Formerly Silent Vet-Journalist Supports Kerry

William Rood, a veteran reporter for the Chicago Tribune who has refused to speak or write about his experiences as a Swift boat officer in Vietnam for decades, has had enough of the allegations flying back and forth and decided to break his silence. His piece, “Anti-Kerry vets not there that day,” is getting quite a bit of attention from the left side of the blogosphere today.

There were three swift boats on the river that day in Vietnam more than 35 years ago—three officers and 15 crew members. Only two of those officers remain to talk about what happened on February 28, 1969. One is John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate who won a Silver Star for what happened on that date. I am the other.

For years, no one asked about those events. But now they are the focus of skirmishing in a presidential election with a group of swift boat veterans and others contending that Kerry didn’t deserve the Silver Star for what he did on that day, or the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded for other actions.

Many of us wanted to put it all behind us—the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry’s service—even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work. But Kerry’s critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they’re not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It’s gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there. Even though Kerry’s own crew members have backed him, the attacks have continued, and in recent days Kerry has called me and others who were with him in those days, asking that we go public with our accounts.

I can’t pretend those calls had no effect on me, but that is not why I am writing this. What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did. My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it. I was part of the operation that led to Kerry’s Silver Star. I have no firsthand knowledge of the events that resulted in his winning the Purple Hearts or the Bronze Star.

He then recounts a version of what happened that corresponds with Kerry’s version of events and the write-up for the Silver Star itself.

This piece is joined by a companion article, Swift boat skipper: Kerry critics wrong, reporting on the previous article as a news event.

Obviously, this account helps Kerry. It’s true that Rood admits he didn’t see many of the events in question–that’s just the nature of such operations–and he’s relying on Kerry’s contemporaneous account for some of them. He nonetheless paints a very flattering picture of the young Kerry, as a man who kept his cool in a very harrowing situaton and who had an innovative sense of riverine tactics.

Rood also dismisses the allegation which prompted me to call the Swifties “nuts” the day the story broke on Drudge:

It happened again, another ambush. And again, Kerry ordered the turn maneuver, and again it worked. As we headed for the riverbank, I remember seeing a loaded B-40 launcher pointed at the boats. It wasn’t fired as two men jumped up from their spider holes.

We called Droz’s boat up to assist us, and Kerry, followed by one member of his crew, jumped ashore and chased a VC behind a hooch—a thatched hut—maybe 15 yards inland from the ambush site. Some who were there that day recall the man being wounded as he ran. Neither I nor Jerry Leeds, our boat’s leading petty officer with whom I’ve checked my recollection of all these events, recalls that, which is no surprise. Recollections of those who go through experiences like that frequently differ. With our troops involved in the sweep of the first ambush site, Richard Lamberson, a member of my crew, and I also went ashore to search the area. I was checking out the inside of the hooch when I heard gunfire nearby.

Not long after that, Kerry returned, reporting that he had killed the man he chased behind the hooch. He also had picked up a loaded B-40 rocket launcher, which we took back to our base in An Thoi after the operation. John O’Neill, author of a highly critical account of Kerry’s Vietnam service, describes the man Kerry chased as a “teenager” in a “loincloth.” I have no idea how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was, but both Leeds and I recall that he was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore.

The man Kerry chased was not the “lone” attacker at that site, as O’Neill suggests. There were others who fled. There was also firing from the tree line well behind the spider holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well. It was not the work of just one attacker.

I suppose different people could recall this differently. Frankly, if the guy is shooting at you, asking to see some ID is unlikely to be one’s first priority.

I disagree with those, like Atrios, who argue that Rood’s account is despositive. I do concur with Kevin Drum, though, that the evidence continues to mount that Kerry’s medals were earned. I don’t believe that the Swifties made their charges up out of whole cloth. I imagine there were all manner of rumors at the time and the fact that Kerry was apparently reenacting events for a film crew, toting a typewriter around in a combat zone to keep his memoirs, and that he got out of theater in short order after relatively minor wounds quite likely fueled the rumor mill.

Obviously, though, the main thing motivating these folks is their ire at things Kerry did once he got back home. They would have been far better off focusing their energies there than dredging up 35-year-old battles to which there are few living witnesses and for which memories are necessarily clouded by the desire to forget or years of embellishment.

