Gene Thorson, a swift boat crewmate of Senator John Kerry’s during the Vietnam War, delivered a deeply personal account of what he called John Kerry’s “outstanding instincts and leadership skills under fire” at a press conference Sunday sponsored by the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Other local military veterans joined him in front of a crowd of approximately 50 people to deliver a scathing indictment of the Bush administra-tion for its handling of veterans’ affairs and for the recent attack ads by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
“We have to come out here and explain what goes on because the other side has to dirty the street and politics are dirty, I agree, and you don’t have to do this to a fellow veteran,” said Thorson, who served with Kerry in the Mekong Delta from February to April of 1969, when Kerry was awarded a bronze star, a silver star, and two of his purple hearts. “[Kerry] does his service and now he’s getting slapped for doing his service.”
Thorson, of Ames, Iowa, also questioned the credibility of other swift boat veterans who recently unleashed a spate of attack ads and published a book accusing Kerry of dishonesty in recounting his military experience.
“You’re going to have to decide for yourself which story you want to believe,” declared Thorson. “You want to believe them or me who was with him on that same boat?”
Retired Col. Ernie Lee, a veteran of the Army National Guard and the Boone County coordinator of the Bush-Cheney campaign, emphasized that the Bush-Cheney campaign was not behind the recent advertisements, and defended the right of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to discuss their version of events.
“The Bush Cheney campaign is not a part of the swift boat issue at all, but [the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth] have a right to the first amend-ment,” he said.
Don Johnson, a retired American history school teacher and military veteran, delivered a brief opening statement in which he also condemned the attack ads. He went on to express his hope that veterans of the Iraq conflict will not be smeared in a similar fashion.
“I also wonder if sometime in the future, one of these courageous young men or women might run for president, and like John Kerry be slan-dered,” he said. “We should all speak up now to prevent this kind of politics from becoming acceptable.”
Marilyn Young, a hospital corpsman for the Navy during the Vietnam era, spoke on what she called “the further insult that George Bush might add to injury for our veterans.”
She denounced a recent budget cut for veterans’ services which she argued “drastically reduces the number of workers handling veterans’ claims,” and also voiced concerns about additional strains on an already-overworked system caused by injured troops returning home from Iraq.
“A lot of veterans that are new to the VA system are waiting many months for their first appointment,” she said. “They are sick, they are in-jured, they suffer, they should not have to wait this long.”
Lee called the allegation of budget cuts in veterans’ services under the Bush administration an “abject lie.”
“The bush administration has increased veterans’ spending,” he said. “It’s a pure abject lie, you go to the VA system and their last budget, and it will show you the increases in VA spending.”
The audience, composed entirely of Kerry supporters, included a considerable number of veterans who were equally livid in their reactions to attack ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Randy Barnes, the state coordinator for Veterans for Kerry and a former combat medic with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam, accused the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth of “knowingly lying about a decorated war hero,” and also defended John Kerry’s 1971 congressional testimony alleging American atrocities in Vietnam.
“I will tell you, having served in combat myself, anybody who was ever in any serious combat who says they never ever saw any atrocities ei-ther wasn’t there or is lying,” he said.