BOSTON — Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry on Thursday lashed back for the first time against a group of Vietnam veterans critical of his wartime service, accusing them of doing President Bush's "dirty work" and suggesting that he, in turn, would challenge Bush's military record.
Two weeks after the veterans launched a television ad questioning Kerry's actions in Vietnam, the back-and-forth over the former Navy lieutenant's record envelops the campaign, as newfound records undercut the credibility of one of his critics.
During a speech to several thousand firefighters, Kerry directly challenged allegations by the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that he concocted his wartime injuries for political gain.
"More than 30 years ago, I learned an important lesson: When you're under attack, the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attacker. That's what I intend to do today," he told members of the International Assn. of Fire Fighters.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Swift boat ads -- An article in Section A on Aug. 20 about Sen. John F. Kerry's response to a veterans group critical of his military record stated that none of the members of the group served on Kerry's patrol boat in Vietnam. Steve Gardner, a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, was a Kerry crewmate. He was not on Kerry's boat during the incidents for which Kerry was awarded medals.
"Thirty years ago, official Navy reports and every person there documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Thirty years ago, this was the plain truth. It still is. And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam."
Kerry's angry response Thursday marks an abrupt shift in strategy for the candidate, who had let surrogates address the accusations. Not only did the Massachusetts senator strike back personally, his campaign produced a new television ad defending his service, a slew of military records and a clutch of fellow veterans to testify to his actions.
The Swift boat group had run a 30-second television ad in three battleground states challenging the basis of Kerry's war record, saying he lied about his experiences, didn't deserve his medals and betrayed fellow servicemen by protesting the war after returning to the U.S. Though limited in its initial reach, the ad quickly gathered steam as a point of debate on websites, talk shows and cable television.
The campaign's full-front attack Thursday amounted to recognition that the anti-Kerry group's accusations could tarnish one of his greatest assets -- his decorated military service.
The attacks may have already hurt. According to a new poll by CBS News, Kerry has lost ground among veterans since the Democratic National Convention, when he ran neck and neck with Bush among those voters. Now, the president has an 18-point lead among that group, according to the poll, which surveyed 1,009 adults nationwide.
Meanwhile, newly released military records Thursday contradicted an account given by Larry Thurlow, a Swift boat group veteran who disputes that Kerry came under fire during a 1969 mission on the Bay Hap River. Kerry won a Bronze Star for his actions that day, when he fished a Green Beret officer out of the water.
A document recommending Thurlow for a Bronze Star said that his boat, along with Kerry's and three others, fielded constant enemy fire that day, according to the Washington Post. Thurlow insisted Thursday that the records were based on Kerry's account; he maintained his contention that Kerry lied about enemy fire.
None of the men in the Swift boat group behind the anti-Kerry ad, including Thurlow, served on Kerry's patrol boat during the war. A Times review of their accusations found that, in addition to Thurlow, other members also had given contradictory accounts of incidents and offered evidence of Kerry's alleged wrongdoing based on memories of events that they say they witnessed from a boat or two away.
Military documents and accounts of crewmates who did serve with Kerry support the view put forth by the candidate and his campaign -- that he acted courageously and came by his five medals honestly.
But the Swift boat group is standing by its account and announced Thursday that it would unveil a new ad today.
Kerry, in his speech to firefighters, noted that Robert J. Perry, a Texas developer and longtime contributor to Bush, had given the group $200,000. Harlan Crow of Dallas, a commercial real estate developer,
gave the group $25,000 on May 10.
The anti-Kerry ad aired in Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia from Aug. 5 to Aug. 12.
"They're a front for the Bush campaign," Kerry said. "And the fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything that you need to know -- he wants them to do his dirty work."
Kerry suggested that he would challenge Bush's service record in the Texas Air National Guard, signaling a personal turn in the debate over the candidates' wartime credentials.
"The president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country," he said. "Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on!"
The Bush campaign denied that the president was backing the group. Bush, the White House and the campaign again declined to denounce the ad.