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Swift Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry
Copyright © 2004 John E. O'Neill
All right reserved.
THE RELUCTANT WARRIOR
"Kerry arrived in-country with a strong anti-Vietnam War bias and a self-serving determination to build a foundation for his political future."
REAR ADMIRAL ROY HOFFMANN, USN (RETIRED) Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Press Conference Washington, D.C., May 4, 2004
Some people believe that John Kerry's military record from some thirty-five years ago makes no difference as he runs for president in 2004. But Kerry's Vietnam record is important because Kerry himself says that it is important. And as the future commander in chief, it's important to the men and women of our Armed forces, and to our country in its War on Terror. Since 1972, Kerry has run a one-trick campaign for every office he has sought. His relatively short military service has been the basis and constant theme upon which he loudly and without reservation proclaims himself a "war hero." He is willing, if not eager, to contrast his supposed military accomplishments against the military records of his opponents, which he has repeatedly belittled with enthusiasm. Kerry spent more time in the 2004 campaign arrayed in a brown leather flight jacket (which we never wore in the ninety-degree heat of Vietnam) and ina variety of other uniforms at political rallies than he ever spent fighting in Vietnam.
Constantly surrounded by a small cast of veterans, opponent after opponent, issue after issue, Kerry runs on his short record of three combat months (plus one training month) in Vietnam thirty-four years ago. He has placed full-page campaign ads in the New York Times with photos of himself receiving a medal. He has spent nearly $50 million on a particularly fraudulent ad portraying Kerry the infantryman stalking unknown foes through the jungle, followed by two speeches from thirty-four years ago. In the 2004 campaign, Kerry has pursued the war-hero theme with a persistent purpose, repeatedly demeaning the purported nonexperience of his opponents, including his eight opponents in the Democratic primary, Vice President Dick Cheney, and of course, President George W. Bush. In the past, Kerry has consistently used the same theme to attack his political opponents: in 1972 against Roger Durkin during the Democratic primary for the congressional seat in Lowell, Massachusetts; in 1984 against liberal Democrat James Shannon in the Massachusetts senatorial race; in 1990 against Republican businessman James Rappaport during Kerry's senatorial reelection campaign; and in 1996 against Republican challenger and former Massachusetts governor William Weld, whom Kerry narrowly beat in a closely contested senate race. Every campaign since 1972 begins and ends with Kerry the "war hero" boasting about his limited and controversial military record as one of his chief qualifications for office.
Most veterans, even those with real war wounds and long histories of service under enemy fire, would find it bizarre to apply for any job on the basis of their war records. That someone with Kerry's record would do so is even more bizarre.
The Antiwar Recruit
John Kerry has often implied that he volunteered for the military right after college. But Kerry petitioned his draft board for a student deferment. At Yale, Kerry's antiwar political views were well known. He was chairman of the Political Union and used his commencement address in 1966 to criticize the foreign policy of President Lyndon Johnson, especially with regard to Vietnam. When he approached his draft board for permission to study for a year in Paris, the draft board refused and Kerry decided to enlist in the Navy. The Navy or the Coast Guard were considered good choices for reluctant young men who figured they were doomed to be drafted. Sailors could get into combat, but the risk of being assigned combat duty was less likely because North Vietnamese and Viet Cong didn't have battleships, submarines, or aircraft carriers.
The top choice was the Navy Reserves where the duty commitment was shorter and a larger proportion of the period could be served stateside on inactive duty.
John Kerry's service record indicates that on February 18, 1966, he enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves, status "inactive," not in the U.S. Navy. These details are conveniently left out of all pro-Kerry biographies. Douglas Brinkley records that Kerry entered Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island; however, again he fails to note that Kerry was seeking to be an officer of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
The First "Tour of Vietnam"
John Kerry's first year of duty, from June 1967 to June 1968, was spent aboard the USS Gridley, a guided-missile frigate. During this year, Kerry experienced no combat. His assignment on board the Gridley is, however, the basis on which Kerry claims to have served "two tours" in Vietnam. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign describes his service in the following words, which frequently get picked up uncritically by the news media: "After graduating from Yale, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. He served two tours of duty and won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts." A closer examination of his service record, however, shows that the assignment in 1967 was not to Vietnam, but to the Gridley. The guided-missile frigate was in the Pacific and in December 1967 did guard duty for planes operating in the China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin. To say that Kerry was sent to Vietnam in 1967 exaggerates what was actually service on a deep fleet ocean vessel, involving no combat. Indeed, from June 1967 to November 1967, the Gridley operated along the California coast, and on January 2, 1968, the Gridley sailed for Australia and then returned to Long Beach, California on June 8. In other words, the Gridley was in what could be considered a "fighting zone" (still far off the coast of Vietnam) for probably fewer than five weeks while Kerry was aboard; five weeks off the coast of Vietnam could hardly be called a "tour in Vietnam."
Captain James F. Kelly Jr., USN (retired), Kerry's executive officer on the Gridley, remembers Kerry as serious and mature. Kelly even tried to recruit Kerry into a Navy career. His regard for Kerry, however, ended when he learned of the young sailor's antiwar activities. Kelly recently wrote:
While [Kerry] was protesting against the war, many of us were still fighting it. Many of us felt betrayed that one of our own, a decorated hero, would give comfort to the enemy by such actions. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of becoming involved in that war, two presidents-both Democrats-committed the armed forces they commanded to fight it.
