Although they have been largely discredited by several national news organizations, the recent attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have evoked strong feelings from local veterans, who remain divided on the attacks’ appropriateness as well as Kerry’s anti-war activism upon his return from Vietnam.
Reaction to the campaign, including television ads and a book, falls along partisan lines. Some of those who support Kerry were quick to contrast the Democratic nominee’s military service with that of President Bush, who served with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
Philippe Heroux, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force, called the attacks on Kerry’s record “disgusting” in light of unanswered questions about Bush’s service.
“I do find it remarkable that somebody who can’t even prove that he showed up for his own meetings finds the temerity to challenge a combat veteran’s credentials,” Heroux said. “I admire Kerry’s restraint on the one level for not slapping Bush for the obvious lack of commitment. But I really wish he would, because otherwise I’d be amazingly disappointed if he went down just because Bush had such a lack of honor.”
Although he was not prepared to address the merits of the swift-boat veterans’ claims, retired Col. Ernie Lee, a veteran of the Army National Guard and the Boone County coordinator of the Bush-Cheney campaign, suggested Kerry has brought the attacks upon himself by highlighting his military record during the presidential campaign.
“The swift-boat veterans have the same rights of the First Amendment that John Kerry does when he stands before the (Democratic National Convention) and says ‘I’m reporting for duty,’ ” Lee said. “When he said that, he made his military record an open record. The First Amendment works both ways.”
Lee also defended Bush’s service.
“George Bush showed up; he flew a fighter jet,” he said. “You don’t strap your butt in a fighter jet and escape through training. And, by God, he got a commission and passed the flight test. Flying an F-17, if that’s what he flew, is a lot more complicated than driving a boat.”
But retired serviceman John Betz, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, accused Bush of employing family connections in order to avoid combat service in Vietnam. Kerry, who requested a tour of duty in Vietnam, patrolled the Mekong Delta in a swift boat, earning three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his service.
“This other rich white boy talked to his daddy, and his daddy in some way pulled some strings and got him on the top of a very long list of white-collar children,” Betz said of Bush. “And he got himself in a place in the National Guard.”
Betz also pointed out that Navy records, as well as the recollections of many who served alongside Kerry in Vietnam, support the Democratic nominee’s account of events
“It is just despicable because it is nonsense,” Betz said. “As someone who has been in combat, I know what these men say, and I know what the official record says, and I know that the official records pretty much support what the men in (Kerry’s) unit say.”
But Maj. George Parker, a retired veteran of the U.S.Air Force, argued that there could be merit to both sides of the controversy.
“Knowing how medals and awards are prepared administratively, I can understand both sides of the current situation,” Parker said.
Differences of opinion were equally pronounced on Kerry’s anti-war activities following his return from Vietnam — in particular his 1971 testimony to Congress when, based on the accounts of fellow soldiers, Kerry detailed atrocities committed by American combat units during the war.
Kerry’s outspoken opposition to the war was tantamount to betrayal for some local veterans.
While a war is ongoing, Parker said, anti-war comments can be tantamount to “aiding and abetting the enemy.”
“There’s a fine line, and I definitely think (Kerry) crossed it when he said what he said,” Parker said.
Lee agreed and accused Kerry of bringing Vietnam veterans into disrepute with his congressional testimony.
“That’s like saying 95 percent of the United States military are murderers,” he said. “That’s just not the case. Kerry is either a liar or a criminal, and that is just plain and simple.”
But others, such as Betz, who spent a year in central Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service, commended Kerry for saying “what should have been said — this war is wrong, (and) it’s immoral.”