Friday, April 27, 2001; Page A04
Kerrey: Military Can Take Medal
Former Senator's Account of Killings
In Vietnam War Continues to Shift
By Michael Powell and Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writers
NEW YORK, April 26 -- Former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said today he
doesn't care if the military takes away his Bronze Star, awarded after he
led a squad that killed more than a dozen unarmed women and children
during the Vietnam War.
"I've never worn that damn medal," Kerrey said in an interview. "I never
campaigned and said, 'Vote for me; I'm a hero.' "
"If they want to take it away, I don't care."
Kerrey's comments came after a confessional news conference and a two-day
blur of interviews with the media in which he wrestled with his shifting
memories of the Feb. 25, 1969, raid in the Mekong Delta. But his decision
to talk was not of his own making. On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine
will publish an article that offers a far more disturbing account of the
killing than Kerrey's own.
Kerrey said he could not justify this Vietnam action militarily or
morally, and he begged the people of Vietnam for forgiveness even while
insisting that his Navy SEAL squad had committed no crime. "It may be
that I did nothing wrong," he said, appearing drawn and tense as he stood
atop a ballroom stage at the Sheraton Hotel. "But I felt like I did
something wrong. Here's what happened, and I cannot justify it."
He said his squad was fired upon at night, that it returned fire and that
children and women died. At the same time, he conceded that their bodies
were found grouped together in the middle of the tiny village of Thanh
Phong in a manner suggestive of an execution. Another member of his unit,
Gerhard Klann, has said Kerrey ordered his men to round up and kill the
Asked if the grouping of the bodies contradicted his account of a
firefight with an enemy force, Kerrey, a former candidate for the 1992
presidential nomination, nodded. "I can't explain," he said. "I do not
have an explanation for that."
Kerrey, 57, said he was trying to bring to the surface painful memories
buried deep in his subconscious. Pressed to explain a contradiction in
his story, he raised a hand in caution. "Look, you are asking too much of
me now," he said. "This is in the early stages. I'm just trying to get a
private memory public."
"I have chosen to talk about it because it helps me to heal."
Kerrey's accounts shift a bit from interview to interview. He insisted
today that his troops came under heavy fire. But in a Times interview,
Kerrey acknowledged he was not sure that his men had been fired upon and
said they could have just heard "noise."
The New York Times article makes clear that soldiers in the Mekong Delta
operated under war rules that seemed almost to ensure atrocities.
Commanders had created fortified "strategic hamlets" and warned villagers
in the area that anyone who did not relocate to these hamlets risked
being treated as an enemy.
In 1972, Kevin P. Buckley, then a Newsweek correspondent, investigated a
similar search-and-destroy operation by the 9th Infantry Division in the
Mekong Delta and concluded that American troops killed at least 5,000
This point was reinforced today by another former Navy SEAL, Lt. Bill
Belding, a friend of Kerrey's, who was five miles away in the Mekong that
night 32 years ago, on a similar operation. Belding, in an interview,
described an almost impossible situation in which combatants often killed
civilians by mistake and rarely wrote up these casualties as anything
other than enemy dead.
"There was an implicit understanding that you didn't put certain things
in an after-action report," Belding said, adding that he believed
Kerrey's account. "SEALs prided themselves on being surgically precise,
but why draw attention to a situation that was questionable at best."
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said he knew of no plan
for the Pentagon to investigate the circumstances of the Bronze Star
award, but he did not rule out an eventual probe. Bronze Stars were given
out by the thousands in Vietnam -- so freely that the Army has no record
of how many were awarded, a spokesman said today.
Kerrey said he never sought the Bronze Star and paid no attention to it
when he received it. He said he has no plans to give it back. (Kerrey
received the Medal of Honor, the military's greatest honor, for a
separate engagement a month after Thanh Phong. A grenade blew off his
right leg, but he continued directing fire until his platoon could
His official Senate biography did not include a reference to the Bronze
Star. The citation for that medal cast Kerrey's behavior in a heroic
light: ". . . When fire was encountered, Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry
[sic] dispersed his men and returned the fire, killing fourteen Viet
Cong. Then, as he and his men were returning to a canal for extraction,
enemy movement was detected. The ensuing fire fight ended with seven more
aggressors killed. The net result of his patrol was twenty-one Viet Cong
killed, two hootches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured."
This version is at odds with every account now given of that action,
whether by Kerrey or his comrades. None has referred to any weapons being
captured. Nor have the former soldiers suggested that, once they viewed
the bodies, they thought the victims were Viet Cong soldiers or political
Where the official version came from is not clear. Kerrey said today that
he had written an after-action report. The Naval Historical Center, asked
to find backup material for the Bronze Star, could not immediately locate
Kerrey insisted today that his superiors knew that civilians had been
killed in the operation. But he could not remember if he mentioned the
deaths in his written report. "I don't know that it said exactly women
and children, but they knew," he said.
Reporters' questions about his medals, and about his silence, plainly
"There's a great deal of focus on why didn't I return the Bronze Star,
why didn't I talk about it earlier," Kerrey said after the news
conference. "Under the circumstances, please don't expect me to not be
irritated by the questions."
He framed his long silence about the incident as a veteran's natural
response to war's horrors. "I don't think it's fair to say I kept a
secret for 32 years," he said. "We don't expect veterans of the Second
World War to come forward and tell everything they did," because "their
cause was just."
Kerrey said he had held these memories so tight that he never told his
children of them, and that they forgave him this week. Even as he
conducts a furious public relations offensive, Kerrey seems much aware
that his public image is forever changed. "My reputation is going to be
changed forever," he said. "People know something about me they didn't
know before, and they're going to look at me differently."
Asked if he ever planned to run again for president, he turned to his
wife, who stood behind him on the stage, and flashed her an ironic smile.
"Sweetheart, we can rule that out, can't we?"
Staff writers Robert G. Kaiser and Thomas E. Ricks in Washington
contributed to this report.
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