And make no mistake; actions by the likes of [Jane] Fonda and Kerry were damaging to our morale, gave aid and comfort to the forces we were fighting, and altered the eventual outcome in a manner less favorable to the United States than if they had kept their mouths shut. The time for antiwar protests is before the war starts.
Like so many military veterans and most of Kerry's later Swift comrades, Captain Kelly, some thirty-five years later, still has no doubt in his mind that John Kerry's "antiwar activities while our troops were still fighting, dying and being tortured in filthy Vietnam prisons were despicable." For this reason, Kelly has refused to support his ex-shipmate in his campaign to become commander in chief of the United States military forces.
The Swift Boat "Volunteer" Mid-November 1968 to March 17, 1969
The Navy first brought Swift Boats to Vietnam in 1966 to control the coast of Vietnam. The high-speed, 50-foot boats were specifically designed to intercept and inspect all offshore traffic. In addition, they carried mortars to provide offshore fire support. Swift Boats had no armor, and relied solely on their speed and firepower. Each boat had a six-man crew, and the boats operated in small divisions around Vietnam. In the early days, Swifts saw infrequent combat, which is apparently why they attracted Kerry.
Kerry volunteered for service on the Swifts and was selected. Given his extreme opposition to the Vietnam War and his view that it was an immoral enterprise, Kerry's action has always puzzled most Swiftees. But according to a Kerry biography written by Boston Globe reporters, Swift Boats were considered safe at the time: "Kerry also believed a swift boat assignment would keep him away from the frontlines of combat." Indeed, Kerry confirms it himself: "At the time, the boats had very little to do with the war," he wrote in his 1986 contribution to The Vietnam Experience: A War Remembered. "They were engaged in coastal patrolling and that's what I thought I was going to be doing. Although I wanted to see for myself what was going on, I didn't really want to get involved in the war."
In late 1968, the Swift Boat mission was redefined to root out the enemy hiding in the difficult terrain of the canals and rivers of the Mekong Delta-much more dangerous service for the unarmored Swift Boats. Kerry's voluntary sojourn off the relatively pleasant coast would end. Later, when he was ordered into real combat, he strenuously objected, according to various Swift officers.
Commander Grant Hibbard, USN (retired), Kerry's first commander in Coastal Division 14, put the point succinctly: "Kerry told everybody that he was going to be president one day-you know, the next JFK from Massachusetts. Maybe he just thought Swift Boats would be a safe PT-109."
William Franke, a Swift Boat veteran from Coastal Division 11, where Kerry would be assigned after his training at Cam Ranh Bay, had similar feelings about Kerry:
Some amongst us further object to what we consider to be Kerry's belligerent disrespect for duty and the military. While in Vietnam, Kerry was an outspoken critic to the point of being characterized by some as a perpetual whiner. He was constantly objecting to the war, stating that the U.S. had no business being there and the missions were not something that military forces should be engaged in. He objected that he had to serve in the canals, repeatedly demanding to be transferred back to the much safer duty of coastal patrol. He objected to the various operations, complaining that they were poorly thought out. He objected to the performance of the officers who were his senior, asserting that these missions were only designed to gain fame and career advancement for them.
On November 17, 1968, Kerry arrived in Vietnam and reported for duty to Coastal Squadron One, Coastal Division 14, at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. Cam Ranh, a French tourist town with a well-protected deep-water harbor and wide, beautiful white beaches, was generally regarded as the safest place in Vietnam. For this reason, American presidents visiting Vietnam would often stay there. Kerry spent one month of his four-month Vietnam tour training in Cam Ranh Bay.
Interestingly, from his very first days in Vietnam, Kerry kept a journal that he showed to no one. One of his first Vietnam entries involves what he called "a cruel little game." In this antiwar entry, Kerry described a fisherman quaking with fear while being interrogated by the division commander and several officers. Kerry wrote that they kept running "their index fingers across their throat." According to Grant Hibbard, the division commander, and other Cam Ranh officers, this entry is a complete lie. The officers involved in this story could not speak Vietnamese, and prisoners were turned over to Vietnamese military authorities for interrogation.
Since the beginning of his tour, Kerry had a habit of wildly exaggerating his experience in his journal and in his accounts of his experience. Cam Ranh was a safe place, and being an officer in training was hardly exciting. In letters home, Kerry invents a nonexistent adventure that he repeats in Tour of Duty. He explains that after a few patrols in rough water at Cam Ranh, officers "come back pissing red and that several people have broken bones." None of the Swiftees from Cam Ranh remember any incident of this kind. Division commander Grant Hibbard brands it a lie, since there were no records or memory of any such incident in the year that Kerry was there.
These exaggerated entries in his journal would serve as the basis of Kerry's Vietnam stories for the next thirty years. The theme of these stories is almost always the same: Kerry portrays himself as a noble war hero who has no choice but to struggle mightily against the many military villains who surrounded him from the top down in the United States Army and Navy.
Kerry has refused to execute Standard Form 180, which would release to the public all his military and medical records. He has not done so despite the demands of more than 250 of his fellow veterans. Kerry has also refused to publicly release his Vietnam journal or the totality of his films and photos from Vietnam. He has allowed a peek at those records only to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, and journalists he considers friendly. Moreover, only a doctor selected by the campaign has been allowed to view Kerry's medical records.
But, as we'll see, there's a lot to discover about Kerry's military service.
Excerpted from Unfit for Command by John E. O'Neill Copyright © 2004 by John E. O'Neill. Excerpted by permission.
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