Several members of SBVT served in the same unit as Kerry, but only one, Stephen Gardner, served on the same boat. A number of Kerry's later SBVT critics claimed to have been present on accompanying Swift Boats, at some of the salient events of Kerry's enemy engagements in Vietnam.
Other SBVT members included two of Kerry's former commanding officers, Grant Hibbard and George Elliott. Hibbard and Elliott have alleged, respectively, that Kerry's first Purple Heart and Silver Star were undeserved. In addition, members of SBVT have questioned the merit of Kerry's other medals and his truthfulness in testimony about the war.
Defenders of John Kerry's service record, including virtually all of his former crewmates, have stated that SBVT's accusations are false.
The criteria for the Purple Heart call for its award for any injury received during combat requiring treatment by a medical officer; the military makes no distinction regarding the severity of the injury. Under military regulations, the Purple Heart is awarded for "friendly fire" wounds in the "heat of battle," so long as the fire is targeted "under full intent of inflicting damage or destroying enemy troops or equipment."
In Douglas Brinkley's book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, Brinkley notes that Purple Hearts were given out frequently:
And according to the Los Angeles Times:
On the night in question, Kerry was not on a Swift boat, but on a 15-foot skimmer. Kerry opened fire on suspected guerrillas on the shore. During this encounter, Kerry suffered a shrapnel wound in the left arm above the elbow. Accounts differ over the crew aboard the skimmer, the source of Kerry's injury - Kerry has stated that he does not know where the shrapnel came from — and several other major details.
James Wasser, who later became Kerry's radarman on PCF 44, was serving as an interpreter on board-and-search missions at the time; on the night of December 2 he was on the Swift boat accompanying the skimmer, interrogating fishermen picked up by the skimmer (Tour of Duty, pp. 156-158).
SBVT's claims about the incident are primarily based on an account by retired Rear Admiral William Schachte, then a Lieutenant. Schachte has stated that he regularly led training missions for recently arrived officers such as Kerry. One tactic described by Schachte was for a Swift boat to tow the skimmer to the target area and wait nearby. The skimmer, manned by three people, "would go in, draw fire and get out immediately." The waiting Swift boats or air support would attack the enemies thus detected. Schachte stated that he had participated in all previous skimmer missions up to and including the night Kerry was injured, although the latter claim could not be substantiated.
In an interview in 2003, Schachte made no mention of being on the skimmer with Kerry that night; in addition, he described the action as a "firefight" and said of Kerry, "He got hit." In August 2004, however, Schachte stated that he was the senior officer on Kerry's skimmer that night, with one enlisted man also on board, that he popped a flare after detecting movement, and opened fire. He stated that there was no return fire, and that Kerry was "nicked" by a fragment from an M-79 grenade launcher he fired himself. Moreover, while Schacte has described Kerry as, at the time, a "rookie [who] would never be put in command" of a skimmer mission , Kerry was actually given command of a Swift boat and crew just three days after the skimmer mission and sent into a combat area
Kerry crewmates Bill Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon dispute Schachte's 2004 account. Zaladonis stated that "Myself, Pat Runyon, and John Kerry, we were the only ones in the skimmer." Runyon added, "Me and Bill aren't the smartest, but we can count to three." They recounted that the skimmer opened fire on suspected guerrillas attempting to evade the patrol, as they ran from sampan boats onto the shore. Both Runyon and Zaladonis believe, but are not completely certain, that the skimmer received return hostile fire; Runyon commented, "It was the scariest night of my life." Runyon also stated that he is "100 percent certain" that no one on the boat fired a grenade launcher. Zaladonis has noted that Schachte went on "a bunch of" other skimmer missions and speculated that Schachte might have inadvertently mixed up his dates.
In an SBVT television ad, Dr. Lewis Letson asserted, "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury," but did not specify the alleged lie; he subsequently gave varied accounts of his purported interaction with Kerry Kerry's medical records list a medic, J. C. Carreon, as the "person administering treatment" for this wound. Dr. Letson's name does not appear on the record, but Letson claimed it was common for medics to sign the paperwork even though Letson would treat the patient. That claim cannot be verified as Carreon died in 1992. In addition, Letson claimed he was given information by way of Kerry's crewmen who accompanied him to the clinic , but neither Zaladonis nor Runyon accompanied Kerry, nor has any crewman who was on the nearby Swift boat supported this claim.
