[sixties-l] Kerrey: Military Can Take Medal

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Sat Apr 28 2001 - 19:52:43 EDT

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       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
      any paperwork.

      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
      annoyed Kerrey.

      "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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