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The Color Purple

The continuing story of John Kerry, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and Vietnam.

8:45 PM, Aug 31, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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New York

LET'S SEE WHERE WE STAND. Over the last few weeks, in television ads and a book titled Unfit for Command, a group of Vietnam veterans called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has accused a fellow Vietnam veteran, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, of inflating his service record, among other things. They've said Kerry committed war crimes, including killing defenseless civilians, and they've said Kerry didn't truly deserve the three Purple Hearts, one Silver Star, and one Bronze Star he received for his service in Vietnam. They've said there is no proof that Kerry was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968, and the Kerry campaign was forced to concede that, well, they might be right. But the anti-Kerry veterans have also said there was no enemy fire on March 13, 1969, when Lt. (j.g.) Kerry pulled Green Beret Jim Rassmann from the murky waters of the Bay Hap river, and so far the documentary evidence--damage reports, three separate Bronze Star citations, the testimony of Rassmann and Kerry's crewmates on PCF-94--suggests that, well, the anti-Kerry Swifties are probably wrong on this charge.

At some point, however, perhaps during the cable talk show commercials, perhaps in the interstices between blog posts, the debate over Kerry's war record transformed into a debate over whether President Bush should denounce the debate over Kerry's war record. And this was when, it seemed, the various factual claims the anti-Kerry Swifties made against the Massachusetts senator fell to the wayside, where, dismissed and forlorn, news outlets pronounced that they were wholly "unsubstantiated."

Take, for example, the claim that Kerry earned his first Purple Heart disingenuously, from a self-inflicted wound in a noncombat situation, "befitting," as John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi write in Unfit for Command, "the lowest levels of military conduct." Except for a few newspaper articles and the dark mumblings of some right-wing bloggers, the matter has been left unexamined, remaindered during the Republican National Convention this week.

WHICH IS TOO BAD FOR KERRY, actually. The available evidence in the Purple Heart case seems to support his story. More or less.

Watch the first Swift Boat advertisement, and you are told Kerry "is lying" about his first Purple Heart. The lie, according to the anti-Kerry veterans, involves how Kerry was injured. For the last thirty years, Kerry has said he earned his Purple Heart during a firefight on December 2, 1968, in which a piece of shrapnel burrowed into his arm. Not so, write O'Neill and Corsi. Not so because, they write, that night in December, Kerry "picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and fired a grenade too close, causing a tiny piece of shrapnel (one or two centimeters) to barely stick in his arm." What's more, the anti-Kerry vets say there was no enemy fire that night. And a Purple Heart earned when there was no enemy fire is a Purple Heart earned under false pretense.

There are two separate charges here, then: First, that there was no enemy fire on December 2, 1968, and, second, that Kerry's wound that night was self-inflicted, caused by a wayward grenade. We'll examine each.

The first charge is the hardest to dismiss. That's because, as this goes to print, no one has stepped forward and said that there was enemy fire that night. According to Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty, there were two other men on Kerry's "Boston Whaler" boat on December 2, 1968: William Zaldonis, the gunner, and Patrick Runyan, the engineman. "If they were firing at us," Zaldonis told the Boston Globe last year, "it was hard for me to tell." Runyan was equally uncertain. "I can't say for sure that we got return fire or how [Kerry] got nicked," he told the Globe. "I couldn't say one way or another." A few weeks ago, Runyon, who is 58 and a factory worker in Trotwood, Ohio, gave an interview to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It did not clear things up. Runyon said only that "shooting broke out" when Kerry lit a flare to investigate some sampans floating in the river past curfew. What he didn't say was whether the "shooting" came from the sampans as well as the Boston Whaler.

However, when Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist, contacted Runyon and Zaldonis this month, both "did not know whether there was enemy fire and did not know how Kerry was wounded." For his part, Kerry told Douglas Brinkley that he "never saw where the piece of shrapnel had come from." And the Kerry campaign is equally uncertain. "Because of the open fire occurring at that moment, it's impossible to know what direction the shrapnel came from," a Kerry campaign spokesman named Chad Clanton said last week.