Records Contradict Swifty Charges

Records Counter a Critic of Kerry (Michael Dobbs, WaPo)
Military records counter a Kerry critic (MSNBC)

Newly obtained military records of one of Sen. John F. Kerry’s most vocal critics, who has accused the Democratic presidential candidate of lying about his wartime record to win medals, contradict his own version of events. In newspaper interviews and a best-selling book, Larry Thurlow, who commanded a Navy Swift boat alongside Kerry in Vietnam, has strongly disputed Kerry’s claim that the Massachusetts Democrat’s boat came under fire during a mission in Viet Cong-controlled territory on March 13, 1969. Kerry won a Bronze Star for his actions that day. But Thurlow’s military records, portions of which were released yesterday to The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, contain several references to “enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire” directed at “all units” of the five-boat flotilla. Thurlow won his own Bronze Star that day, and the citation praises him for providing assistance to a damaged Swift boat “despite enemy bullets flying about him.”

As one of five Swift boat skippers who led the raid up the Bay Hap River, Thurlow was a direct participant in the disputed events. He is also a leading member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a public advocacy group of Vietnam veterans dismayed by Kerry’s subsequent antiwar activities, which has aired a controversial television advertisement attacking his war record. In interviews and written reminiscences, Kerry has described how his 50-foot patrol boat came under fire from the banks of the Bay Hap after a mine explosion disabled another U.S. patrol boat. According to Kerry and members of his crew, the firing continued as an injured Kerry leaned over the bow of his ship to rescue a Special Forces officer who was blown overboard in a second explosion. Last month, Thurlow swore in an affidavit that Kerry was “not under fire” when he fished Lt. James Rassmann out of the water. He described Kerry’s Bronze Star citation, which says that all units involved came under “small arms and automatic weapons fire,” as “totally fabricated.” “I never heard a shot,” Thurlow said in his affidavit, which was released by Swift Boats Veterans for Truth. The group claims the backing of more than 250 Vietnam veterans, including a majority of Kerry’s fellow boat commanders.

A document recommending Thurlow for the Bronze Star noted that all his actions “took place under constant enemy small arms fire which LTJG THURLOW completely ignored in providing immediate assistance” to the disabled boat and its crew. The citation states that all other units in the flotilla also came under fire. “It’s like a Hollywood presentation here, which wasn’t the case,” Thurlow said last night after being read the full text of his Bronze Star citation. “My personal feeling was always that I got the award for coming to the rescue of the boat that was mined. This casts doubt on anybody’s awards. It is sickening and disgusting.”
Thurlow said he would consider his award “fraudulent” if coming under enemy fire was the basis for it. “I am here to state that we weren’t under fire,” he said. He speculated that Kerry could have been the source of at least some of the language used in the citation.

Interesting and rather bizarre. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the citations for both Thurlow and Kerry’s Bronze Star were somewhat creative. This will presumably shake out over the next few days. Frankly, outside of some substantial and overwhelming evidence of fraud on Kerry’s part, the circumstances of his medals have always struck me as irrelevant. So far as I’m concerned, the Navy awarded him a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with “V” device, three Purple Hearts, and an Honorable Discharge. That’s sufficiently decisive for me, just as George W. Bush’s Honorable Discharge ends for me any concern over his service in the Guard.

Clearly, the Swift Boat Vets are motivated almost entirely by animus over Kerry’s actions once he got home rather than his heroism or lack thereof in Vietnam. They seem to be embellishing their legitimate criticisms on that front with some rather dubious charges on other fronts. In so doing, they’ve lessened the chances that they’ll be taken seriously on the others. (Update: Atrios says much the same thing. What are the odds of that?)

Hat tip to Paul of Wizbang, who is less persuaded by the story. He also finds it interesting that they managed to get a release of Thurlow’s records in a few days but have yet to get Kerry’s full records, which is an interesting point. Glenn Reynolds concurs, noting that WaPo has yet to display a similar degree of journalistic curiousity with respect to the Cambodia flap.

Kevin Drum disagrees, arguing that there really isn’t anything particularly important about the Cambodia story, since it’s essentially a quibble about dates. The problem with that is that Kerry repeatedly told the story, including on the Senate floor, and it’s now clearly untrue. In isolation, I would concur that it’s not that big a deal–Kerry wouldn’t be the first to cross the line between a war story and a fairy tale*–but it’s part of a larger pattern on Kerry’s part of manufacturing stories about the war to bolster the anti-war case. It’s quite likely true that Kerry was never in Cambodia, let alone on Christmas Eve.

Jeff Jarvis and Angry Bear title their posts “Not So Swift,” a rather clever pun.


Update: Jon Henke rounds up reaction from around the blogosphere, plus quite a bit of his own analysis.

Update: Thurlow responds. From my own research–it took 5 minutes–conducted on John Kerry’s website, it’s plain that Kerry and Thurlow’s medals were based on a single piece of paperwork. It’s hardly a surprise that the citations are identical.

*There’s an old joke in Army circles:

Q: Do you know the difference between a “war story” and a “fairy tale”?
A: A fairy tale starts off, “Once upon a time…” A war story starts off, “And this ain’t no shit…”

There are variants, including “And there I was…”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    My own reaction? It strikes me as interesting that the the Times Corp can come up with records for the Swiftees but can’t, within that same timeframe, come up with John Kerry’s records. we’re still just taking Kerry’s word that what he’s released is the whole story.

    As for Thurlow, it sounds to me like a lot of what was going on was recorded creatively.

    And, in both cases, given Kerry’s propensity to lie, it seems based on the record that it becomes a matter of he said/he said, and thus Kerry, whose word we cannot trust, loses.

    Joyner seems to think that the official record of the event should end the discussion, just as Mr. Bush’s honorable discharge should end that discussion. James, there’s a major difference you’re missing, here. Bush didn’t make his military service the central part of his qualifications for the office. Kerry did. That, by it’s nature opens the subject up to serious scrutiny.

    Too bad WaPo doesn’t agree.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Tactically, Bush loses if it’s about Vietnam. Kerry went; he didn’t. Substantively, it’s rather unlikely that the Silver Star was approved simply because Kerry put himself in for it. A Bronze Star, frankly, isn’t that big a deal (I’ve got one myself) and a Purple Heart can either be a huge deal (posthumous, limbs blown off, scarred for life) or relatively minor (“a flesh wound”). It’s not a fight worth getting into unless there is serious reason to believe fraud occured.

    Kerry’s anti-war activities,especially in contrast with his current hero mongering, is certainly fair game under the circumstances. As is his Senate career–which is where I’d focus most of my attention, were I running the Bush campaign.

  3. Matt says:

    I always thought that, “And there I was…”, was followed by, “at twenty thousand feet with nothing between me and the earth but a naked blond….”.

  4. Kang A. Roo says:

    This political rhetoric makes my head spin and me happy that marsupials have not yet been given the right to vote.

  5. McGehee says:

    But you can preside over a trial, Kang.

  6. Attila Girl says:

    Ooh, nice.