A group of Vietnam-era Navy veterans yesterday criticized Sen. John F. Kerry's conduct during the war, and called on him to release all of his military and medical records.
The Kerry campaign immediately responded that the recently formed group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, was a politically motivated organization with close ties to the Bush administration and prominent Republican contributors.
The exchange was another chapter in the campaign crossfire over Kerry's and President Bush's military service during the Vietnam years. Both men have had to defend their service records, with Bush on the defensive over his absences from his National Guard unit during the war, and Kerry over his antiwar activities following a decorated combat career as the commander of a swift boat in the Mekong Delta.
The Massachusetts senator made his service in Vietnam a centerpiece of his campaign ads during the Democratic primaries. It is also part of a new $25 million ad blitz.
In a news conference, the swift boat group -- composed of about 215 former officers and enlisted men who served in Kerry's wartime division -- declared Kerry unfit to be president because of his statements in 1971 alleging that U.S. soldiers committed routine atrocities during the war. Kerry raised the allegations in testimony to a Senate committee investigating the war that year.
The group also raised questions about Kerry's service record, for which he was awarded three Purple Hearts, and Bronze and Silver stars for valor. In particular, the group's founder and co-chairman, Texas lawyer John O'Neill, alleged in an interview that Kerry was awarded his first Purple Heart for a wound that was minor and self-inflicted.
"I have very serious questions based on talking to people who were involved in those incidents," said O'Neill, a former naval officer who has been a longtime Kerry critic. Calling Kerry's wound "trivial and insignificant," he said that it may have been the result of a fragment from an M-79 grenade Kerry launched at close quarters. "It was fraudulently reported [by Kerry] and used as the basis for leaving Vietnam early." O'Neill did not serve with Kerry.
Kerry spokesman David Wade denounced the statements as "a false, lying smear campaign against a decorated combat veteran." He added, "This is the ugly face of the Bush attack machine questioning John Kerry's patriotism."
Marc Racicot, chairman of Bush's reelection campaign, said in a statement: "Neither the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign nor the Republican National Committee have coordinated or participated in the planning of this news conference." O'Neill also denied any connection to the Bush camp.
O'Neill started the group earlier this year with help from Dallas communications specialist Merrie Spaeth, a former official in the Reagan White House who was spokeswoman in 2000 for Republicans for Clean Air, a group that spent $2 million on ads attacking Arizona Sen. John McCain's environmental record when he was seeking the GOP nomination against Bush. A director of that group was Sam Wylie, a Dallas investor who has contributed the maximum amounts allowable to the RNC and Bush's campaign.
Spaeth is mentioned on the White House's official Web site as among the "prominent public and private sector leaders who are alumni of the White House Fellows Program from Texas." Spaeth's late husband, H.J. "Tex" Lezar, a law partner of O'Neill's, was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Texas the same year Bush won his first term as governor.
O'Neill, a former swift boat commander, debated Kerry about the war in 1971, at the urging of Nixon White House aide Charles Colson. O'Neill said yesterday he had bipartisan support at the time.
The swift boat group includes retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, who was Kerry's commanding officer in Vietnam. Despite criticizing Kerry yesterday, Hibbard gave Kerry a glowing evaluation in 1968, calling him "one of the top few" in initiative, cooperation and personal behavior, according to a statement released by Kerry's campaign.
Staff writer Lois Romano contributed to this report.