ON THE WAY to the fence where he threw some of his military decorations 33 years ago, I was 4 or 5 feet behind John Kerry.
As he neared the spot from which members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War were parting with a few of the trappings of their difficult past to help them face their future more squarely, I watched Kerry reach with his right hand into the breast pocket of his fatigue shirt. The hand emerged with several of the ribbons that most of the vets had been wearing that unique week of protest, much as they are worn on a uniform blouse.
There couldn't have been all that many decorations in his hand -- six or seven -- because he made a closed fist around his collection with ease as he waited his turn. I recall him getting stopped by one or two wounded vets in wheelchairs, clearly worried that they wouldn't be able to get their stuff over the looming fence, who gave him a few more decorations. Kerry says he doesn't remember this.
It is true that Kerry was one of the veterans group's "leaders," but in this eclectic, aggressively individualistic collection of people who had been through a pointless war, there were no privileges of rank. Kerry was in the middle of a line of perhaps 1,000 guys -- only a third or even less of the total who had assembled on the Washington Mall that astonishing week.
At the spot where the men were symbolically letting go of their participation in the war, the authorities had erected a wood and wire fence that prevented them from getting close to the front of the US Capitol, and Kerry paused for several seconds. We had been talking for days -- about the war, politics, the veterans' demonstration -- but I could tell Kerry was upset to the point of anguish, and I decided to leave him be; his head was down as he approached the fence quietly.
In a voice I doubt I would have heard had I not been so close to him, Kerry said, as I recall vividly, "There is no violent reason for this; I'm doing this for peace and justice and to try to help this country wake up once and for all."
With that, he didn't really throw his handful toward the statue of John Marshall, America's first chief justice. Nor did he drop the decorations. He sort of lobbed them, and then walked off the stage.
Some people have written secondhand accounts of that day stating that Kerry at that moment also threw "medals" that had been given to him by a couple of vets who were not there. I remember Kerry doing that later in the day after the event had broken up. He was in the company, for part of that time, of a small group of Gold Star Mothers (who had lost sons in the war). In addition to the events involving the military decorations, the veterans also held a tree-planting ceremony near the Capitol and attended congressional hearings on civilian casualties of the conflict.
From what I could observe firsthand about Friday, April 23, 1971, Kerry did not make even the slightest effort to pretend that he was throwing all of his military decorations over that fence. He did what he did in plain view, and in my case in the view of someone close enough to kick him in the shins.
It was clear to me that Kerry had arrived here with only the ribbons he wore on his shirt -- which, by the way, were referred to as "medals" by the late Stuart Symington of Missouri, one of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee members present for his famous antiwar statement.
While the idea of turning back decorations had been talked about prior to that week, there was no clear plan when the veterans arrived. The night before, the men had had a long, loud argument about whether to throw their stuff or simply place it on a long table in front of the Capitol. I watched Kerry argue for the less dramatic approach and lose.
It was clear from our conversations back then and ever since that Kerry made no distinction among his various decorations, though others have. Some in the military don't either. I remember once asking my father (who was awarded a Bronze Star in the Pacific during World War II), what he called the ribbon and lapel ornament he received in addition to the star; he said they were all the Bronze Star.
I have always found the political junk served up by Kerry's detractors to be undignified as well as largely inaccurate.
I write now because the political junk is much higher profile now, though no less misleading -- and not, by the way, because in her fourth job in the public arena, my daughter just joined Kerry's staff. I just happened to be there that long-ago day. I saw what happened and heard what Kerry said and know what he meant. The truth happens to be with him.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.