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Questions over the character of John Kerry's Vietnam service are nothing new to readers of this web site. We've run lively debates on both candidates' military careers here and will continue to do so whenever questions arise.
Oddly, although many mainstream media outlets covered the story of "Was Bush AWOL?" very few chose to look beyond the DNC press releases regarding their candidate's heroics.
Signs of change, from Insight Magazine:
Kerry, who piloted Patrol Crafts Fast (PCFs) as a young Lt.(jg) in the Vietnam War, has always made much of those Purple Hearts. An award often pinned on the pillow of a combat warrior so badly wounded that he cannot sit up to receive it, the Purple Heart recognizes the sacrifices of combat when a soldier or officer has sustained a wound "from an outside force or agent" and received treatment from a medical officer. The records for such treatment "must have been made a matter of official record," according to the military definition of the award.
According to Kerry's own description in Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty, the Dec. 2, 1968, mission behind what he has claimed to be his first Purple Heart was "a half-assed action that hardly qualified as combat." Indeed. Kerry was stationed with Coastal Division 14 at Cam Ranh Bay. At that time he piloted a small foam-filled boat, known as a Boston Whaler, with two enlisted men in the darkness of early morning. The intent, apparently, was to patrol an area that was known for contraband trafficking, but it was an undocumented mission. Upon approaching the objective point, the crew noticed a sampan crossing the river. As it pulled to shore, Kerry and his little team opened fire, destroying the boat and whatever its cargo might have been.
In the confusion, Kerry claims to have received a "stinging piece of heat" in the arm, the result of a tiny piece of shrapnel. He was not incapacitated and continued with regular swiftboat-patrol duty. William Shachte, who oversaw this ad hoc mission, was quoted by the Boston Globe as saying Kerry's injury, from whatever source, "was not a serious wound at all."
But Kerry met with his immediate superior officer, Lt.Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, the next morning and requested a Purple Heart for his wound. Hibbard recalls that Kerry had a "minor scratch" on his arm and was holding in his hand what appeared to be a fragment of a U.S. M-79 grenade, the shrapnel that had caused the wound. "They didn't receive enemy fire," Hibbard tells Insight. Since this was an essential requirement for the award, the commander rejected Kerry's request. Hibbard does not remember that Kerry received medical attention of any kind and confirms that no one else on the mission suffered any injuries.
Shortly thereafter, Kerry was transferred to Coastal Division 11 at An Thoi. Apparently, Kerry petitioned to have his Purple Heart request reconsidered. Hibbard remembers getting correspondence from Kerry's new division, asking for his approval. In the hurried process of moving to a new command himself, Hibbard thinks he might have signed off on the award. If so, "it was to my chagrin," Hibbard remembers. Kerry's second commander, Lt.Cmdr. G.M. Elliott, says he has no recollection of such an event ever occurring.
There are no written records of Kerry's magical first Purple Heart on file at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, the nation's primary repository for such documentation. A Purple Heart normally is not requested but is awarded de facto for a wound inflicted by the enemy - a wound serious enough to require medical attention. The Naval Historical Center keeps all documents connected to such awards to U.S. Navy and Marine personnel. These typewritten "casualty cards" list the date, location and prognosis of the wound for which the Purple Heart is given, and they are produced by the medical facility that provides treatment for the combat wound at the hands of the enemy. There are two such cards for Kerry - for his slight wounds on Feb. 20 and March 13, 1969, but none for his December 1968 claim.
And the Boston Globe:
Back at the base, Kerry told Hibbard he qualified for a Purple Heart, according to Hibbard. Thirty-six years later, Hibbard, reached at his retirement home in Florida, said he can still recall Kerry's wound, and that it resembled a scrape from a fingernail. "I've had thorns from a rose that were worse," said Hibbard, a registered Republican who said he was undecided on the 2004 presidential race.
The Globe asked Kerry's campaign whether the Massachusetts senator is certain he was under enemy fire and whether he recalled that a superior officer raised questions about the matter. The campaign did not respond directly to those questions. Instead, Meehan said in a prepared statement that Kerry "received the shrapnel wound early in the course of that combat engagement. " Meehan also provided a copy of a medical report showing treatment for a wound on Dec. 3, 1968. The Purple Heart regulation in effect at that time said that a wound must "require treatment by a medical officer."
