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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Veterans Attack Kerry on Medals,War Record

August 05, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

A group of Vietnam veterans was set to launch a 60-second ad today in three battleground states charging that Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry had lied about his war record, had engineered the injuries that led to combat medals and was unfit to be commander in chief.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose members have spoken out against the Massachusetts senator in recent months, were scheduled to spend $500,000 to run the stark ad in Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia as part of a multimedia effort to discredit Kerry's wartime record, a cornerstone of the Democratic campaign.

Vietnam veterans were a key component of last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston, where they attested to Kerry's bravery and leadership while commanding a Swift boat on the Mekong Delta and stood with him onstage the night he accepted the nomination for president.

There are an estimated 25 million veterans in America. They are considered a key voting bloc in what promises to be a close election.

The anti-Kerry group's leadership refused to disclose the source of funding for the ad and its other efforts. But it did confirm that one of its biggest donors is Robert J. Perry, a Houston homebuilder. According to Texans for Public Justice, an organization that tracks the influence of campaign donations on Texas politics, Perry gave $3.8 million to several Texas Republican candidates in 2000. He also has donated to President Bush's reelection campaign.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began its campaign against Kerry this year, but waited until after the convention and Kerry's acceptance speech to begin its strongest attacks.

All but one of Kerry's surviving Swift boat crewmates have campaigned on his behalf and appeared with him at the convention. The holdout is Steve Gardner of Clover, S.C., who is a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and took part in a conference call Wednesday regarding the anti-Kerry ad.

"John Kerry set up there at the Democratic convention. He's got nine men in front of him ... that agree with what he said and did," said Gardner, who described Kerry as reckless, rather than heroic. "If we [the anti-Kerry veterans] were going to come to that convention, we'd have needed a battleship."

Gardner is part of the group's outreach effort, which is to include media interviews, organizing in battleground states and appearances at campaign events. He is not pictured in the ad. His comments came during a conference call arranged by the group.

A Kerry spokesman, Michael Meehan, dismissed the allegations and the organization's members, saying that "a lot of them have a political agenda. They can vote for whoever they want. But we won't allow them to besmirch the record of Sen. Kerry."

Meehan noted that two of the men in the ad flew to Boston in 1996 to support Kerry during a nasty Senate campaign in which his heroism had been called into question.

"Here we are two years later, and they're starring in an ad calling Kerry a liar," Meehan said. "What has changed in the eight years since to their recollections? ... It has to be politics."

The ad begins with footage of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic nominee for vice president, laying down a challenge: "If you have any question about what John Kerry's made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him 30 years ago."

Then printed words appear on the screen -- "Here's what these men think about John Kerry" -- and veteran after veteran calls the candidate's wartime experiences into question.

Most of the accusations are general in nature, alleging that Kerry lied or "is no war hero." But two specifically addressed the combat medals the Democrats point to as proof of Kerry's fitness to serve.

"I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart, because I treated him for that injury," Dr. Louis Letson, who served as a surgeon at Cam Ranh Bay Naval Support, says in the ad.

"John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. I know. I was there. I saw what happened," Van Odell, who served as gunner on PCF 31, one of the boats involved in the incident that earned Kerry the Bronze Star, says in the ad.

There is little corroboration in the ad to back up their statements. But the charges are described at length in "Unfit for Command," a book by group member John E. O'Neill, which is scheduled to be released Aug. 15.

In a conference call arranged by the Kerry campaign, several of Kerry's crewmates on the two Swift boats he skippered defended him, calling the charges politically motivated fabrications.

"Republicans love this," said Del Sandusky, leading petty officer with Kerry on PCF 94. "They want to take away from John Kerry's status as a war hero, because George Bush can't compete with it."

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