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THE NATION | THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Repaying a Big Debt to Lt. Kerry

A former Green Beret saved 35 years ago by the young senator-to-be is happy to help him now.

March 13, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

FLORENCE, Ore. — The eyes still get watery 35 years later, and Jim Rassmann -- former Green Beret, retired California cop -- doesn't want anybody to see. He turns away or uses his beefy hands to cover up.

But he gets through it, recalling in vivid detail the day, March 13, 1969, when John F. Kerry snatched him out of a muddy brown river in Vietnam and saved him from a watery end.

The story has been told often since January, when the two men reunited in Des Moines, just two days before the Iowa primary. Their emotional reunion has been described as a turning point in Kerry's quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Rassmann, a registered Republican, held the audience rapt that night with the dramatic tale of his rescue. The two men embraced, the cameras rolled and Rassmann in a single moment became a prime-time voucher for Kerry's combat heroism and a symbol of the senator's support among Vietnam War veterans.

Since then, Rassmann, 56, has volunteered on the campaign trail for Kerry, with brief visits home to his wife, Julie, and their four-acre homestead here on the Oregon coast.

Rassmann is home now, spending as much time as possible in his greenhouse, where he normally spends his days tending orchids, thousands of them, wall to wall and floor to ceiling. It's his refuge, the sanctum he dwells in. He's a man of substantial mass, short and wide with thick fingers that handle the delicate flowers with surprising grace.

Going from the tranquillity of his greenhouse to the chaos of the campaign trail grates against his nature. But here he is, bags packed, waiting for a call from the Kerry people about the next leg.

"I had no idea it would lead to this," Rassmann says.

He certainly had no intention of becoming anything as grand as a symbol. Rassmann says he holds a low opinion of politicians and politics in general, but he makes an exception for Kerry. He's prepared to campaign for the Massachusetts senator until November.

Why?

"I owe him," he says.

Rassmann abides by the old warrior's code that when a man saves you from death, you're in debt to him for life. He's paying his debt. When he tears up, something else becomes clear: The emotion isn't only for himself, but for all the friends he lost in the war.

There was Cal Courtemanche, a friend since childhood, who was shot in the chest during the Tet Offensive. There was Charles Hughes, a Special Forces commander machine-gunned to death. There was Ralph Cannon, killed after stepping over a spider hole occupied by two enemy soldiers.

Rassmann's unit lost five of 11 men. He remembers their names, ranks, the dates they were killed. He lists them like a roll call. And in a long, circuitous way, he explains the depth of his gratitude to Kerry: If it were not for him, Rassmann believes, his name would surely be on the list.

*

The reunion with Kerry began with violin music.

Just after New Year's, the Rassmanns were in Glendale visiting Jim's 82-year-old mother when they stepped into a Barnes & Noble to pick up a CD on operatic arias transcribed for violin. At the checkout counter, Rassmann saw Douglas Brinkley's new book on Kerry's Vietnam experience, "Tour of Duty," on a display stand.

Rassmann hadn't known about the book, and he hadn't seen or talked to Kerry since that day when the two briefly clasped hands in the Mekong Delta.

Rassmann eyed the book cover: It was John all right, his long, skinny face much the same as it is today. Rassmann picked up the book, stepped aside and began leafing through it. To his amazement, on pages 314 and 315, the author tells the story of what happened that day.

He and his wife read the whole account standing near the checkout counter.

Rassmann was 21 at the time, a Special Forces lieutenant in charge of a company of American and Chinese fighters. On that day, they traveled on a convoy of five patrol boats led by the 25-year-old Kerry, a Navy lieutenant -- and they were on the run, being chased down the Bay Hap River by enemy soldiers firing guns and rockets.

The group had already lost one soldier that day. As they sped down the river, one boat was blown out of the water, and then another. An explosion wounded Kerry in the arm and threw Rassmann into the river. Rassmann dove to the bottom to avoid being run over by the other boats. When he surfaced, he saw the convoy had gone ahead.

Viet Cong snipers fired at him, and Rassmann submerged over and over to avoid being hit. The bullets came from both banks, and Rassmann had nowhere to go. He began thinking his time had come, but the fifth time he came up, he saw the convoy had turned around. Kerry had ordered the boats back to pick up the man overboard.

Kerry's boat, under heavy fire, sidled up to the struggling soldier. Rassmann tried to scramble up a cargo net at the bow but was too exhausted to make it all the way. He clung to the net as bullets whizzed past.

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