WASHINGTON -- Lieutenant Donald Droz knew more about John F. Kerry's service in Vietnam than most men. By Kerry's side when he earned both the Silver and Bronze Stars, Kerry's fellow swift boat captain and friend spoke often of his admiration for the Yalie he called "a real fine guy."
But Droz, a key witness in the ongoing debate over Kerry's service record, is missing from it, killed in a rocket attack in Vietnam in April 1969 days after Kerry returned home. While Droz cannot defend Kerry, his widow, Judith Droz Keyes, said she feels she must. She said she is confident that her husband would defend both Kerry's record in Vietnam and his antiwar activism.
"John Kerry was a good friend, and a loyal friend to my late husband," she said in a telephone interview from her office in San Francisco. "My husband isn't here to speak, and all I can do is to speak in his name. I don't feel I can remain silent anymore."
Keyes said that by challenging Kerry's record, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of former veterans opposed to Kerry's presidential candidacy, are dishonoring the memory of men such as her husband who fought by Kerry's side. "The suggestion that what Don did or that the award he got was somehow undeserved is crossing a line," she said.
As Kerry's campaign puts his military record into the spotlight, his service -- including the action for which he won the Bronze and Silver Stars -- has been challenged in a new book and advertising campaign by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the book "Unfit for Command," Kerry's former commander George Elliott said he would not have recommended Kerry for the Silver Star "had he been aware of the actual facts," which the book describes as "facing a single, wounded young Viet Cong fleeing in a loincloth."
Last week, William Rood, the third swift boat commander present during the attacks for which Kerry was awarded the Silver Star, released a statement defending the senator and charging that the anti-Kerry group is "armed with stories I know to be untrue." Rood said that he, Kerry, and Droz agreed to turn their boats into an ambush and that Kerry pursued a Viet Cong with a loaded rocket launcher while the crews were under constant fire. Kerry was awarded the Silver Star for the maneuver, while Droz and Rood received Bronze Stars.
Keyes said that Rood's story has encouraged her to add her own voice to Kerry's defense. The 58-year-old San Francisco lawyer said that for more than 35 years, she has known the details of the days Kerry earned his Silver and Bronze Stars.
Droz told the details of the ambush to his wife when she and their infant daughter met him in Hawaii while he was on leave a few weeks later. Keyes said that at that time, her husband also spoke of the March 13 battle in which Kerry earned the Bronze Star for rescuing James Rassmann from the Bai Hap River.
"I remember [Don] talking about the three boats and how all of them had planned to do something that was called for which was their own idea," Keyes said about the events leading to Kerry's winning the Silver Star. "I remember him describing how it had been successful and how proud he was of that."
Droz also alluded to the Silver Star mission in a March 6 letter to his wife: "[We] conducted an operation February 28th which we pulled off rather spectacularly. Anyway, for my part, I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat 'V.' I don't mean to blow my own horn, but I really am pleased with the award, and it is a rather significant medal."
Keyes said her husband admired Kerry, a man he described in a Nov. 25, 1968, letter to her as "Yale '66 and a real fine guy." The feeling was one she grew to share as Kerry visited her home and sent Droz's mother a rubbing of her son's name from the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington.
Keyes said she believes that the attacks on Kerry's service are motivated by veterans' animosity towardhis antiwar activism. She also protested the war, and met with resentment from several men who served with her husband and were reluctant to meet her.
But she said both Kerry's activism and her own have been misunderstood. "John Kerry and I were clear that we were not condemning the people who were fighting the war," she said. "Those who think so weren't hearing what we were saying."
Over the years, the ties between Kerry and the Droz family have grown deeper. The senator appeared in a 2003 documentary that Tracy Droz Tragos, daughter of Keyes and Droz, produced entitled "Be Good, Smile Pretty," the salutation at the end of her father's letter from Vietnam.
"[John Kerry] has been a very important relation to me for some time," said Tragos, who worked as an intern in Kerry's Senate office in the summer of 1989. "He was the only person who had kept in touch with my family."
Several of the 100 swift boat veterans who joined Kerry's at the 2003 screening of Tragos's film are now leading the attacks against him. Others, such as Edward Peck, are in Tragos's film.
Now a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Peck, who knew Kerry in Vietnam but never served on a boat with him, said that his challenge to Kerry's service is not intended to dishonor Droz's own. "No one would mention Don Droz in a bad light," he said. "I thought the world of him."
But Tragos said that the attacks against Kerry have reopened wounds that time, and her film, had begun to heal. "Around this election, I find it really sad and really hard to deal with how polarized things are again," she said. "It dishonors everyone's memory."