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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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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.

One wonders what the documentary evidence says about all this. Unfortunately, the answer is, Not much. The Kerry campaign hasn't posted any relevant documents on its website. And the Navy Historical Center cannot locate a copy of any after-action report for December 2, 1968. Nor can it locate the card documenting the wound for which Kerry won the Purple Heart. (The Navy archives do confirm Kerry won the award, however.) O'Neill and Corsi write that there is no documentation "because there was no hostile fire, casualty, or action." Another view, of course, would be that there was a clerical error, or a hiccup in the bureaucracy, and nothing more.

WHAT ABOUT the veterans' second charge? In the anti-Kerry Swifties' first commercial, a doctor named Louis Letson says that "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart," because "I treated him for that injury." In fact, it is an open question whether this was the case. Letson says he used tweezers to remove the shrapnel from Kerry's arm a day after the firefight, and then bandaged the wound. And Letson's description matches what we know from the only available piece of documentary evidence--a concise medical report written one day after the firefight. The report, released by the Kerry campaign and obtained by the Boston Globe, reads: "3 DEC 1968 U.S. NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY CAM RANH BAY RVN FPO Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and appl. Bacitracin dressing. Ret to duty." That's it.

Here is Letson's problem. The report is signed "J.C. Carreon." Carreon, it turns out, was an orderly who has since passed away. Letson says he was Carreon's boss, and would let his orderly sign routine medical reports. Still, there is no evidence available which says Letson treated Kerry's wound or even saw Kerry that day in December.

But remember: The central claim the anti-Kerry vets make is that Kerry's wound from December 2 was self-inflicted. In other words, even if Letson had treated Kerry's wound, he still wouldn't be in a position to say whether or not the wound was self-inflicted.

Or would he? Letson told the Los Angeles Times recently that he "learned from some medical corpsmen that other crewmen had confided that there was no exchange of fire and that Kerry had accidentally wounded himself as he fired at the guerillas." In addition, the Times reported, "Letson said he didn't know if the crewmen giving this account were in the boat with Kerry or on other boats." So Letson's claim is based on what other people told him about what still other people told them--others who may or may not have been on the Boston Whaler on December 2, 1968.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Letson is reporting hearsay.

HOWEVER, late last week, there was a new twist in the Purple Heart story. Zaldonis, Runyon, and Kerry all say they were the only three people on the Boston Whaler. But O'Neill and Corsi write in Unfit for Command that a man named William Schachte was also onboard. "Schachte flatly contradicts Kerry's claim to have been wounded by enemy fire," says an article on the Swift Vets' website, "saying that after his M-16 jammed, Kerry picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and fired a grenade that exploded too close to the boat, causing a small piece of shrapnel to stick in the skin of his arm."

Schachte does not appear in any Swift Boat Veterans for Truth literature or advertising. Nor are there any direct quotes from Schachte in Unfit for Command. Nor is he a member of the Swift boat veterans' group, although he supports them. In fact, until last Friday, Schachte, who went on to become a Rear Admiral and is now a lawyer, had made only one public comment on the subject, in an interview last year with the Boston Globe. Kerry's injury that night, Schachte told the Globe, "was not a very serious wound at all." Last year the Globe identified Schachte only as the man "who oversaw the mission." Not as a member of the Boston Whaler crew.

Last week Schachte gave two--and only two--interviews. One was with Robert Novak, who wrote it up for his syndicated column. The other was with NBC's Lisa Myers. In the interviews Schachte repeated the story O'Neill and Corsi wrote in Unfit for Command. But there's a twist. If Schachte's story is to be believed, then either Runyon or Zaldonis were not in the Boston Whaler on December 2, 1968.

Here's Schachte:

The boats were manned by two officers and one enlisted person. Officers because officers were briefed daily. We had daily intelligence briefings seven days a week, with the latest intelligence from the area. Or in the patrolling boat--officers would come back and debrief their area. So, the officers had a good feel for everything that was going on in our area of operation and our sectors.
The enlisted person operated the motor. Now, this was my idea. And I went on each one of these--in command of each one that we did up to and including the night with Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry.

If Schachte is correct, then Zaldonis, the gunner who says he was with Kerry that night, wasn't on the boat.

"You seem to be saying that John Kerry lied then and is lying today," Myers asked Schachte. "That's a very serious charge. What proof do you have?"

And Schachte replied: "The only thing that I can tell you--several things--number one, no after-action report, which would have been required. I was in command of those missions and I was in the boat that night. We always had two officers in the boat that night--in the boat when we did those operations, and an enlisted man on the moter. I saw no muzzle flashes or anything else. Now that's what I saw. And it's not for me to judge what other people are going to think about that. That's up to other people."

But Schachte's logic seems problematic. He suggests that the absence of an after-action report proves his case. And yet, since no after-action report was filed, there is no way to disprove his claims, either. Like a lot of the anti-Kerry Swifties' accusations, this one boils down to a he-said/he-said fight. Except here it is a he-said/three-other-people-said fight. No documentation means the only evidence the Swift boat vets have for the charge that Kerry's wound was self-inflicted is Schacte's story. Indeed, Schachte says there will never be any evidence uncovered that backs his case. He never wrote any.

(On the question of whether there was any enemy fire at the time, however, all parties think it possible there was no such fire.)

MAYBE SOMEONE should tell the Kerry campaign that. Because when discussion turns to how Kerry won his first Purple Heart, campaign surrogates have done little to bolster their candidate's case. They simply reject all the Swift boat vets' claims as "smears." And the senator isn't helping any, either. Kerry refuses to talk about the issue of his Vietnam service with journalists--including even comedian Jon Stewart. He refuses to clear the release of all his military service records. And he refuses to make his war diaries and other materials available to journalists and scholars who aren't named Douglas Brinkley.

Each new question is met with obfuscation. One such tactic is to respond to reporters' inquiries with lessons in metaphysics. The other day Fox News's Major Garrett asked John Hurley, the Kerry campaign's veterans coordinator, about the Purple Heart controversy. Garrett, his hair blow-dried, his suit immaculately pressed, his face wrought with seriousness, looked at Hurley, and said, "Is it possible that Kerry's first Purple Heart was the result of an unintentionally self-inflicted wound?"

And Hurley, squinting, gave his reply:

"Anything's possible," he said.

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.