Thursday, February 19, 2004

John Forbes Kerry, who has voiced his presidential aspirations since high school, criticized America’s “intervention” in Vietnam before going to the war, confirmed his beliefs during five months of duty there and returned to build a career in politics based on his opposition to it.

“The United States must, I think, bring itself to understand that the policy of intervention that was right for Western Europe does not and cannot find the same application to the rest of the world,” Mr. Kerry told his Yale University classmates in a 1966 graduation address.

Within the next five years, at the height of the antiwar movement, Mr. Kerry was referring to America’s leadership as “deserters” and “war criminals,” portraying U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as inhumane killers and inflaming protesters by tearfully tossing away war medals — medals he would admit 13 years later weren’t his.

“These are the commanders who have deserted their troops,” Mr. Kerry in 1971 told Congress after listing the top commanders of U.S. forces in Vietnam. “And there is no more serious crime in the laws of war.”

The eventual senator from Massachusetts had found his political footing among war protesters and in front of the cameras, a place he would come to know and cherish, according to his state’s political insiders, who have told the Boston Globe they refer to him as “Live Shot,” for his penchant for attracting coverage.

Mr. Kerry has used his impressive war record — he won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts — as the foundation of his political career, and since beginning his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, has invoked his military credentials whenever possible.

“As I look around at my crewmates and the veterans here today, I am reminded that the best lessons I learned about being an American came in a place far away from America — on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta with a small crew of volunteers,” Mr. Kerry told supporters when he formally began his campaign at Patriots Point, S.C., with the USS Yorktown as a backdrop.

“I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Kerry routinely draws distinctions between his service and that of President Bush, such as when he lampoons Mr. Bush for landing in a jet on an aircraft carrier to announce the end to major operations in Iraq.

“I know something about aircraft carriers for real,” Mr. Kerry often says.

The same record Mr. Kerry wields as evidence of his leadership abilities is also used by his harshest critics, who question the severity of the injuries he used to get sent home early and the five medals he garnered in five months.

“If I got three Purple Hearts for three scratches, I’d be embarrassed,” said Ted Sampley, who fought in Vietnam and publishes U.S. Veteran Dispatch. He remembers soldiers turning away awards for minor injuries.

Mr. Kerry has said none of his Purple Heart injuries, only one of which removed him from the field for two days, was critical.

After his third Purple Heart, Mr. Kerry requested and was granted permission to return to the United States to work behind a desk in New York. Even while still a Navy man, he began traveling to antiwar rallies with leading war protesters such as Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy.

Mr. Walinsky recalled that Mr. Kerry flew him around the state of New York for several Vietnam Moratorium protests in October 1969.

“He was a guy who had been in the war,” he said. “We spent a lot of time talking about the campaign, the presidential campaign and the Vietnam War.”

Mr. Kerry has said he did not take part in the protests, but was intrigued by Mr. Walinsky’s views about the war. The two men stayed in contact and “became reasonably good friends,” Mr. Walinsky said.

Others were shocked by the Naval officer’s association with the antiwar movement.

“He gets this cushy job in his hometown, goes around protesting the war, then asks to get out six months early,” Mr. Sampley said. “What regulations were busted when Kerry — as a Naval officer and still on the payroll — was flying around protesting the war? And who had to stand in and fight for John Kerry after he left six months early?”

Mr. Sampley recently started a group called Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry. The Web site, which labels the senator “Hanoi John Kerry,” has attracted thousands of anti-Kerry e-mails and online postings from other veterans.

In Mr. Kerry’s first active-duty assignment, he served in the electrical department of the USS Gridley, a guided-missile frigate supporting the Navy’s fleet of carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

“I didn’t have any real feel for what the heck was going on [in the war],” Mr. Kerry told the Boston Globe in a story last summer, referring to his time on the Gridley.

He then became a commander of a Navy swift boat, which at the time were used to transport sailors to ships in the gulf. Two weeks after beginning his new assignment, the safe job he had picked became much more dangerous when the boats began being used in the Mekong Delta to seek out the Viet Cong and block North Vietnamese supply routes.

“I didn’t really want to get involved in the war,” the Globe cites Mr. Kerry saying in a 1986 book about Vietnam. “When I signed up for the swift boats, they had very little to do with the war. They were engaged in coastal patrolling and that’s what I thought I was going to do.”

