William Ferris was confined to a bed in a military hospital, his severed sciatic nerve reminding him of the attack on his Navy Swift boat in a Vietnamese river. A shot from a recoilless rifle had pierced the boat's pilothouse and then Ferris's body, leaving him in constant agony.
But it was what appeared on Ferris's television that really pained him. John F. Kerry, a decorated fellow Swift boat driver, was testifying before Congress about atrocities in Vietnam, throwing his medals away, speaking at antiwar rallies. Ferris, who was trying to rehabilitate himself back to active duty, felt betrayed.
"I was livid," Ferris, 57, of Long Island, N.Y., said yesterday, recalling how his dislike for the presidential candidate began in the early 1970s. "I said to myself at the time, this is someone who is using his experience for his own purposes, and this was long before he ever ran for office. I thought he was using, actually manipulating, what he had done in Vietnam. Just like he's doing now."
Ferris is one of 250 Swift boat veterans who in May signed an open letter to the Massachusetts senator asking for full disclosure of his military records, specifically focusing on events during a four-month tour in Vietnam for which Kerry was awarded medals for bravery in combat. The veterans group -- Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- has criticized Kerry for using his military experience as a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, arguing that the Democrat has exaggerated his experiences at war for political gain.
"I thought he was just another hot dog just trying to build his reputation," said Wayland Holloway of Searcy, Ark., who says he crossed paths with Kerry in 1969, one day before the future presidential candidate pulled Jim Rassmann from a river. "The first time I met John Kerry, frankly, I thought he was a very disingenuous person."
But while the group appears to be rooted in Republican politics and big money, several veterans who signed the letter said in interviews yesterday that they are casually into politics and generally are not convinced that Kerry is lying, but they do not like the candidate because of his polarizing speeches in the 1970s.
James Zumwalt, who attended the group's first news conference in May, said he joined the group solely to set the record straight about the allegations of war crimes included in "Tour of Duty," a Douglas Brinkley book about Kerry's Vietnam service. Now, Zumwalt says, "I kind of have mixed feelings" about the tone of the group's attacks. "I would not try to question the awards given to him or his service."
Many of the veterans, scattered across the country, learned about the anti-Kerry group through friends, at reunions for Swift boat vets or on the Internet, and most have limited their involvement to signing the single letter to Kerry. Some say they voted for Al Gore in the last election but are still deeply hurt by what Kerry did when he returned from battle.
Kenneth Knipple of Erie, Mich., who served three years in Vietnam, backed Gore in 2000 but joined the anti-Kerry movement after leaning about it from a fellow vet. "For him to be wounded that many times and lie as many times as he did, I don't want him to be president," said Knipple, who served on Swift boats, but never with Kerry.
"I wasn't there at the time that happened," said Tony Gisclair, a veteran from Poplarville, Miss., who signed the letter, referring to Kerry's combat in Vietnam. "But look at what the man said about us when he came back."
Tony Snesko, a veteran in Washington, D.C., said he was "devastated" by Kerry's antiwar efforts, prompting him to sign on to the group's anti-Kerry message.
Snesko said to see Kerry elected would give credence to the senator's claims that those who fought in Vietnam were reckless baby-killers: "At the point that he might possibly take over this country as president -- it would validate everything that he said about us and would make it appear true."
The effort has gained momentum in the past month, as the veterans group began airing a controversial television commercial questioning Kerry's version of his service and asking him to disclose his military records. The Kerry camp has been attacking Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, calling it a front for President Bush's reelection efforts.
The May 4 letter arose out of a broader effort coordinated by a longtime Kerry foe and Republican supporter, Texas lawyer John E. O'Neill, also a Swift boat veteran. At the behest of the Nixon White House in 1971, O'Neill debated Kerry on television about the war.
O'Neill, who co-wrote "Unfit for Command," an anti-Kerry book published this week, gathered other Swift boat veterans to start the group and allowed word to spread. The group's core membership -- which has met three times and has had several conference calls -- includes a seven-member steering committee and about 10 other members.
"We really got this thing going in the hopes the Democratic Party would listen to us and perhaps nominate someone else," said Bill Lannom of Grinnell, Iowa, whom O'Neill recruited onto the steering committee. Lannom bristles at the thought of Kerry being elected to the presidency. "He's lying, and he's betraying us," Lannom said. "He's telling untruths about us and his character. He's talking about atrocities that didn't happen. And then he's using that same experience to promote himself. He can't have it both ways."
Unlike casual participants, the most committed members say they are driven by desire to expose Kerry as a fraud who doctored his record to win medals and an early release from Vietnam. But they are a minority in the larger group.
John L. Kipp of Brown County, Ind., said he learned about the letter to Kerry while surfing the Web and added his signature because he does not believe that Kerry is telling the whole truth. Kipp, who commanded a Swift boat in Vietnam, doubts that Kerry would have left his boat to attack an enemy, as he has asserted. "It really bothered me when he started to ballyhoo his war record," said Kipp, 62. "You don't turn on your comrades and say these terrible, awful things that I know I had never seen. There's something about keeping faith with those you served with."
Don Hammer, a veteran from Bloomington, Ill., said he admires Kerry. Hammer also said he believes Kerry was within his rights to speak out against the war. But still, Hammer has questions. "My goal is to tell Mr. Kerry to open up his service record," he said. "I don't know what happened. Nobody else knows what happened."
Staff writer Jim VandeHei and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.