Update (1941): Beldar, who has apparently actually read Unfit for Command, observes

Mr. Rood’s memoir . . .deserves a respectful and careful reading from anyone interested in the SwiftVets vs. Kerry controversy. It provides context and some credible opinions that are unquestionably favorable to Sen. Kerry. But neither it, nor the companion news article by Rood’s Chicago Tribune colleague Tim Jones, directly contradicts the SwiftVets’ principle allegations of fact. To the contrary, for those who’ve paid close attention to what the SwiftVets have actually alleged, Mr. Rood’s new memoir actually supports their main contentions regarding Kerry’s fitness for the Silver Star, because they show that Kerry was not charging alone, through overwhelming enemy fire, into a dense concentration of the enemy when he hopped off PCF-94 that day.

A fair point. As I’ve stated a half dozen times, I don’t think the Swifties profit from challenging Kerry on his medals–the postwar activities are far more important. Still, anything that undermines their credibility takes away from that argument.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. This is a losing argument for the President — but no one said this more eloquently than Ken Layne:

    The God of War, Death & Madness

    Over the course of our Election Discussions last weekend, I warned Blair that the Democrats may be reaching a near-Republican level of cultism — and that means trouble for Tim’s beloved Bush.

    “And you guys, you formerly cynical guys who now worship the incompetent Bush simply because you were told to do so, you’re only making it easier for the Kerry people to win.”

    Blair, too drunk to follow the entire convoluted sentence, caught on at the end and whimpered, “How so?”

    “Look at you people with this Vietnam boat nonsense. Every day, you’re pounding home the fact that Kerry fought in Vietnam. You jackasses started this stuff so early — with the “Oh he protested the war” and the Jane Fonda photoshops — that the Kerry people turned the whole Democratic convention into a celebration of the Vietnam War. Nobody even remembers being against Vietnam anymore. The next Vietnam movie will be a buddy comedy starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and all they’re going to do is kill Charlie and win medals and dance with beautiful girls. It’ll make $300 million on the opening weekend. They’re going to tear down that bummer memorial in Washington and put up a 1,000-foot statue of a smiling American soldier proudly standing on a stack of golden skulls. You morons have made Vietnam the Democrats’ favorite memory and greatest victory. Then you scream hooray when a gang of addled old Nixon bagmen show up in a teevee commercial to bitch about Kerry fighting in Vietnam , and once again the normal people with lives only remember, again, that Kerry fought in Vietnam and Bush didn’t.”

    “But,” Tim sputtered, “Kerry clearly claimed he was in Cambodia several days before he was in Cambodia. It was seared–”

    “Stop that,” I said, poking his neck with the corkscrew worm. “Listen to yourself. What are you doing, again? That’s right, you’re reminding people that the other guy fought in Vietnam. Have you become so brain dead that you think this helps your girly boy Bush? Do you honestly believe the coward boy can beat the War Monster?”

    Blair tried to shake the confusion from his head. Then his eyes brightened for a moment and he said, “Four months! Kerry was only in Vietnam for four months!”

    “See? You did it again. You people can’t stop reminding everybody that Kerry was in Vietnam, taking lives like your boy eats cookies. Killing people, saving people, holding Life & Death in his hands like a savage gift. He kills the Viet Cong or anybody else he chooses, he saves a U.S. sailor who fell out of the boat, he walks the halls of the Senate deciding who he’ll kill or who he’ll save (http://timblair.spleenville.com/). In Vietnam, Kerry is a death’s head of gruesome power, while your Bush hides in Alabama, a scared little girl. And what did little Bush do in Texas?”
    continues here: http://kenlayne.com/2004/08/god-of-war-death-madness.html

  2. McGehee says:

    Riiiiiiiiiight, Barry.

  3. vnjagvet says:

    The only thing wrong with Barry’s post is that it ignores a significant percentage of veterans’ deep-seated antipathy to Kerry’s post Vietnam activities while he was still a commissioned reserve officer.

    The second SwiftVETS ad captures that in one dramatic minute.

