DEMOCRATIC nominee John F. Kerry has made his tour of duty in Vietnam -- a stint in which he earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star -- a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. To the extent, then, that there are legitimate questions about Mr. Kerry's behavior -- either in Vietnam or back home as a prominent antiwar activist -- those are fair game. Mr. Kerry's four-plus months in Vietnam made for an unusually short tour. He used his third Purple Heart to go home early, and his wounds were relatively superficial. Some veterans remain understandably bitter about Mr. Kerry's antiwar statements; indeed, the candidate himself has said he would rephrase some of his more cutting accusations about U.S. troops committing war crimes.
But a new assault on Mr. Kerry -- in an ad by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and in a new book -- crosses the line in branding Mr. Kerry a coward and a liar. This smear is contradicted by Mr. Kerry's crew mates, undercut by the previous statements of some of those now making the charges and tainted by the chief source of its funding: Republican activists dedicated to defeating Mr. Kerry in November.
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"John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam," says George Elliott, Mr. Kerry's former commanding officer. But it was then-Lt. Cmdr. Elliott who recommended Mr. Kerry for the Silver and Bronze stars, commending him as "calm, professional and highly courageous in the face of enemy fire." In a 1969 evaluation Mr. Elliott had this to say: "In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action, LTJG Kerry was unsurpassed."
"I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury," says Dr. Louis Letson. Dr. Letson isn't listed on Mr. Kerry's medical record at the time. That doesn't disprove his claim to have treated Mr. Kerry, who received a superficial shrapnel injury to his arm. But neither does the account of Dr. Letson or others about the incident indicate that Mr. Kerry was lying. Mr. Kerry's wound doesn't seem to have amounted to much, but he didn't claim it did -- nor does that make him ineligible for a Purple Heart.
The most potentially damning accusation in the ad concerns the the best-known episode of Mr. Kerry's service, in which he saved the life of Jim Rassmann after the Special Forces officer was blown off Mr. Kerry's Swift boat by a mine explosion. Three people quoted in the ad, all of whom say they were present that day, March 13, 1969, assert that Mr. Kerry ordered his craft to flee the danger and turned around to rescue Mr. Rassmann only after the shooting stopped. "John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star . . . I know, I was there, I saw what happened," says Van O'Dell, a retired Navy enlisted man. "His account of what happened and what actually happened are the difference between night and day," says Jack Chenoweth, who commanded a different Swift boat. "When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry," says Larry Thurlow, another Swift boat commander.
If accurate, this would demolish a central part of the picture of Mr. Kerry as Vietnam hero. But the weight of the evidence supports Mr. Kerry. Mr. Rassmann, having had no contact with Mr. Kerry for the previous 35 years, came forward during the primaries to tell the story of how Mr. Kerry, braving enemy fire and with an injured arm, pulled him back on board. "John came up to the bow, and I thought he was going to get killed because he was so exposed," Mr. Rassmann recalled. Other surviving crew mates corroborate that account. "I was there," crew mate Del Sandusky told CNN. "I saw the bullets skimming across the water. I saw the firefight gun flashes from the jungle. I know the firefight and the ambush we were in." Another crew mate, James Wasser, told ABC: "What boat were you riding on? Because you weren't there -- we were."
It's also relevant to know who's underwriting this advertising campaign. The biggest single donor so far to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth isn't a Swift boat veteran but one of the leading Republican donors in Texas. Houston builder Bob J. Perry gave the group $100,000, accounting for the bulk of the $158,000 in receipts it has reported. It's fair to ask whether truth is at the top of this group's agenda.