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Published: Saturday, 8/14/2004

Kerry record not so swift

IN HIS speech accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president, Sen. John Edwards said of John Kerry, "If you have any question of what he is made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him then."

The Democratic National Committee is trying hard to keep you from spending a minute with most of the sailors who served with Mr. Kerry during his abbreviated tour in Vietnam, because they have unflattering things to say. The DNC is threatening to sue television stations which run a commercial produced by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Of the 23 officers who served with Mr. Kerry in Coastal Division 11, only one supports him for president. Two others are dead, and four want nothing to do with politics. The remaining 16 have declared him Unfit for Command, the title of the book written by former Lt. John O'Neill, who took over Mr. Kerry's swift boat, PCF-94, when Mr. Kerry left Vietnam.

The Swifties charge Mr. Kerry didn't deserve two of the three Purple Hearts he was awarded, or either of his medals for valor, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.

According to Mr. Kerry, his first taste of combat came on his first mission, on the night of Dec. 2, 1968. He was with two sailors in a Boston whaler on a night patrol. They saw sampans, presumably crewed by Viet Cong, unloading on a peninsula. They opened fire, and the Vietnamese ran for cover. In the "engagement," Mr. Kerry suffered a scratch on his arm from a piece of metal.

Mr. Kerry's account to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, gives the impression that he was in command of the whaler. This was not so. Lt. William Schachte, later an admiral, was the officer in charge. Lieutenant Shachte said the Vietnamese never fired on the boat, and the sailors who were with Mr. Schachte and Mr. Kerry said they couldn't remember any return fire.

Mr. Shachte said Mr. Kerry's scratch was self-inflicted. He had fired an M-79 grenade launcher too close to the shore. It struck a rock, and a fragment of metal ricocheted and struck Mr. Kerry. Louis Letson, the doctor who treated Mr. Kerry (he put a Band-Aid on the cut) said the metal fragment looked like a piece from an M-79 grenade.

The Kerry campaign has charged that Dr. Letson didn't treat Mr. Kerry, because the log recording his treatment was signed by J.C. Carreon. But Dr. Letson was the only physician assigned to Cam Ranh Bay at the time. If you've ever been to a doctor's office, you may have noticed that the doctors themselves rarely do the paperwork. Mr. Carreon (who died in 1992) was Dr. Letson's corpsman.

Mr. Kerry received his third Purple Heart, and his Bronze Star, for an action on March 13, 1969. Mr. Kerry alleges he was wounded in the right buttock by the explosion of an underwater mine under an accompanying swift boat. Jim Rassmann, an Army Special Forces officer, was knocked off Mr. Kerry's boat by the mine explosion. Mr. Kerry was awarded the Bronze Star for coming back "under heavy fire" to fish Mr. Rassmann out of the water. Mr. Rassmann and the sailors on Mr. Kerry's boat support Mr. Kerry's story. But sailors on the other swift boats say there was no enemy fire.

There is no reason to suppose that Mr. Rassmann is lying, but there is also no physical evidence to support the Kerry/Rassmann account. No sailors were injured by gunfire, and there were no bullet holes in Mr. Kerry's boat, or any other boat.

Mr. Kerry's wound, moreover, had occurred not during the mine explosion, but earlier, when he tossed a concussion grenade into a pile of rice, according to Larry Thurlow, an officer who was with Mr. Kerry at the time.

Mr. Rassmann, in his Aug. 10 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, said Mr. Kerry was injured in the mine explosion. But Mr. Kerry told his biographer, Douglas Brinkley that "I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice bin explosions."

Mr. Kerry could clear up much of the confusion if he would authorize release of all his military records.

His failure to do so suggests there may be something in them he doesn't want Americans to know.



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