    A perusal of the discussion threads on Roger Simon’s blog captures this reaction in great detail. These are not right wing extremists. Attacking them for those feelings will be counterproductive.

    The medal flap was an introduction. Cambodia a clear case of exaggeration if not misrepresentation. The Senate testimony and Winter Soldier activities while a commissioned officer is the last straw.

    This will not go away IMO. And Bush will stay as far away from it as possible. For the SwiftVets, it ain’t political, it’s “business” (in the Godfather sense).

    Bush can’t stop them if he wants to. I know. I am advising one of them (an Annapolis grad, successful entrepreneur who has voted for as many democratic presidential candidates as republican). BTW, I am a Vietnam vet (JAG 1967-68 IFFV) and have actively supported Sam Nunn, Jimmy Carter (twice), Zell Miller, Wyche Fowler, Max Cleland and most recently Congresswoman Denise Majette all mainstream democrats.

    This is not going away.

  4. Beldar says:

    Actually, I’m still waiting for my copy (might have come to my office address today, dunno). But I appreciate the link, and as always, enjoy your thoughtful analysis, Dr. Joyner.

  5. Dave says:

    GWB/Karl Rove could stop them with 1 phone call if they wanted. The emperor rules with an iron fist to the party faithful (either your with me or against me).

    Dave

  6. James Joyner says:

    Dave: That’s likely not true. Oneil has said repeatedly that they’re going to proceed regardless of what the GOP wants. More importantly, though, any formal communication would almost certainly be illegal coordination under McCain-Feingold.

  7. ed says:

    Hmmmm.

    1. The Vietnam War, and how it was treated by the mainstream press and anti-war activists, has been a festering wound for decades. It has always needed to be thrashed out and now it will be. Not only will this NOT go away, the intensity and temper will only increase. I fully expect further participation by more Vietnam veterans as the discussion blooms. Additionally this remains the absolute last time that Vietnam is going to be relevant. After this the book on Vietnam will be considered by all to be closed. This is the last opportunity for Vietnam veterans to make their case.

    Expect protest marches by Vietnam veterans prior to Nov. This will get very very very ugly. Many of the Vietnam War anti-war activists are in the DNC and certainly the most visible ones.

    2. ” GWB/Karl Rove could stop them with 1 phone call if they wanted.”

    Obviously you don’t know anything about McCain/Feingold. M-F, an interesting and highly appropriate abbreviation IMHO, precludes coordination by any campaign and any 527 group. If the President or any member of the Bush campaign actually ordered the SwiftVets to stop running ads, and they complied, then that would PROVE coordination and result in FEC sanctions.

    I.e. the reason why Kerry is demanding that the Bush campaign stop the SwiftVets ads is because they know it would be illegal for the Bush campaign to do so.

    3. “Oneil has said repeatedly that they’re going to proceed regardless of what the GOP wants.”

    I agree. I think this is the last hurrah for Vietnam veterans and nothing is going to stand in their way.

    4. ” Actually, I’m still waiting for my copy (might have come to my office address today, dunno).”

    I got my copy and read it several times. From the perspective of a former USMC infantryman, from the 1980’s not the Vietnam era, I can say with perfect honesty that Kerry came off as cowardly undisciplined backstabbing suckup. Since the Kerry campaign has still not refuted those allegations and instead has concentrated on attacking the reputations of the SwiftVets, I’m tending to consider that their allegations might be completely true.

    5. ” The medal flap was an introduction. Cambodia a clear case of exaggeration if not misrepresentation.”

    Actually it seems that Kerry, in more than 50 occasions, has used that story to puff up his resume for election purposes or has used it as the rhetorical equivalent of a sledgehammer. The speech on the Senate floor in 1986 is a prime example of the latter.

    6. ” This is a losing argument for the President—but no one said this more eloquently than Ken Layne:”

    To yet another person who feels they have to include vast amounts of text rather than simply linking:

    Don’t waste my time.

  8. Sigivald says:

    Dave: They could? Maybe. Reall,y what James said.

    And, of course, that would be ILLEGAL.
    And you’d have a fit about that, wouldn’t you?

    See McCain-Feingold bill, Sec. 205 (a)(1)(c)(ix).