SBVT member Grant Hibbard, who was Kerry's commander at the time, has claimed that Kerry came to him the morning after the incident, after he had been to sick bay, stating that he was eligible for a Purple Heart . No one has claimed to have witnessed this conversation. Hibbard has also claimed that he denied Kerry’s request and does not know how the award eventually came to be granted, although he had initially stated that he acquiesced on the matter of the award The presentation letter for the award was dated February 28, 1969
In addition, Hibbard stated in "Unfit for Command" (Chapter 3) that he had been told that "our units had fired on some VC units running on the beach," which if true would meet the criteria for the Purple Heart.
SBVT also points to the narration of a subsequent event in Tour of Duty (pp. 188-189). Brinkley opens the account of a four-day cruise by stating that "Kerry — who had just turned 25 on December 11, 1968 — was a fine leader of his men". He goes on to quote Kerry's reflections in his notebook: "A cocky feeling of invincibility accompanied us up the Long Tau shipping channel because we hadn't been shot at yet, and Americans at war who haven't been shot at are allowed to be cocky." SBVT argues that this journal entry shows that the December 2 incident could not have involved enemy fire. Others argue that Kerry was referring to ambushes, a common misfortune for Swift boats which Kerry had not yet suffered, or to the crew collectively, as he used the term "we" instead of "I," and most of his crewmembers clearly had been "shot at" before.
Several other witnesses insist that there was hostile fire during the incident. Jim Rassmann, the Special Forces captain Kerry rescued, wrote, "Machine-gun fire erupted from both banks of the river...When I surfaced, all the Swift boats had left, and I was alone taking fire from both banks. To avoid the incoming fire, I repeatedly swam under water." Del Sandusky, the driver on Kerry's boat, PCF-94, stated, "I saw the gun flashes in the jungle, and I saw the bullets skipping across the water." Wayne Langhofer, who manned the machine gun on Don Droz's PCF-43, stated, "There was a lot of firing going on, and it came from both sides of the river." Michael Medeiros, aboard PCF-94, recalled "a massive ambush. There were rockets and light machine gun fire plus small arms." Jim Russell, the Psychological Operations Officer of the unit, who was on PCF-43, wrote "All the time we were taking small arms fire from the beach... Anyone who doesn't think that we were being fired upon must have been on a different river."
Although it is not mentioned in Unfit for Command, Thurlow himself was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions during the same incident. Thurlow's citation includes several phrases indicating hostile fire such as "despite enemy bullets flying about him" and "enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire", and speaks of fire directed at "all units" of the five-boat fleet. Thurlow's medal recommendation, signed by Elliott, used the phrasing "under constant enemy small arms fire." Also unmentioned in "Unfit for Command" was the name Robert Lambert, Thurlow's chief petty officer who was the official eyewitness cited for Thurlow's Bronze Star recommendation, and who won his own Bronze Star for "courage under fire" for pulling Thurlow out of the water. Lambert still insists that the boats were receiving fire from the enemy.
Thurlow claims that his Bronze Star citation (given to him after he had left the military) is in error. He now states that he noticed some errors when he received the citation in 1969 but saw no reason to try to correct the record.
Thurlow and others in SBVT claim that, although it normally would have been Thurlow's responsibility, Kerry wrote the after-action report upon which all the citations were based. However, Thurlow and Lambert's medal citations and the after action report contain considerable detail about the incident which would not have been visible to Kerry given his position across the river at the time, that Kerry could not have known (such as the exact minute Cmdr Elliot, aboard the LST, transmitted the request for helicopter support), or that took place after Kerry had left the scene.
The after-action report is initialed "KJW", who SBVT claims is Kerry. However, Kerry's initials are "JFK", and SBVT cites no reason why Kerry would have included a "W". These same initials "KJW" appear on other reports about events in which Kerry did not participate. A Navy official stated to the New York Times that the initials referred, not to the author of the report, but to the headquarters staffer who received it.
Furthermore, Kerry's base commander, Adrian Lonsdale, stated that according to the precedence he had set out in his operations order, Kerry would be the "only logical candidate" to write the report based on his length of service in Vietnam. . However, records indicate that Kerry actually had the least amount of time in Vietnam of any of the officers there that day (although Droz had arrived at Anthoi somewhat later than Kerry).
In addition, SBVT claimed that the after action report for the incident was sent from the Coast Guard cutter where Kerry had received medical treatment, the USCGC Spencer , but relevant Navy documents indicate that the report was likely transmitted from a ship with a routing indicator that would apply to the LST Washtenaw County (LST-1166), where all nonevacuated officers who had served on the mission were berthed for the night
Finally, beyond the medal citations, all U.S. Navy documents indicate hostile fire during the action. Kerry's boat (PCF-94) even received special recognition from Captain Roy Hoffmann on March 14 in his weekly report to his men; the report's description of hostile fire was not disputed at the time. PCF-94 had major damage that had to be repaired before it could resume patrols. Also, later intelligence reports confirm the presence of hostile forces.
