

Mr. O’Neill said his attack of Mr. Kerry is not about forgiveness, but a question of fitness.

“The allegations are lies and he knew that when he made them,” Mr. O’Neill said. “The words he used have haunted many Vietnam veterans, some for their entire lives.”

Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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