Sen. John Kerry’s campaign said yesterday that the Democratic presidential nominee is not hiding any of his war records and has, in fact, released them all to the public.
“Senator Kerry’s entire military service record is posted on JohnKerry.com. His entire record,” said Michael Meehan, adviser for communications to the campaign, at a press conference called to defend Mr. Kerry against recent charges that the former Navy lieutenant didn’t deserve some of his war decorations — three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.
Members of the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, veterans who served duty similar to Mr. Kerry on PCF (Patrol Craft Fast) boats, have written a book and sponsored a television advertisement challenging Mr. Kerry’s version of events during his four months in combat.
The group wants Mr. Kerry to sign Standard Form 180, which it says would facilitate the release of records and help sort out which version of events is accurate.
John O’Neill, the man who took over Mr. Kerry’s command in Vietnam and a co-author of the new book “Unfit for Command,” said such records as after-action, hostile fire and casualty reports would show whether Mr. Kerry deserved one of his Purple Hearts.
Mr. Meehan, acknowledging that Mr. Kerry has not signed Standard Form 180, said the records have all been laid out nonetheless.
“Has he signed the form?” he asked. “No. What he’s signed is his release of privacy to the United States Navy to turn over his entire military record and he’s posted it up on his Web site, so the whole world can see his entire military record.”
Mr. O’Neill, though, said the campaign has acknowledged in the past it that has withheld some records.
“That’s a lie or a carefully calculated set of words,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview. “He continues to conceal, for example, his medical records. He’s provided virtually none of his medical records, only an interpretation of them by a friendly physician.”
Mr. O’Neill said the key is Standard Form 180, which, if Mr. Kerry signed it, would let reporters or anyone else write the Defense Department to ask for all of his military records.
“If he executes Standard Form 180, he would no longer be the gatekeeper, the gatekeeper would be the U.S. military.”
Mr. Kerry’s service in Vietnam and Mr. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard have both become issues in the presidential campaign.
MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, is running a television commercial calling on Mr. Bush to ask the Swift Boat veterans to pull the commercial. MoveOn.org accuses Mr. Bush of shirking duty.
“George Bush used his father to get into the National Guard, and when the chips were down, went missing,” the commercial says. “Now he’s allowing false advertising that attacks John Kerry.”
At yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Kerry’s surrogates echoed this charge.
“Did he [Mr. Bush] sign his 180? Can we see his records?” asked Del Sandusky, one of Mr. Kerry’s crewmates.
Wesley Clark, the retired Army general who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket earlier this year, said there are “questions about George Bush’s military service. As far as I know, they’ve never been satisfactorily answered.”
“Both men went to Yale. Both men came from backgrounds where national policy was discussed around the dinner table and in the dining hall,” Mr. Clark said.
“One man volunteered to serve his country. He volunteered to go to Vietnam. He volunteered a third time to command a Swift Boat in one of the most dangerous activities in the war. The other man scrambled and used his family influence to get out of hearing a shot fired in anger,” he said.
“That’s the comparison.”
Mr. Kerry himself condemned MoveOn.org’s ad yesterday, following the lead of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a Vietnam prisoner of war.
“I agree with Senator McCain that the ad is inappropriate,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement.
At yesterday’s press conference, another of Mr. Kerry’s supporters, Jim Rassmann, the Special Forces lieutenant who credits Mr. Kerry with saving his life after he fell in the river by pulling him from the water, said both candidates’ service records should not be a part of the campaign.
“There’s no evidence that the president did not serve honestly and well. And until that shows up, if in fact it’s true, let’s leave it alone,” Mr. Rassmann said. “But by the same token, no one has shown any kind of evidence that John did not perform honorably and well, and by the same token, let’s leave that alone as well.”
A spokesman for the military’s National Personnel Records Center in Missouri, the depository for service records of former members of the armed services, did not return a call for comment yesterday.
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said he couldn’t say specifically whether Mr. Bush signed Standard Form 180, but the president did request and release his own military records in February.
“I don’t believe he signed any form, but he did authorize making his military records available publicly,” Mr. McClellan said. “We have released all the records, and reporters were allowed to look at his medical records as well.”
Mr. Sandusky, in defending Mr. Kerry yesterday, called one accusation — that Mr. Kerry exaggerated the circumstances surrounding the rescue of Lt. Rassmann, and in fact fled the scene before turning around and coming back — “a stretch of the truth so far it’s a bald-faced lie.”
“I had to clear the obstructions to let the boat behind me get out of the way so we could get back over where all the other boats were at. And the firefight started immediately after the three boat got hit,” he said. “All the remaining four boats were shooting.”
Also, Mr. Kerry has been asked recently whether he was being “honest” when he said he spent Christmas 1968 under fire in Cambodia — a memory he said was “seared in me.”
The Swift Boat veterans say he wasn’t in Cambodia then, and none of the 20 veterans who appeared to defend Mr. Kerry yesterday could say where he was that Christmas.
Mr. Sandusky said it doesn’t surprise him that Mr. Kerry may have forgotten where he was then because, like many serving in Vietnam, they didn’t want to think about Christmas.
“We didn’t know where we were at for Christmas,” he said. “If [Mr. Kerry] said it, I believe it. I’ve known John Kerry for 35 years, and he’s never lied to me.”
Mr. Kerry’s campaign also has criticized the Swift Boat veterans, saying they were funded by people tied to Mr. Bush or his allies.
But in May, Mr. O’Neill said the only unifying factor in the group was trying to stop Mr. Kerry from becoming commander in chief. “If Kerry drops out and allows the American people a real choice, a fit choice, to be president, we all go home.”