Then Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry got more than he had expected. He was involved in close combat with the Viet Cong, leading to all of his medals.

Questions arose during his 1996 Senate re-election campaign about whether Mr. Kerry deserved the awards, in particular the Silver Star. Accounts of the incident vary, but essentially Mr. Kerry chased down a wounded Viet Cong fighter, killed him and stripped him of the B-40 rocket launcher he had just fired at Mr. Kerry’s swift boat.

The Viet Cong fighter had already been wounded by the boat’s machine gunner, according to various reports from eyewitnesses, who had “laid down 50 rounds” into the hootch where the man had run to hide and from which Mr. Kerry emerged after applying what some described as the “coup de grace” to the wounded Viet Cong.

A month later, an injured Mr. Kerry rescued a crewmate who had fallen overboard when a mine exploded near their boat. He received his third Purple Heart for an arm injury in this incident.

Bill Zaladonis, an engineman on Mr. Kerry’s boat, remembers that the future senator fought bravely and honorably. But, he said, some veterans simply will never forget what Mr. Kerry did after the war.

“It doesn’t matter what he does, they’ll never forgive him,” Mr. Zaladonis said from his home in Florida. “One of my best friends says he’ll never vote for John Kerry — not even for dog catcher.”

In the summer of 1970, Mr. Kerry joined a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which he would later essentially lead, and early the next year participated in what came to be known as the “winter soldier” investigation, the group’s inquiry into accusations of war atrocities by American soldiers.

Mr. Kerry then testified before Congress, recounting the stories he heard from soldiers during the VVAW’s investigation.

“They told stories that at times they had 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 fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan …” Mr. Kerry told the assembled senators.

It was a moment when even some of Mr. Kerry’s defenders blanched.

“I really lost it when they started talking about those atrocities,” said Mr. Zaladonis. “That was more than a lot of us could take.” Still, he said, it was courageous of Mr. Kerry to stand up and speak out, even if he didn’t agree with him.

Mr. Sampley remembers Mr. Kerry’s testimony more starkly: “He gave the OK to the American people to call U.S. soldiers in Vietnam ‘baby killers.’ ”

“John Kerry gave aid and comfort to the enemy,” said Mr. Sampley. “These guys he ran with after he left Vietnam, they were pretty radical.”

In the afternoon after his testimony, Mr. Kerry led a group of Vietnam veterans to the front steps of the Capitol, where they tossed away their war medals in disgust.

“Tour of Duty,” the glowing 2004 biography of Mr. Kerry by Douglas Brinkley, includes a photograph taken that day of his wife Julia Thorne consoling Mr. Kerry, who is curled up on the front lawn of the Capitol, weeping over the emotion of having just tossed away combat medals.

But it wasn’t until 13 years later that Mr. Kerry admitted he had actually thrown someone else’s medals away, keeping his own safely at home.

Later that night, several of Mr. Kerry’s VVAW followers took a large American flag, flipped it upside down — a military signal of distress — and marched around the White House. It was a photo of those protesters carrying that flag Mr. Kerry chose as the cover of his book, “The New Soldier.”

Prior to joining the VVAW, Mr. Kerry’s antiwar efforts were low-key, but on Sept. 7, 1970, he got his first real taste for the spotlight his stance would generate when he accepted a role in the group’s Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal). It called for Vietnam Veterans to march 86 miles between two Revolutionary War sites — Morristown, N.J., and Valley Forge, Pa. The spectacle of a ragtag band of ex-soldiers and sailors was aimed at getting the media’s attention, which it did.

He was a key speaker at the antiwar rally at Valley Forge, telling those gathered that “we are here because we above all others have earned the right to criticize the war on Southeast Asia.”

“It is not patriotism to ask Americans to die for a mistake,” Mr. Kerry, wearing an Army jacket, told the crowd that included other Vietnam veterans. “It is not patriotic to allow a president to talk about not being the first president to lose a war, and using us as pawns in that game.”

An organizer for this and many other protests was actress and VVAW supporter Jane Fonda, who later became the symbol of treasonous protest when she went to Hanoi and sat astride an antiaircraft gun that had surely been used to shoot down American planes. Though Mr. Kerry was caught in a photograph with Miss Fonda, the senator has since said they were not close associates.

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