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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Veterans Battle Over the Truth

An ad calls Kerry a liar. His Vietnam crew sees a hero. Memories, and agendas, are in conflict.

August 17, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

Then eight words appear on the screen -- "Here's what those men think about John Kerry" -- and the allegations begin. They include comments such as: "John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam," and "He lacks the capacity to lead."

Many in the Swift boat group seem to be motivated as much by anger about Kerry's protest activities as they are about his actions in combat. In their affidavits, several write about Kerry's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In his April 1971 statement to the Senate panel, Kerry cited Vietnam atrocities that had been alleged by his group of antiwar veterans. And in blunt rhetoric, he questioned government policy that widened the toll among soldiers and civilians: "We learned the meaning of free-fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed cheapness on the lives of Orientals."

In the anti-Kerry ad, former Navy Lt. Cmdr. George Elliott, one of Kerry's immediate commanders, says: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam."

In his affidavit, Elliott said that when Kerry returned from Vietnam, he was "comparing his other commanders and me to Lt. Calley of My Lai, comparing the American armed forces to the army of Genghis Khan, and making similar misstatements."

Joe Ponder, a Swift boat crewman who did not serve on either of Kerry's two boats, says in the ad that Kerry "dishonored his country." In his affidavit, Ponder says he was badly wounded in an ambush in Vietnam. But "the greatest wounds I have ever suffered were from John F. Kerry, who dishonored my country, my honor and my friends by falsely charging the United States Army Forces with war crimes, claiming that all of us, living and dead, were war criminals."

Although these are powerful statements, they are not entirely accurate.

In his Senate testimony, Kerry did liken some American actions to Genghis Khan's. But he did not mention Elliott by name, nor did he mention his Navy superiors. And he did not claim that every soldier was a war criminal. Rather, he cited atrocities described by veterans who opposed the war. Kerry has acknowledged that, at times, he used a poor choice of words as a young man protesting the war, but he has continued to insist that atrocities were committed.

During the war, Elliott gave Kerry high marks in fitness reports and recommended Kerry for the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. "John was one of 50 young officers who performed extremely well," Elliott said in an interview in May. "I wrote his fitness report, and I stand by that."

But in his affidavit, Elliott backed away from the Silver Star nomination he wrote for Kerry in 1969. Kerry won the award for chasing down and killing a wounded Viet Cong guerrilla who had confronted his boat with a grenade launcher.

In his affidavit, Elliott questioned Kerry's actions, suggesting he might have shot the guerrilla in the back. Elliott was not present during the action, and there have been no credible eyewitness accounts affirming his version.

Kerry's Swift boat mates have long insisted that Kerry's action was appropriate and saved their lives.

A day after the ad appeared, Elliott said in an interview with the Boston Globe that he regretted signing the affidavit and that he believed Kerry still deserved the Silver Star. Then he issued a second affidavit standing by his first sworn statement, saying he had been misquoted by the Globe.

But in his second affidavit, Elliott also admitted, "I do not claim to have personal knowledge as to how Kerry shot the wounded, fleeing Viet Cong."

*

There are three other allegations raised by the anti-Kerry group -- questioning his first Purple Heart, his Bronze Star and a Christmas Eve mission to the Cambodian border.

The awarding of Kerry's first Purple Heart has been challenged by a former surgeon at the Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay. "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury," Dr. Louis Letson said in the television ad.

In a Times interview in May, the retired Alabama doctor said he recalled administering treatment to Kerry for a flesh wound incurred on Dec. 2, 1968.

Kerry had been on a mission in a "skimmer" boat north of Cam Ranh Bay. Noticing Viet Cong on a beach, Kerry fired on the guerrillas. Two crewmates, Bill Zaladonis and Pat Runyon, have confirmed that they also fired on the fleeing guerrillas.

That same night, Jim Wasser, who was stationed on a boat near Kerry's and who would later serve on Kerry's Swift boat, heard a radio report from Kerry's boat that "someone had a slight wound."

The next morning, according to Letson, Kerry showed up at the Cam Ranh Bay medical unit asking for treatment. Letson said the wound was slight and that he removed a tiny shard of shrapnel with tweezers. He said Kerry reported being in a firefight with Viet Cong guerrillas.

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