Nearly three months later, a document was sent to Kerry informing him that he would receive a Purple Heart "for injuries received on 2 December 1968." The Naval Historical Center, which could not locate a copy of the original card for the incident, nonetheless confirmed that Kerry did receive the Purple Heart.
USA Today has a 'balanced' piece on Kerry's service. Before moving to that, here's Best of the Web Today's comments on that story:
USA Today devotes almost a full page to an article revealing that John Kerry served in Vietnam. We already knew this, and in fact we may have mentioned it in this column once or twice. But we loved this passage from the piece by Andrea Stone:
Interviews with 18 officers and enlisted sailors who served with Kerry in Vietnam mostly portray a young leader with an aggressive command style. Many recall a warm, compassionate officer who cared deeply about his working-class crew.
Granted, this isn't a direct quote, but can you imagine a normal person saying anything like "He was a warm, compassionate officer who cared deeply about his working-class crew"? One suspects that, if anything, this was Kerry's self-description. Here is a direct quote from the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat, who by the way served in Vietnam:
"I was a good leader, a strong leader. I had strong awareness and perception of the things around me. I listened. I took things in," Kerry said in a 50-minute interview. "I was decisive."
If he does say so himself!
Here's the link to the USA Today piece. We'll get back to it, but first this insight on the end of Kerry's Vietnam tour from one of his fellow officers, quoted in Insight:
Of the 138 servicemen and officers in Kerry's unit who received Purple Hearts during the time he was there, records indicate only two received more than two. These were Lt.(jg) Jim Galvin and a boatswain's mate named Stevens. When Insight reached Galvin he said all three of his Purple Hearts were the result of shrapnel or glass shards. Such minor injuries were common on PCF boats with their glass windows and thin metal hulls, and, like Kerry's, Galvin's injuries were not serious enough to take him out of combat for more than a few days.
Unlike Kerry, Galvin elected to stay with his men. Indeed, though a professional Navy officer, he never had heard of instruction 1300.39. It was not until early April of 1969, when Galvin noticed that Kerry was preparing to leave the officers' barracks at An Thoi that he learned about "three Purple Hearts and you're out." According to Galvin, it was Kerry who told him, "There's a rule that gets you out of here and I'm getting out. You ought to do the same." Galvin remembers, "He seemed to take care of everything pretty quickly," because that was the last time Galvin saw Kerry in Vietnam.
The three-times wounded Galvin stayed with his men, transferred to Cam Ranh Bay to get them a respite from the dicey Mekong Delta, and eventually left the swiftboats for destroyer school.
Insight contacted many men who served in Coastal Division at the same time Kerry did to ask if any of them had heard of anyone leaving the combat zone by invoking three minor wounds. Of the 12 who replied, none had heard of anyone doing so but John Kerry."
No one ever has. No other American officer in history has done so. I'll offer a ten dollar reward to anyone who can prove to me that they were an American officer who abandoned their troops in time of war. (Being carried away on a stretcher or relieved for cause doesn't count.) Almost anyone who would do so could certainly use ten bucks, I'm sure. There is one exception.
And that one exception went on to do more than anyone to promote the concept of the deranged, murderous Vietnam veteran. He avoided that fate somehow, no doubt thanks to the brevity of his tour of duty.
The final word, from another swift commander quoted in USA Today:
"John was a master at looking out for John," says Larry Thurlow, a fellow boat commander. "John has never been bashful about saying, 'Man, I'm a war hero.' "
I am in the National Guard, and my unit has just been called up to active duty in Iraq.
We had been prepared the past couple of years for a planned rotation in Bosnia, peacekeeping, but a few months ago, the plans changed.
Many of us, older, eligible for retirement, with families or minor health problems, debated with whether we should try to "get out of it" and press for a "red" versus "green" during our readiness processing. Many of us had friendly physicians who asked things like, "do you want to go?" before writing us their evaluation of our health.
And yet what stuck with the vast majority of us, were two things:
1. This is what we had signed up, prepared to do, all through our service, and this was our turn; and
2. We couldn't live with ourselves if our fellow soldiers went into harm's way and we didn't.
Based on Kerry's rush from combat, these weren't his concerns.