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 agoÃ¢€”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 usÃ¢€”the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry’s serviceÃ¢€”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 hoochÃ¢€”a thatched hutÃ¢€”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.