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Vietnam War Illuminates, Shadows Kerry's Campaign

Long after the divisive war, veterans take sides over the Democrat's duty and dissidence.

February 17, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Amid the solemn atmosphere of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the place known simply as The Wall, Dewey Brown reaches up to touch one name among tens of thousands engraved in the polished black granite.

Ramrod straight at age 76, the retired Army colonel is not a man prone to tears. But his voice breaks in anger as he recalls that divisive war -- and what he terms Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's disrespect for the men who fought and died there.

Good soldiers do their duty and keep their mouths shut. They don't come home to criticize their country's mission while others are still fighting. But that, in his view, is what Kerry did.

Standing nearby, Vietnam veteran Brian Hoffman, 58, begs to disagree. To him, Kerry was a hero who performed the most difficult duty of all.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
John F. Kerry -- An article Feb. 17 in Section A about the Vietnam War's legacy and Sen. John F. Kerry said that in his April 1971 testimony before Congress he accused fellow servicemen of committing wartime atrocities against Vietnamese civilians. In fact, Kerry was citing first-person accounts by veterans. The article also said that Kerry "later acknowledged" that he did not witness the alleged incidents. Kerry had said at the outset of his testimony that he was reporting the accounts of others.

"John Kerry returned from battle to speak out against what he considered an unjust war," the Army veteran said. "Who can fault him for that?"

Almost three decades after America ended its involvement there, Vietnam is playing a pivotal, if fractious, role in the nation's presidential race.

As President Bush defends his service in the Air National Guard amid questions from Democrats about whether he fulfilled his duty, Kerry -- the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination -- faces criticism from some veterans and former POWs over his antiwar record.

Throughout his political career, the four-term senator has drawn heavily on his experience in Vietnam. He has talked of being wounded three times and of the hard lessons learned during a hazardous tour as skipper of a river patrol boat.

In his quest for the presidency, Kerry mentions the war in nearly every campaign speech. Flanked by fellow veterans he calls his "band of brothers" and endorsed by Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia who lost three limbs in Vietnam, Kerry evokes cheers for his medals -- the Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

But a topic Kerry mentions less often is his controversial role in the Vietnam era: that of a disillusioned activist.

Following his return from Vietnam in 1969, he led protesters on a Washington march not far from where The Wall stands today.

He testified before Congress and accused fellow servicemen of committing wartime atrocities against civilians. He also headed a demonstration in which he and other veterans threw war medals onto the Capitol steps.

For some, the 60-year-old Kerry embodies America's conflicted feelings about Vietnam. He served with distinction but led the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and challenged Congress, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Many veterans say that, in hindsight, they agree with Kerry's bold opposition to a conflict that killed 58,000 Americans. They say history has proved him right about Vietnam, and they have flocked to support his campaign.

Others call Kerry's protest activities the reflection of a man so ambitious for a career in politics that he consciously held on to his own medals, now displayed in his Washington office. During the protest at the Capitol, Kerry, then 27, threw the medals of two other servicemen, along with his own ribbons.

As a senator, Kerry has championed veterans' concerns -- such as better military health and retirement benefits. But some servicemen still vilify him for leading, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a 1990s Senate committee that determined there were no surviving POWs in Vietnam. That conclusion helped normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam.

The rift among veterans went public last week when a Washington newspaper and television news shows ran a photo showing Kerry sitting near then-activist Jane Fonda at an antiwar rally. The photo sparked renewed debate -- and unleashed simmering emotion -- about Vietnam, the mass protests against the war, and "Hanoi Jane," the nickname veterans gave the actress after she visited North Vietnam at the height of the war.

Historians say the controversy surrounding Kerry's candidacy shows how America has yet to come to terms with Vietnam, a war that ended 29 years ago.

"That war is not behind us. It's still very much in our minds today," said Douglas Brinkley, author of "Tour of Duty," which details Kerry's wartime experiences.

"We have yet to close ranks on what occurred in society during those years. It's turned into an outright battle, with the legacy of a generation at stake. And in the middle stands John Kerry."


A Tormented Veteran

John Kerry returned from Vietnam in April 1969 with war decorations -- and a troubled conscience.

Commanding a swift boat, the Navy lieutenant ran missions in and out of ambush alleys across the hostile Mekong Delta and was awarded Purple Hearts on three occasions for being wounded in action.

He also earned a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, the latter for beaching his patrol boat and jumping ashore to chase down and kill a Viet Cong guerrilla who used a rocket launcher to fire on his men.

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