Silver Star Citation - John Kerry indicates that he charged into an ambush, killing an enemy preparing to launch a rocket. In his 1969 performance evaluation, Elliot wrote "In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action, LTJG [Lieutenant Junior Grade] Kerry was unsurpassed. He constantly reviewed tactics and lessons learned in river operations and applied his experience at every opportunity. On one occasion, while in tactical command of a three boat operation his units were taken under fire from ambush. LTJG Kerry rapidly assessed the situation and ordered his units to turn directly into the ambush. This decision resulted in routing the attackers with several KIA [Killed in Action]. LTJG Kerry emerges as the acknowledged leader in his peer group. His bearing and appearance are above reproach."
During Kerry's 1996 Senate re-election campaign, when there was criticism of his Silver Star, Elliott responded: "The fact that he chased armed enemies down is not something to be looked down on." In June 2003, Elliott was quoted as saying the award was "well deserved" and that he had "no regrets or second thoughts at all about that."
During the 2004 campaign, however, Elliott signed two affidavits that criticize the award. The first, in July 2004, stated in part, "When Kerry came back to the United States, he lied about what occurred in Vietnam..." After the release of this first affidavit, Michael Kranish of the Boston Globe quoted Elliott saying, "It was a terrible mistake probably for me to sign the affidavit with those words. I'm the one in trouble here...I knew it was wrong...In a hurry I signed it and faxed it back. That was a mistake." Elliott contended that Kranish had substantially misquoted him, but the Globe stood by its account, calling the disputed quotes "absolutely accurate".
The story prompted Elliott to release a second affidavit, in August 2004, in which he stated, "Had I known the facts, I would not have recommended Kerry for the Silver Star for simply pursuing and dispatching a single wounded, fleeing Viet Cong." The second affidavit made what Elliott called an "immaterial clarification", in that he admitted that he had no personal knowledge of the circumstances of the shooting. Rather, his initial statement that Kerry had been dishonest was based on unspecified sources and a passage contributed by Kranish to a biography of Kerry.
However, although Elliott claims that he was not in possession of the facts of the event, the original citation that Elliott wrote (which is not the citation that appears in "Unfit for Command") incorporates most of the details in the after action report. The report states that Kerry chased and shot a single wounded, fleeing Viet Cong. In addition, it states that the PCFs were filled with troops, that all three boats turned into the first ambush and beached, that the troops conducted the first sweep, and that while Kerry led the first landing party during the second sweep, the other landing parties and troops followed and took out the VC.
Kerry’s crew members who were there that day do not agree with Elliott’s characterization of the event in his 2004 affidavits. They contend that the enemy soldier, although wounded, was still a threat. For example, one of them, Fred Short said, "The guy was getting ready to stand up with a rocket on his shoulder, coming up. And Mr. Kerry took him out ... he would have been about a 30-yard shot. ... [T]here's no way he could miss us." Del Sandusky, Kerry’s second in command, described the consequences to the lightly armored Swift boat: "Charlie would have lit us up like a Roman candle because we're full of fuel, we're full of ammunition." Another witness stated that the VC "had an entry wound at the side of his chest and exit wound at the opposite side of the chest cavity, a wound that was consistent with reports of the man turning to fire a second B-40 rocket."[Gibson interview, Springfield Republican, September 5, 2004]
Another eyewitness, William Rood, now a Chicago Tribune editor, recently gave an account that supports Kerry's version of the events of that day. Rood was commander of PCF-23, which was one of the two Swift boats that accompanied Kerry's PCF-94.
