Military records support Kerry's account of Vietnam service

BY Joseph L. Galloway
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Military records back John Kerry's account of his service in Vietnam and have backed at least two of his accusers into a corner.

Kerry this week was forced to defend himself against accusations by a group of fellow Navy veterans of Vietnam that he was a liar and a coward. The charges were made in a book and in an attack ad that polls show have chipped away at Kerry's standing with veterans in three critical states - West Virginia, Wisconsin and Ohio.

The long-ago Vietnam War has suddenly become a central issue in the presidential campaign. The attacks by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have called into account Kerry's conduct during the war, when he volunteered for one of the most dangerous duties - the so-called Brown Water Navy, which regularly penetrated Viet Cong-controlled territory via the maze of waterways in the sodden Mekong Delta.

Although the 15 veterans featured in the attack ad all state "I served with John Kerry," none of them served on the same boat with him. Those who did, such as retired Chief Petty Officer Del Sandusky, 60, of Clearwater, Fla., praise Kerry for his leadership and credit him with keeping them alive to make it home.

"We are really upset at this stuff," Sandusky told Knight Ridder. "They are calling us all liars. They dishonor us and they dishonor all those who died over there. They are getting awfully desperate. Last year many of them were on board with us. Now they are telling outrageous lies."

Kerry has said that members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth lied when they said he inflated his role in various combat actions in the Mekong Delta in 1968 and 1969 and had manipulated the award of three Purple Heart medals for wounds and Bronze and Silver Star medals for valor in combat.

Kerry released a stack of his military records - including after-action reports, citations for his medals, boat battle damage reports and his officer efficiency reports. These records - and the military records of at least one of his accusers - cast serious doubt on some of the more inflammatory charges raised by the group.

It didn't help the cause of the Swift Boat Veterans group that some of them, including their leader, retired Rear Adm. Roy Hoffman, were on the record praising Kerry for his service in Vietnam.

Kerry's commanding officer in Vietnam, George Elliott, said in an attack ad: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam."

But during the Vietnam War, Elliott recommended Kerry for the Silver and Bronze Star medals for valor in combat and gave him the highest possible praise in his officer efficiency reports.

"In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action, LTjg Kerry was unsurpassed," Elliott wrote in 1969. He went on to rate Kerry as "calm, professional and highly courageous in the face of enemy fire."

Elliott added: "(Kerry) emerges as the acknowledged leader in his peer group." In 16 categories on Kerry's officer efficiency report, ranging from professional knowledge to moral courage to military bearing to reliability, Elliott gave Kerry the highest possible rating - "is not exceeded" - in 11 categories, and the second highest, "one of the top 10" in five other categories.

Elliott in 1996 supported Kerry in his re-election campaign for the Senate and during an appearance in Boston declared that Kerry had earned the Silver Star "for an act of courage."

Another critic, Larry Thurlow, a fellow Swift boat commander in the Mekong Delta in 1969, disputed Kerry's claim that his boat and others in the five-boat patrol came under enemy fire during a March 13, 1969, mission that earned Kerry a Bronze Star.

Thurlow said that although one of the Swift boats was disabled by a mine explosion, there was no enemy fire from shore, as Kerry and others testified, and that Kerry's account was "a total fabrication." Thurlow said in an affidavit: "I never heard a shot."

However, a citation for the Bronze Star with valor awarded to Thurlow for that same mission stated that his actions "took place under constant enemy small arms fire which (Thurlow) completely ignored" while he provided assistance to the damaged Swift boat and the wounded aboard.

Thurlow said he had lost his medal citation for that incident over two decades ago and stood by his account that there was no enemy fire at the time.

His account was further called into question by a battle damage assessment report on another Swift boat, PCF-51, involved in the March 13 action. The report listed three .30-caliber bullet holes in the superstructure of the 50-foot patrol boat.

The Swift boat veterans also have cast doubt on Kerry's account that a second mine explosion damaged his boat, PCF-94, and blew an Army Special Forces officer, Jim Rassmann, overboard. Kerry's Bronze Star was awarded for his rescue of Rassmann, who credited Kerry with saving his life.

Among the records was a battle damage report filed the following day, March 14, which stated that PCF-94 had three windows blown out, radios and radar inoperable, the boat's auxiliary generator inoperable, screws curled and chipped, aft helm steerage control not working. The boat was judged incapable of executing patrols without repairs.

In the TV ad Swift Boat veteran Adrian Lonsdale declared Kerry "lacks the capacity to lead." Yet he, too, appeared to support Kerry in 1996, saying of him: "He was among the finest of those Swift boat drivers."
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"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that
we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."-- Theodore Roosevelt