Wednesday, August 25, 2004

John Kerry has presented his Vietnam record as his major qualification to be president of the United States. It is, therefore, the duty of the American public to scrutinize that record carefully. And it is the duty of candidate John Kerry to facilitate that scrutiny. If all the senator’s claims about his four months in Vietnam are factual, it would be to his great advantage to facilitate such scrutiny.

Before we get to his record in Vietnam, however, we should examine the widespread misconception about how he got to Vietnam. The oft-repeated claim that Mr. Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam misleads: He apparently volunteered only after the draft deferment he had applied for was turned down — thus allowing him to choose service in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army.

I served as a combat surgeon in DaNang, (U.S. Naval Support Hospital) from Dec. 10, 1967, through Dec. 11, 1968. While there, I evaluated and treated hundreds of severely wounded combatants.

During my year in DaNang, a few combatants urged me to verify small abrasions as “wounds” so they could get a Purple Heart. Each freely admitted trying to acquire Purple Hearts as rapidly as possible to take advantage of the policy allowing those with three Purple Hearts to apply to leave Vietnam early. I refused them. But some went shopping for another opinion. Unfortunately, we had some antiwar physicians in Vietnam who were happy to become accomplices in these frauds. Most with valid Purple Hearts didn’t need to apply to leave Vietnam: The seriousness of their wounds demanded it.

Lt. John Kerry’s collecting three Purple Hearts within 100 days — all for wounds too minor to require hospitalization — recalls the distasteful memories of having to deal with those few miscreants in DaNang. More disturbing is the revelation that crewmen on Mr. Kerry’s boat denied they had received any gunfire from shore at the time when Lt. Kerry claimed such gunfire had caused his wound. The doctor who disapproved Lt. Kerry’s application for his first Purple Heart for that wound agreed that the tiny metal splinter sticking in the skin of his arm was inconsistent with enemy gunfire from shore. His crewmates claimed that Lt. Kerry, himself, had fired a grenade launcher from the boat striking a rock on the nearby shore — and his wound was from a metal splinter from the grenade that ricocheted back, striking him in the arm.

Is there any way we can determine who was telling the truth about this first Purple Heart? Yes, there is. The type of wound can reveal much about the weapon that caused it. The tiny sliver of metal and its very superficial penetration is typical of fragments from explosive devices — like grenades. It would not have resulted from the most likely gunfire from shore — small arms rifle fire. The AK 47 rifle, used by the enemy, fires a 30-caliber bullet, which is 50 times or more as heavy as the sliver of metal sticking in Lt. Kerry’s skin. Such a bullet would have passed through any part of his body it struck, and certainly no part of it would have remained sticking in his skin.

In the absence of the medical records that Mr. Kerry apparently declines to make public, the only details we have about his second and third Purple Hearts are that he also based them on wounds too minor to require hospitalization. My reason for refusing to verify insignificant wounds as the basis for a Purple Heart was the regulation covering Purple Heart awards. In Part B, Paragraph 2, of the Army Purple Heart Regulation (600-8-22 of 25 February 1995), we find “the wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer.”

Dr. Louis Letson was entirely correct in turning down Lt. Kerry’s first Purple Heart — even if the wound had been the result of enemy action. Can there be any doubt that the tiny metal sliver could have been removed easily, and safely, by a Navy corpsman? It certainly did not “require” treatment by a medical officer (an MD).

Purple Hearts are not supposed to be awarded for self-inflicted wounds, nor for wounds too minor to require treatment by a physician. So where and how did Lt. Kerry eventually obtain a Purple Heart for his first wound? Nobody seems to know. Only his medical records will tell — and the American public needs that information to evaluate candidate Kerry’s qualifications and candor.

The highly unlikely occurrence of being wounded three times within 100 days, in the very beginning of a tour of duty, and all three wounds being so minor that none required hospitalization, would seem sufficient cause for further investigation.Addingthe inconsistencies surrounding Lt. Kerry’s first Purple Heart should make mandatory a thorough scrutiny of his medical records by someone highly qualified to interpret military medical records, and familiar with the regulations on the qualifications for the Purple Heart Medal, to determine if the wounds for which Lt. Kerry was awarded the Purple Heart Medal were serious enough to “require” treatment by a medical officer, as called for by the Purple Heart regulation.

Mr. Kerry has made his Vietnam War record the centerpiece of his campaign. This demands a thorough objective evaluation of his medical records to determine if the three Purple Hearts that allowed him to leave Vietnam after only four months of duty were justified. This evaluation needs to be done before the election.

Dr. Martin L. Fackler served as a combat surgeon in Vietman in 1968. A fellow of both the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, he also is an author, expert witness and lecturer on wound ballistics and surgery, and former director of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory at Presidio.

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