Wednesday, August 18, 2004

One of the criteria for awarding a Purple Heart is that the person in question was involved in action against the enemy. A wound resulting from friendly fire still qualifies for a Purple Heart as long as it was incurred while engaged with the enemy. We relate this information because the writers over at have raised an interesting question surrounding John Kerry’s first Purple Heart.

According to Mr. Kerry’s account of what happened on Dec. 2, 1968, he and his crew were steering a Navy skimmer on patrol in Cam Ranh Bay. Mr. Kerry and his crew came upon a group of Vietnamese unloading cargo on the far shore. Mr. Kerry and his crew opened fire. In the brief moments of action, Mr. Kerry received a shrapnel wound in his arm from an unknown source. What’s missing is any mention that Mr. Kerry’s crew was fired upon.

The next day, Mr. Kerry was treated for the wound, returned to duty and six weeks later was awarded his first Purple Heart.

The question is not whether Mr. Kerry was sufficiently wounded on Dec. 2. The question is: Was Mr. Kerry actually involved in combat that night? Statements from the men aboard Mr. Kerry’s skimmer, though inconclusive, are doubtful. Mr. Kerry himself has always insisted that the encounter qualifies as combat and was one of the most frightening episodes in his life. Over at, there are few documents that record exactly what happened on Dec. 2. What amounts to a record of the night are a timeline that states, “December 2, 1968: Kerry experiences first intense combat; receives first combat related injury”; a medical report that reads simply, “Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and appl[ied] bacitracin dressing. Ret[urned] to Duty”; and a citation from the Navy dated Feb. 28, 1969: “On behalf of the Chief of Naval Personnel, the Commander of U.S. Naval Support Activity, Saigon, hereby awards you the Purple Heart for injuries received on 2 December, 1968.” And of course Mr. Kerry’s own account.

But two weeks after Dec. 2, 1968, Mr. Kerry wrote an entry in his journal that raises questions about his own account of that night. Shortly after being wounded, Mr. Kerry was transferred to Cat Lo on the Mekong Delta and assumed his first command of a swift boat. In his biography of Mr. Kerry, “Tour of Duty,” Douglas Brinkley reports on page 189 that soon after Mr. Kerry turned 25 on Dec. 11, 1968, he headed out on his first mission: “[The crew] had no lust for battle, but they also were not afraid. Kerry wrote in his notebook, ‘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’. ”

If he had not “been shot at” on Dec. 2, then what occurred could not be considered combat. Nevertheless, the Navy awarded Mr. Kerry his first Purple Heart.

Mr. Kerry’s spokesmen have disparaged the fellow swift boat men who have contested his account of events in Vietnam. But here is an instance when Mr. Kerry’s claim of deserving his medal is refuted by his own words written contemporaneously with the event.

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