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Kerry's commanders speak out against him

Staff says assault is tied to GOP

WASHINGTON -- A group of former officers who commanded John F. Kerry in Vietnam more than three decades ago declared yesterday that they oppose his candidacy for president, challenged him to release more of his military and medical records, and said Kerry should be denied the White House because of his 1971 allegations that some superiors had committed ''war crimes."

Kerry has since said his accusation about war crimes and atrocities was too harsh, but many of his former commanders contended yesterday that they believed the allegations were aimed at them.

''I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be commander in chief," said retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who helped organize the news conference and oversaw all of the swift boats in Vietnam at the time Kerry commanded one of those crafts. ''This is not a political issue; it is a matter of his judgment, truthfulness, reliability, loyalty, and trust -- all absolute tenets of command."

The Kerry campaign, seeking to control the political damage on a day when a new batch of biographical ads touting Kerry's military service was hitting the airwaves, arranged for two of Kerry's crewmates to appear at a later news conference and declare that Kerry was a consummate leader who braved bullets and aggressively took on the enemy. The Kerry campaign also handed out documents it said showed that the news conference was handled by a public relations firm with ties to the Republican Party and President Bush.

One of Kerry's fellow patrol boat skippers, Wade Sanders, defended Kerry and compared the statements of Kerry's commanders to the investigations of suspected communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, saying the commanders should be asked, ''Have you no decency?"

The senator's campaign has long weathered criticism from some Vietnam veterans over Kerry's actions in Vietnam and as an antiwar leader, but yesterday's event was unprecedented because it included nearly all of his commanding officers. Two of those officers, former lieutenant commander George Elliott and former Coast Guard captain Adrian Lonsdale, stood by Kerry's side when questions were raised during the 1996 Senate campaign about whether Kerry deserved the Silver Star.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Zumwalt -- the son of the late Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who also had appeared by the senator's side in 1996 -- also expressed his opposition to Kerry.

Eight years ago, Elliott, who wrote up Kerry for the Silver Star, rebutted suggestions that Kerry shot a retreating enemy in the back in that encounter, providing crucial support in the closing days of a hard-fought Senate race between Kerry and then-Governor William F. Weld. Yesterday, however, Elliott joined the other commanders in saying he opposed Kerry for president on the grounds that the senator was an antiwar leader who alleged atrocities were committed in Vietnam.

Elliott defended his current position, saying it was consistent to have supported the senator when he was wrongly accused in 1996.

''I find a couple of things ironic. I stood alongside John Kerry along with Admiral Zumwalt and Adrian Lonsdale in 1996 to defend him against the false accusation of -- Guess what? -- atrocities and war crimes," Elliott said. ''That wasn't true then; that's why I stood with him. The second irony is, in 1971 . . . he claimed that the 500,000 men in Vietnam in combat were all villains. There were no heroes. In 2004, one hero from the Vietnam War has appeared running for president."

''It galls one to think about it," Elliott said.

Lonsdale, who recalled long discussions with Kerry when they served together, said, ''I never once heard Senator Kerry say one thing about atrocities."

In addition, one of Kerry's commanding officers, retired Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard, said he strongly questioned whether Kerry the senator deserved his first purple heart Purple Heart. Elaborating on an account reported in The Boston Globe last month, Hibbard said he was briefed after the Dec. 2, 1968, event for which Kerry received a Purple Heart.

''The briefing from some members of that crew the morning after revealed that they had not received enemy fire," Hibbard said. ''And yet Lieutenant [junior grade] Kerry informed me of a wound, he showed me a scratch on his arm and a piece of shrapnel in his hand that appeared to be from one of our own M-79s. It was later reported to me that Lieutenant Kerry had fired an M-79 and it had exploded off the adjacent shoreline. I do not recall being advised of any medical treatment and probably said something like, `Forget it.'

''He later received a purple heart Purple Heart for that scratch, and I don't know how," Hibbard said.

Calling themselves Swift Veterans for Truth, the officers who criticized Kerry yesterday urged him to allow the Department of Defense to release all his military and medical records. The aim of that request appeared to focus on questions such as the one raised by Hibbard about the first Purple Heart. The veterans said they wanted the records released by the Navy, not by the campaign, to ensure that the public can see everything in Kerry's file. Michael Meehan, Kerry's spokesman, said the campaign has released everything in the Navy file.

Meehan said the commanders were motivated by partisan politics and noted that a lead organizer, John O'Neill, had ties to the Republican Party stretching back to the Nixon White House. The Kerry campaign showed reporters a photo of O'Neill meeting with President Nixon in 1971 and copies of favorable evaluations of Kerry by Elliott and Hibbard.

O'Neill said that he paid the $1,200 cost of the room for the news conference and that he had and others at the event had not been in touch with Republican officials.

The Kerry campaign said in a statement, however, that one of the news conference's organizers, Merrie Spaeth, was ''tied to the Bush campaign's underhanded tactics to smear John McCain in the 2000 Republican presidential primary." The Kerry campaign said Spaeth is the widow of Harold Lezar, who ran in 1994 with Bush as a candidate for lieutenant governor. Spaeth was director of media relations for President Reagan.

In a telephone interview, Spaeth said her firm had nothing to do with the attacks on McCain, and she said her late husband lost the race for lieutenant governor and had not been endorsed by Bush. She said she had been scrupulous in ensuring that she had no contact with Republican officials in helping set up yesterday's news conference.

In contrast to the commanders, all but one of the 15 or so men who served under Kerry's command have spoken highly of the senator, and many have said they eventually came to understand his opposition to the Vietnam War. ''John Kerry never backed down," crewmate Del Sandusky said yesterday. ''His philosophy was, `Attack, attack, attack.' "

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. 

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