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SCOT LEHIGH

Making it personal

THE PHOTOGRAPH shows a man sitting hunched on the lawn near the Capitol, his head bowed. Sitting beside him is a woman.

The picture, in "The New Soldier," a book of photographs and essays about the April 1971 antiwar protest in Washington, is of John Kerry.

The woman comforting him is Julia Thorne, Kerry's first wife. The photograph was taken just minutes after veterans tossed their war decorations over a wood-and-wire fence erected to keep protesters off the Capitol steps.

Kerry was overcome with emotion at the time. Both David Thorne, Julia's brother and one of Kerry's best friends, and George Butler, the documentary filmmaker who took the picture, recall him being in tears. He had come to Washington to try to wake America up about the Vietnam War, and he had returned ribbons commemorating war heroism he was proud of to make a statement.

Now, 33 years later, the never-ending medal controversy is back, catapulted into the presidential campaign this week by media reports looking at whether Kerry, in a 1971 interview, claimed or implied that he discarded his medals when in fact what he tossed over the fence were his own ribbons and medals given to him by other veterans.

Now, as even casual observers know, Kerry is prone to hair-splitting. And in this campaign, he has been too quick to accuse the Republican campaign of questioning his patriotism.

Certainly the Bush camp's critique of Kerry's past votes to cut the defense budget doesn't cross that threshold. Nor does the criticism of Kerry's vote against the $87 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the Bush-Cheney critique of Kerry's defense stands is misleading, those are legitimate issues; Kerry needs to make crystal clear what sort of defense budget and which weapons systems he supports.

But in the matter of the medals, the Bush campaign has gotten personal. Karen Hughes, one of the president's closest advisers, was on CNN on Sunday portraying Kerry as an unprincipled pretender of a protester. "The problem," opined Ed Gillespie, the Republican national chairman, on Monday, "is not what John Kerry did or didn't do 30 years ago; it's what he's saying today, which once again turns out to be wrong."

For his part, the presumptive Democratic nominee insists that he used the terms medals and ribbons interchangeably. But for Kerry skeptics, the controversy has long epitomized what some see as an off-putting combination of ambition and opportunism.

What's missing from the campaign controversy is the larger context. Thorne offers that: "John is a genuine war hero. He volunteered to go to Vietnam, and he performed heroically there." Indeed, Kerry has a silver star, a bronze star, and three purple hearts to attest to that.

I've talked to a number of the enlisted men who served under Kerry on the swift boats he commanded. Although they didn't share Kerry's privileged background, most speak well of him. They considered him a leader who genuinely cared about them, a commanding officer who was brave but not reckless with his men's lives. "It took two or three days after he came on board the boat to know we had somebody special," says Jim Wasser, second in command on Kerry's first boat.

Nor have I heard anyone credibly suggest that Kerry wasn't a legitimate hero. Certainly James Rassmann thinks he was. He's the Green Beret a wounded Kerry plucked from the Bai Hap River in March of 1969. Del Sandusky, Kerry's number two at the time, says the rescue took place during "an intense firefight."

"Rassmann was bobbing up and down every 30 seconds," Sandusky says. The Viet Cong "would shoot at him and he would go back down and swim under water." Kerry, who had taken shrapnel in his left buttock and was suffering from a bruised right arm, directed Sandusky to steer the craft back to Rassmann, who grabbed a cargo net hanging from the bow.

"Rassmann couldn't pull himelf up -- he was too heavy, loaded with water and the flak vest -- so Kerry lay down on the deck and pulled him up," Sandusky says. "This is in the middle of a firefight. . . . He saved Rassmann's life."

That is the context that's missing -- and that demands consideration as the Republican campaign tries to paint John Kerry as a shifty, irresolute politician who simply can't be counted on in tough times.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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