Did Kerry Deserve All Those Medals?

Roundup: Media's Take

Peter Kammerer, in the South China Morning Post (March 16, 2004):

United States Democratic Party presidential contender John Kerry is under increasing pressure to prove his Vietnam war bravery, which has become the centrepiece of his election campaign.

Senator Kerry, the commanding officer of a US naval boat in the Mekong river delta for four months at the height of the war, rarely fails to invoke Vietnam, its legacy or his service record during campaign speeches for November's presidential election. His entourage includes fellow servicemen, who also appear in his election advertising.

Using war service as part of a wider debate on patriotism, the Democrats have questioned why President George W. Bush failed to serve in Vietnam, instead spending the conflict in Texas with the National Guard.

Yet Senator Kerry has resisted repeated calls, particularly from interest groups affiliated with Mr Bush's Republican Party, to release his wartime medical records to prove the circumstances surrounding the honours he received. Among them were three Purple Hearts for being wounded in action and two medals for valour, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.

Internet petitions and postings elsewhere on the Web question how so many awards could have been given for such a short length of service in Vietnam - a third of the usual tour of duty.

Acclaimed historian Douglas Brinkley, the author of the only book about the senator from Massachusetts, Tour Of Duty: John Kerry at the Vietnam War, agreed last week Vietnam veterans were divided in their opinion of the presidential hopeful.

"A lot of veterans love Kerry and a lot dislike him," Dr Brinkley, the director of the Eisenhower Centre for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, said. "People who were in Vietnam in that period have different views of everything."

Those views were widened by the fact that after returning, Senator Kerry joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and became a prominent spokesman for the cause.

Labelled a subversive by the FBI, he used his notoriety from the period to gain public office and a Senate seat in 1985.

Although Senator Kerry gave Dr Brinkley access to his extensive collection of letters, journals and notebooks written during and after the war, he did not let him see his medical records.

"If I have not seen his medical records - I don't think anybody has," the historian said.

"The person has to sign off on them. Kerry himself would have to allow them to be released," Dr Brinkley said.

He sees no significance in the fact that the senator received so many Purple Hearts, explaining that the awards were being given "left and right".

"People who earn medals earn medals," he said. "Some Purple Hearts were awarded for being in a more dangerous zone, but a piece of shrapnel goes into your arm and you get a Purple Heart. A few more inches and it could be an eye or a brain - that's how you get killed. The notion that it's not big enough is a little strange."

His assessment was backed by Vietnam war veteran Robert Kirkwood, who is now a commercial airline pilot.

Mr Kirkwood, in the air force during the conflict but assigned to the army's special forces as a forward air controller, said his section was "stingy with its Purple Hearts".

"Minor cuts and bruises just did not come under consideration," he said from his home in Colorado.

"However, I had an acquaintance at Phan Rang Air Base who was a pilot. He was rolling out from under his bed after a rocket attack and cut his arm on a piece of broken light bulb and went down to get a band-aid and he was given a Purple Heart.

"It really depends on the time and place and who was making those kinds of decisions."

He suggested, though, that Senator Kerry had served in the most dangerous location possible for navy service personnel.

The Mekong delta area was "as close to the front lines as you could get", said Mr Kirkwood, whose awards for the wars he served in include three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five meritorious service medals.

Senator Kerry enlisted in the navy in February 1966, a few months before graduating from Yale University.

In early 1968, he made a brief stop in Vietnam on the frigate USS Bridley during five months of service in the Pacific. Senator Kerry returned to the US for training to command a small boat deployed in Vietnam's rivers known as the Swift. He was promoted to lieutenant by June and at the end of the year was sent back to Vietnam and eventually commanded two Swifts.

Of the men who served at Senator Kerry's side, one of them - Steven Michael Gardner - has become a vocal critic.

He told the Boston Globe in a recent interview that Senator Kerry "absolutely did not want to engage the enemy when I was with him. He wouldn't go in there and search," he alleged. "That is why I have a negative viewpoint of John Kerry."

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Richard K. Hertz - 3/23/2004

All Kerry did was volunteer, fight very bravely, get wounded three times, charge alone at an enemy armed with a rocket launcher, save a Green Beret who fell overboard in the middle of a firefight, and bring back all of his men alive and in one piece. They'll give medals to anyone. Sheesh!

Real heroism is getting Daddy's henchmen to find you a REMF position in the "champagne division" of the Texas Guard, going AWOL for 17 months and lying about it to the present day.