Rood discounted several specific charges made by SBVT about the incident. In his (second-hand) book account, O'Neill implied that Kerry chased down a lone "teenager in a loincloth clutching a grenade launcher which may or may not have been loaded," without coming under enemy fire himself. In contrast, Rood stated that there were multiple attackers, there was heavy hostile fire, and the guerrilla Kerry shot was "a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the Viet Cong usually wore" armed with a "loaded B-40 rocket launcher". Also, O'Neill called Kerry's tactic of charging the beach "stupidity, not courage." Similarly, Hoffman characterized Kerry's actions as reckless and impulsive. However, Rood stated that Kerry's tactic of charging the beach was discussed and mutually agreed with the other Swift boat commanders beforehand. He also notes that, at the time, Hoffman praised all three Swift boat commanders and called the tactics developed "a shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy" and that they "may be the most efficacious method of dealing with small numbers of ambushers." O'Neill responded that Rood's criticism was "extremely unfair" and stated that Rood's account of events is not substantially different from what appeared in his book Unfit for Command, for which Rood had declined an interview. However, despite this protestation, O'Neill's account in the book is in fact substantially different from Rood's and all of the U.S. Navy documentation for the mission and the medals produced in Vietnam at the time. Moreover, contrary to O'Neill's claim, the American eyewitnesses to the second sweep, including SBVT member Larry Clayton Lee, have stated that there were multiple VC at the scene of the second sweep ("Tour of Duty," p.292); ("John F. Kerry, the Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best," p.102); ;
The accounts of Vietnamese witnesses are consistent on several points with Rood's. Ba Thanh, the guerrilla killed while carrying the B-40 rocket launcher, was "big and strong" and in his late 20's. Return fire was also intense, according to Vo Van Tam, who was then a local Viet Cong commander: "I led Ba Thanh's comrades, the whole unit, to fight back. And we ran around the back and fought the Americans from behind. We worked with the city soldiers to fire on the American boats." No Vietnamese witnesses saw how Thanh died or saw him being chased by an American.
No individual who was present that day has disputed Kerry's version of events, nor suggested that he did not earn the Silver Star.
O'Neill states that the Silver Star was awarded after only two days, "with no review" ("Unfit For Command," p. 81). However, the medal was awarded on March 6, six days after the action, and Hoffmann and Lonsdale stated in 1996 that all proper review procedures were followed.
Some critics questioned the reason for the existence of three versions of the Silver Star citation with variations in the wording, the first being signed by Vice-Admiral Zumwalt, as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam, the second being signed by Admiral John Hyland as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and the third being signed by John Lehman, as Secretary of the Navy. In this connection, Mr. Lehman, who served as secretary from 1981 to 1987 , was quoted as saying he had never seen or signed the most recent citation (Kerry citation a 'total mystery' to ex-Navy chief, Thomas Lipscomb, Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 28, 2004). However, in its October 2004 documentation of its investigation of Kerry's medals, the office of the Navy inspector general described the first, longer version as the "COMUSNAVFOR Vietnam version, signed by VADM Zumwalt" and the second version as the "official version, signed by the delegated award authority, ADM Hyland, CINCPACFLT." As to the third version, the report described it as one of several "duplicate citations" that were issued in 1985 after "considerable correspondence indicating efforts over the years to chase down various citations," and stated that the ones under Lehman's name were likely signed by machine. In addition, in October 2004, Rowan Scarborough of the Washington Times reported:
Navy officials say that there is no evidence that Mr. Kerry's Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts were ever rescinded and that there is no evidence of misconduct in his records.
He did receive new medal citations in the mid-1980s. Officials say the Navy receives scores, and perhaps hundreds, of such requests each year from veterans who want a second copy or have lost the originals.
Commenting on the Silver Star issue, Republican Sen. John Warner, who was Under Secretary of the Navy at the time, stated "We did extraordinary, careful checking on that type of medal, a very high one, when it goes through the secretary...I'd stand by the process that awarded that medal, and I think we best acknowledge that his heroism did gain that recognition." Elmo Zumwalt, Commander of the United States Naval Forces in Vietnam at that time, signed Kerry's original Silver Star citation and defended the award in 1996, saying "It is a disgrace to the United States Navy that there's any inference that the [medal] process was anything other than totally honest." Boston Herald, October 28, 1996.
Mr. President, how quickly do we forget? How quickly do we forget? No one wanted to widen the war in Vietnam, We heard that, Let me remind you of what we said during that period of time.
[Kerry then set forth more than a dozen statements of American leaders with respect to the Vietnam war. He concluded the summary with the following:]
Finally, President Nixon, 1970. "In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clear out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border."
Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia.
I have that memory which is seared-seared-in me, that says to me, before we send another generation into harm's way we have a responsibility in the U.S. Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict. Mr. President, good intentions are not enough to keep us out of harm's way.
According to the Boston Globe biography of Kerry, he later recalled that after the Christmas Eve incident, he "began to develop a deep mistrust of U.S. government pronouncements... ." [John F. Kerry, the Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best, p. 84]
In a 1979 article in the Boston Herald, Kerry wrote of being shot at five miles over the Cambodian border on Christmas Eve 1968, stating,
The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real.
