Veteran retracts criticism of Kerry
WASHINGTON -- A week after Senator John F. Kerry heralded his wartime experience by surrounding himself at the Democratic convention with his Vietnam ''Band of Brothers," a separate group of veterans has launched a television ad campaign and a book that questions the basis for some of Kerry's combat medals.
But yesterday, a key figure in the anti-Kerry campaign, Kerry's former commanding officer, backed off one of the key contentions. Lieutenant Commander George Elliott said in an interview that he had made a ''terrible mistake" in signing an affidavit that suggests Kerry did not deserve the Silver Star -- one of the main allegations in the book. The affidavit was given to The Boston Globe by the anti-Kerry group to justify assertions in their ad and book.
Elliott is quoted as saying that Kerry ''lied about what occurred in Vietnam . . . for example, in connection with his Silver Star, I was never informed that he had simply shot a wounded, fleeing Viet Cong in the back."
The statement refers to an episode in which Kerry killed a Viet Cong soldier who had been carrying a rocket launcher, part of a chain of events that formed the basis of his Silver Star. Over time, some Kerry critics have questioned whether the soldier posed a danger to Kerry's crew. Crew members have said Kerry's actions saved their lives.
Yesterday, reached at his home, Elliott said he regretted signing the affidavit and said he still thinks Kerry deserved the Silver Star.
''I still don't think he shot the guy in the back," Elliott said. ''It was a terrible mistake probably for me to sign the affidavit with those words. I'm the one in trouble here."
Elliott said he was no under personal or political pressure to sign the statement, but he did feel ''time pressure" from those involved in the book. ''That's no excuse," Elliott said. ''I knew it was wrong . . . In a hurry I signed it and faxed it back. That was a mistake."
The affidavit also contradicted earlier statements by Elliott, who came to Boston during Kerry's 1996 Senate campaign to defend Kerry on similar charges, saying that Kerry acted properly and deserved the Silver Star.
The book, ''Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," is to be published next week. Yesterday it reached number one on the bestseller list on Amazon.com, based on advance orders, in part because of publicity about it on the Drudge Report.
The book seeks to undermine one of the central claims of Kerry's campaign -- that his Vietnam War heroism would make him a good commander in chief.
While the Regnery Publishing yesterday declined to release an advance copy of the book, Drudge's website quotes it as saying, ''Elliott indicates that a Silver Star recommendation would not have been made by him had he been aware of the actual facts."
Meanwhile, a television advertising campaign began yesterday featuring many of the anti-Kerry veterans who are quoted in the book, including Elliott. In the ad, Elliott says, ''John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam."
Asked to supply evidence to support that statement, the anti-Kerry group provided a copy of Elliott's affidavit. Elliott said the same affidavit had been used in the production of the book.
It is unclear whether the work contains further justification for the assertion, beyond Elliott's statement.
Kerry won the Silver Star for his action on Feb. 28, 1969, in which he shot a Viet Cong soldier who had been carrying a rocket launcher and running toward a hut. All of Kerry's crewmates who participated and are still living said in interviews last year that the action was necessary and appropriate, and it was Elliott who recommended Kerry for the Silver Star.
In an interview for a seven-part biographical series that appeared in the Globe last year, Kerry said: ''I don't have a second's question" about killing the Viet Cong. ''He was running away with a live B-40, and, I thought, poised to turn around and fire it."
Asked whether that meant that he had shot the guerrilla in the back, Kerry said, ''No, absolutely not," adding that the enemy had been running to a hut for cover, where he could have destroyed Kerry's boat and killed the crew.
The forthcoming book is coauthored by Jerome R. Corsi and John O'Neill, a former Vietnam naval officer who in 1971 debated Kerry on the Dick Cavett show, challenging Kerry's assertion that US atrocities had been widespread in Vietnam. O'Neill met with then-President Richard M. Nixon for an hour before debating Kerry, and his efforts were encouraged by Nixon's aides.
O'Neill could not be reached for comment yesterday. President Bush's campaign denied working with O'Neill on the book or with the producers of the television advertisement.
Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, urged Bush yesterday to disassociate himself from what he called a ''dishonest and dishonorable" attack. In response, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said, ''We have not and we will not question Senator Kerry's service in Vietnam."
The Associated Press reported yesterday that Houston home-builder Bob J. Perry, a major Republican donor, gave at least $100,000 to the organization sponsoring the ad, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The Kerry campaign spokesman, Michael Meehan, said none of those in the ad had served on a boat with Kerry. ''Some of these men defended John Kerry's honor on his military record in 1996 and so they were either lying then or lying now," Meehan said. ''Either way, it is gutter politics."
The book also raises questions about the action of March 13, 1969, for which Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart, according to an advance chapter of the book.
The anti-Kerry group provided three affidavits from veterans on nearby boats questioning aspects of the award.
On that day, Kerry rescued James Rassmann, who went overboard as a result of an explosion. Rassmann appeared by Kerry's side during the Iowa caucus campaign and at last week's Democratic National Convention, telling the story of how Kerry pulled him out of the water while his boat was under fire.
As in the case of the Silver Star, it was Elliott who recommended Kerry for the Bronze Star. According to the recommendation signed by Elliott, a mine exploded under a boat accompanying Kerry's craft.
''Almost simultaneously, another mine detonated close aboard [Kerry's] PCF-94, knocking First Lieutenant Rassman [sic] into the water and wounding Lt. JG Kerry in the right arm."
Elliott then described how Kerry ''managed to pull Lt. Rassman aboard despite the painful wound in his right arm." Elliott concluded that Kerry had been ''calm, professional, and highly courageous in the face of enemy fire."
Elliott, in the interview yesterday, said that based on the affidavits of the veterans on other boats, he now thinks his assessment about the Bronze Star and third Purple Heart may have been based on poor information.
In one affidavit, for example, Van O'Dell, who said he had been in a boat near Kerry on that day, declared that Kerry had ''lied" about what happened on that day and said that Rassmann was not under enemy fire when Kerry pulled him aboard.
Elliott, asked about the contradiction between his recommendation and his new questioning of Kerry's third Purple Heart, responded, ''It makes me look kind of silly, to be perfectly honest."
But he said: ''I simply have no reason for these guys to be lying, and if they are lying in concert, it is one hell of a conspiracy. So, on the basis of all of the information that has come out, I have chosen to believe the other men. I absolutely do not know first hand."
Naval documents said that Kerry ''received shrapnel wounds in left buttocks and contusions on right forearm when a mine detonated close to PCF 94 while engaged in operations on river. Condition and prognosis excellent. Result of hostile action."
Rassmann, reached by telephone yesterday, said he has never had any question that Kerry deserved the Purple Heart. He said there were two separate events: One was earlier in the day, when he and Kerry blew up a rice cache, and the explosion caused some of the rice to hit Kerry, and perhaps some weapon fragments as well. The second involved a mine explosion as Kerry and Rassmann were on patrol. The explosion, Rassmann said, knocked him overboard and threw Kerry against the pilot house, injuring his arm.
Rassmann said that he has always believed that Kerry got the third Purple Heart solely for the injury to his arm as a result of the explosion in the water.
''If he got fragments in the buttocks due to the mine, that is new information to me," Rassmann said.
''I would say there is confusion. Maybe they did lump it together. It was my understanding he got it for the wound being thrown across the pilot house."
Either way, Rassmann said, Kerry deserved the third Purple Heart because such awards are given for injuries incurred in combat, and Kerry's arm injury qualified. He also stood by his recollection that he was under fire when rescued by Kerry.
Those questioning Kerry's medals, Rassmann said, are ''angry about John speaking out against the [Vietnam] war."
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