April 25, 2001
Former Senator Bob Kerrey Discloses His Wartime Role in Civilian
By DENNIS FARNEY
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a possible Democratic presidential candidate in
2004 and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has publicly acknowledged his
role in a previously undisclosed incident: the killing of Vietnamese
civilians by a Navy SEAL unit he was leading.
"I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted
to die," the Medal of Honor winner said in an interview Tuesday. "This
is killing me. I'm tired of people describing me as a hero and holding
Mr. Kerrey also told ROTC students in a Lexington, Va., speech last
week that he has yet "to make my own personal peace with what happened
that night," and that it has "haunted" him for 32 years.
In Tuesday's interview, recalling the incident with "horror," he
emphatically denied an account he says was given by one member of the
"He says we rounded up a bunch of people and shot them," Mr. Kerrey
said. "It did not happen that way. We didn't go into the area with the
intention of killing civilians. And we didn't kill civilians in order
to extract ourselves."
Mr. Kerrey, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his Vietnam service,
said the incident occurred in February 1969, a month after he arrived in
Vietnam. He said he and a six-man squad entered Viet Cong-held
territory on a moonless night. His squad was fired upon and returned
fire. "But when the firing stopped we found that we had killed only
women, children and older men. It was not a military victory; it was a
tragedy and I had ordered it."
He continued: "How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such
a mistake? Knowing that the people we killed were probably
enemy sympathizers … has not helped. Knowing that I followed
what I considered to be standard operating procedure has not helped."
The disclosure comes at a time when the 57-year-old Mr. Kerrey, who
sought the presidency in 1992, is believed to be weighing another try.
He said he was approached recently about the other Navy SEAL's account
by two news organizations. He has included the incident in a partially
completed memoir; divulging it now could also help inoculate him against
Mr. Kerrey in November decided not to seek a third Senate term. In
January, he became president of New School University in New York City.
Throughout his political career, Mr. Kerrey has spoken of Vietnam as a
defining experience. "If I hadn't fought, I'd probably be a passive,
suburban white boy," he once remarked. He has said Vietnam taught him
that ideology can lead to tragedies, including war. He became an
independent-minded Nebraska governor and later senator, usually voting
for liberal causes, but sometimes driving Democratic Senate leaders to
distraction with his maverick streak.
Less than a month after his unit killed the Vietnamese civilians, Mr.
Kerrey led another SEAL unit as it scaled a cliff to attack a Viet Cong
position on the island of Hon Tre. A grenade exploded at Mr. Kerrey's
right foot, tearing apart his lower right leg; the leg was later
amputated below the knee. Despite the wound, Mr. Kerrey remained
behind until his unit could extricate itself. He was awarded the Medal
of Honor by President Nixon in 1970.
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