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Further Debunking the 'War Zone' Myth

As then-first lady Pat Nixon landed at the presidential palace in Saigon on July 31, 1969, her pilot, Col. Gene Boyer, pulled her away from the tail rotor. That, Boyer says, was a war zone.
As then-first lady Pat Nixon landed at the presidential palace in Saigon on July 31, 1969, her pilot, Col. Gene Boyer, pulled her away from the tail rotor. That, Boyer says, was a war zone. (Nixon Library)

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Clinton campaign has cited newspaper accounts, including one in The Washington Post, to bolster the senator's claim that her now-famous March 1996 trip to Bosnia was the first visit to a "war zone" by a first lady since World War II. She is overlooking a trip to Saigon by Pat Nixon at the height of the Vietnam War as well as a trip by Barbara Bush to Saudi Arabia two months before the Persian Gulf War began.

THE FACTS

Just because something has appeared in a newspaper does not mean that is entirely accurate. The Clinton camp has circulated a March 26, 1996, quote from a Post article describing Clinton's Bosnia trip as "the first time since Roosevelt that a first lady has voyaged to a potential combat zone." The article went on to say that "other first ladies have visited troops abroad but never in front-line positions," citing the examples of Bush and Nixon.

How these factoids got into the Post story is unclear, but they offer a somewhat misleading picture of the relative risks being run by the three first ladies. By almost any measure, the Nixon trip to Saigon in July 1969 should surely count as the most dangerous of the three visits. Unlike Bosnia in March 1996 and Saudi Arabia in November 1990, South Vietnam was an actual, not "potential," war zone in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet offensive, said retired Army Lt. Col. Gene Boyer, the Nixons' chief helicopter pilot.

"This was a combat mission," Boyer said yesterday, noting that more than 2,000 U.S. helicopter pilots were shot down and killed in Vietnam. "There were no front lines. Everything outside of Saigon was a war zone."

The picture at right shows Boyer grabbing Pat Nixon's arm to pull her out of the way of the tail-rotor blades after landing his helicopter on the lawn of the presidential palace in Saigon. He had just flown the first lady to a field hospital north of Saigon to visit wounded American servicemen. "We saturated the air with a lot of helicopters and other stuff, which decreased the risk. It was a very secret mission. We went in determined that nothing would leak."

Boyer had spent three or four days in Saigon before the Nixons' arrival, planning the trip and assessing the risks. The itinerary was changed at the last moment, just in case word had leaked out to the Viet Cong. To reduce the risk from machine-gun fire, Boyer made almost vertical landings and takeoffs from above 1,500 feet.

In the meantime, Clinton's claims about a "corkscrew" landing in Tuzla, Bosnia, have been challenged by the pilot who commanded the C-17 that flew her from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Speaking in a radio interview on the "Rusty Humphries Show," retired Air Force Col. William "Goose" Changose said that he did not undertake any kind of "evasive" maneuver on the approach to Tuzla, and that the only reason the descent was a little steeper than normal was because there were hills around.

"Not only were there no bullets flying around, there wasn't a bumblebee flying around," Changose recalled.

THE PINOCCHIO TEST

There would seem little more to debunk about Clinton's adventures in Bosnia. But it is worth correcting the record about Pat Nixon's visit to Vietnam in July 1969. I have already assigned the maximum four Pinocchios to Clinton for her Tuzla tale.

ONE PINOCCHIO: Some shading of the facts. TWO PINOCCHIOS: Significant omissions or exaggerations. THREE PINOCCHIOS: Significant factual errors. FOUR PINOCCHIOS: Real whoppers. THE GEPPETTO CHECK MARK: Statements and claims contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


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