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Retired rear admiral contends Kerry wound not from enemy fire

WASHINGTON -- William L. Schachte Jr., a retired rear admiral, yesterday said he was on the same small boat as Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry during a 1968 river mission in Vietnam but did not witness any enemy fire during the event for which Kerry received his first Purple Heart.

In response, Kerry and two other men who said they were on the mission stood by their statements that Schachte was not on the boat with them and thus was not in a position to judge the matter. The campaign said Schachte's statement was political, noting that Schachte has previously endorsed President Bush and given money to his campaigns.

Schachte, in a statement sent to the Globe yesterday, said he believed Kerry's wound was not the result of hostile action, and he said he told his commanding officer at the time, Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard, that Kerry did not deserve the Purple Heart ''because there was no hostile fire."

It was the latest attack on Kerry's war record by a string of former swift boat veterans. The Schachte comment is likely to gain notice both because of the high rank that Schachte ultimately achieved and because Schachte had provided a much less specific account of the Dec. 2, 1968, incident in an interview with the Globe last year. During that interview, Schachte did not challenge Kerry's Purple Heart.

Kerry told the Globe last year that Schachte was on the larger swift boat that dropped off the Boston Whaler, also known as a ''skimmer." Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan said Kerry stands by a statement to historian Douglas Brinkley that he is not certain where the shrapnel came from that wounded him.

''They were opening fire upon the enemy, and it is unclear where the shrapnel came from," Meehan said. ''This is another pro-Bush Republican who has changed his version of a story in Vietnam to attack John Kerry and his war record with smears and lies."

Military records made public do not resolve the dispute, and Schachte said he did not write an after-action report because there was no hostile fire.

Nonetheless, Schachte said that at one point during the mission he opened fire at the shoreline when he spotted ''movement" and that Kerry followed suit. But Schachte said there was no return fire.

''I fired a hand-held flare, and upon it bursting and illuminating the surrounding area, I thought I saw movement," Schachte said in his statement. ''I immediately opened fire with my M-60. It jammed after a brief burst. Lieutenant [junior grade] Kerry also opened fire with his M-16 on automatic, firing in the direction of my tracers. His weapon also jammed.

''As I was trying to clear my weapon, I heard the distinctive sound of the M-79 being fired and turned to see Lieutenant (jg) Kerry holding the M-79 from which he had just launched a round. We received no return fire of any kind nor were there any muzzle flashes from the beach."

Hibbard has said that Kerry visited him after the mission and showed him a ''scratch" on his arm. Hibbard said he didn't believe Kerry deserved a Purple Heart; Hibbard didn't know how Kerry later was awarded the honor.

Questions raised by Hibbard about Kerry's first Purple Heart were first reported in ''John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography," written by reporters for the Globe earlier this year. Schachte declined to be interviewed for the book. But in an April 2003 Globe interview, Schachte described the action as a ''firefight" and said of Kerry: ''He got hit." Schachte described it as ''not a very serious wound at all."

In May 2003, when the Globe asked Kerry about the incident, Kerry said Schachte conceived the mission but stayed behind on the larger swift boat, which had towed the skimmer.

''He wasn't with me on the skimmer," Kerry said. ''I went in on the skimmer, not him."

A potential key witness is Michael Voss, who skippered a swift boat that towed a Boston Whaler to a drop-off point at the time of the incident. But he said yesterday that he didn't remember whether Schachte went on the skimmer.

''I am not certain who was on a skimmer on a certain night 36 years ago," said Voss, a Massachusetts resident .

William Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon, the two enlisted men who have said they were with Kerry that night, said in interviews this week that they stood by their statements that Schachte was not with them. ''The only thing I can come up with is he is confused and went on another skimmer operation," said Runyon.

Both Zaladonis and Runyon have said they couldn't say whether there was enemy fire because their vision was obscured by firing from their own boat.

Earlier this year, during the preparation of the Globe's biography, the Kerry campaign was asked repeatedly whether Kerry believes he was hit by enemy fire or whether there was any hostile fire. The Kerry campaign refused to respond. Instead, it provided a medical report showing that shrapnel had been removed from Kerry's arm and a document showing he was awarded the Purple Heart.

Regulations say the Purple Heart can be awarded for a wound sustained ''in any action against an enemy."

In an interview with NBC News, Schachte was asked whether he was a member of ''Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," which has run anti-Kerry ads. ''I admire them, but I'm not a member," Schachte responded. 

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