At the time, President Lyndon Johnson had denied overt military incursions across the Cambodian border, while covert MACV-SOG Special reconnaissance operations were active and ongoing. Richard Nixon was actually president-elect in December 1968, and he had not yet issued his own denial.
Kerry did not claim to have been sent on a covert mission to Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1968. Rather, he believed at the time he had crossed the border while on a patrol near the border, during which the boats were ambushed and later came under friendly fire from South Vietnamese soldiers.[John F. Kerry, the Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best, p. 84]
No official documentation of any accidental or other incursion by either of Kerry's boats has been discovered. In addition, none of Kerry's crewmates have confirmed ever being sent to Cambodia. One of Kerry's crewmen, SBVT member Steven Gardner , asserted that it was physically impossible to cross the Cambodian border, as it was blocked and patrolled by PBRs (a type of patrol boat) ; however, Kerry's boat was evidently patrolling with PBRs during the mission in question Some crewmembers have, moreover, stated that they may at some point have entered Cambodia without knowing it. James Wasser, who was on PCF-44 on that December mission, while saying that he believed they were "very, very close" to Cambodia, did not recall actually crossing over; he also stated that it was very hard to tell their exact position in the border area. Kerry's own journal entry on this, written the night of the mission, does not specifically say they entered Cambodia. However, it does state that PCF-44 was somewhere "toward Cambodia" to provide cover for two smaller patrol boats, and in sarcasm, that he considered messaging Christmas greetings to his commanders "from the most inland Market Time unit" and that a court martial for the incident "would make sense" In addition, George Elliott noted in Kerry's fitness report that he had been in an ambush during the 24 hour Christmas truce, which began on Christmas Eve
Michael Meehan, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, responded to SBVT's charges with a statement that Kerry was referring to a period when Nixon had been president-elect and before he was inaugurated. Meehan went on to state that Kerry had been "deep in enemy waters" between Vietnam and Cambodia and that his boat came under fire at the Cambodian border. Meehan also said that Kerry did covertly cross over into Cambodia to drop off special operations forces on a later occasion, but that there was no paperwork for such missions and he could not supply dates.
Based on examination of Kerry's journals and logbook, historian Douglas Brinkley placed the covert missions soon after Christmas. In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph, Brinkley stated that Kerry had gone into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions, dropping off U.S. Seals, Green Berets, and CIA operatives. Brinkley added:
He was a ferry master, a drop-off guy, but it was dangerous as hell. Kerry carries a hat he was given by one CIA operative. In a part of his journals which I didn't use he writes about discussions with CIA guys he was dropping off.
In an interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," Kerry corrected his 1979 statement about being "five miles across the border" on Christmas Eve, but reiterated that he was on a patrol at the border at that date and had been sent on a covert mission at a later date
In the book, O'Neill argued that a Swift boat commander would have been "seriously disciplined or court-martialed" for crossing the Cambodian border. Critics point out the inconsistency between this description and O'Neill's own claims documented in a conversation with President Nixon in 1971:
O'Neill: I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water.
Nixon : In a Swift boat?
O'Neill: Yes, sir.
The conservative organization Judicial Watch filed a request for Kerry's records with the Navy under the Freedom of Information Act. The Navy provided Judicial Watch with many of Kerry's service records, including those concerning the medals he received, while withholding his personnel records that were exempt from disclosure under the law (but noting that Kerry's website included documents subject to the exemption).
Kerry was criticized by SBVTand some media entities for not authorizing independent public access to his privacy protected service records. After the election, on May 20, 2005, he did sign a Standard Form 180 allowing full release of all his military service records, including his reserve and discharge records, as well as his medical records, to the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times. Kerry refused a request from the New York Sun to permit the Sun's reporters to inspect the records. The Boston Globe reported that the material largely duplicated what Kerry had released during the campaign, and included no "substantive new material".
Asked why he had declined to sign the release earlier, Kerry responded:
The call for me to sign a 180 form came from the same partisan operatives who were lying about my record on a daily basis on the Web and in the right-wing media. Even though the media was discrediting them, they continued to lie. I felt strongly that we shouldn't kowtow to them and their attempts to drag their lies out.
On September 23,2004, Judicial Watch appealed on the basis that "no specific documentary examples ... were cited or offered as exhibits" in the Navy Inspector General's letter of reply to Judicial Watch. Judicial Watch also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation of the investigation. On October 4,2004 the Navy Inspector General's office responded with documentation of the investigation.
Included within the Navy Inspector General's documentation was a discussion of the duplicate medal citations Kerry had received in 1985: