Friday, April 27, 2001; Page B1
Veterans Recall Stress of Combat, Empathize With Kerrey
By Steve Vogel and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Julius Becton had a choice.
During the opening months of the Korean War in 1950, Becton, a
24-year-old Army platoon commander, had been given a mission to clear out
North Korean troops behind U.S. lines. Becton's men heard noises in a
cave and feared enemy soldiers were holed up inside. A translator called
in, but no one came out.
Becton could send his soldiers in, possibly exposing them to enemy fire.
Or they could toss in grenades and force out anyone inside.
Becton chose the latter.
"What came out was what Bob Kerrey saw: women, children, old men -- no
soldiers," Becton recalled yesterday.
For Becton, as for many other war veterans, there is strong empathy for
Kerrey, the war hero and former U.S. senator who recently acknowledged
that a dozen or more civilians were killed in a Navy SEAL operation he
commanded during the Vietnam War.
Many of the veterans have their own memories, and their own burdens.
"Anyone who has been in uniform, particularly in uniform in combat, can
relate to it," said Becton, a retired lieutenant general who sat next to
Kerrey last week at Virginia Military Institute, where the former
Democratic governor of Nebraska gave a speech disclosing the incident.
Kerrey's choice -- which resulted in the deaths of at least 13 women and
children at the village of Thang Phong -- must be viewed in the context
of split-second, life-or-death decisions and terrifying flashes of fire
at night, several decorated combat veterans said yesterday.
For them, the disclosures about Kerrey are an unwelcome reminder of the
days when people labeled Vietnam veterans baby-killers and sneered at
"What do we gain by bringing it up again?" said H.C. "Barney" Barnum Jr.,
a Marine Corps veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions
during the Vietnam War. "All of us who have been in combat can sympathize
with what happened."
Most people who have not served in combat "don't understand the fog of
war, the confusion, the tension," added Barnum, a Reston resident who is
president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. "I know there's
going to be a lot of second-guessing. My comment is, I wasn't there."
In a New York Times Magazine article to be published Sunday, witnesses
say that Kerrey deliberately ordered the killings of civilians so that
his men could safely retreat from the village. If that allegation is
proven true, it will be much more difficult to attribute the deaths to
the confusion of war. Several veterans said they found the allegation --
which Kerrey has denied -- unlikely.
"I frankly believe what Bob Kerrey said," Becton said. "You don't
deliberately kill women and children and old people."
Kerrey's disclosure was a topic of conversation in Arlington yesterday at
a monthly luncheon that Barnum attended with eight retired Marine
colonels, all veterans of Vietnam. "We all knew incidents where
friendlies got hurt," Barnum said. "It's not by design, but it's war."
Alfred Rascon, a Howard County resident who was awarded the Medal of
Honor last year for heroism during the Vietnam War, said: "No one can
make second judgments of what happened, especially in combat. It's
something you have to live with. You'll never know unless you were
Rascon was an 18-year-old Army medic accompanying his reconnaissance
platoon on a patrol in 1965 when it took fire from a hamlet. The soldiers
immediately strafed the location. Within minutes, they learned that Viet
Cong guerrillas had already abandoned the hamlet, leaving civilians to
take American fire.
"I was panicking: 'God, what the hell did we do?'" recalled Rascon.
One villager, a pregnant woman, had been hit in the abdomen by an M-60
Distraught soldiers had her evacuated on an Army gunship, dumping
ammunition boxes to make room. Five hours later, she gave birth at an
Army hospital, Rascon said. "I felt like I was part of it," he said.
Likewise, Becton said his men in the 9th Infantry Regiment platoon gave
medical treatment to Korean civilians wounded in the August 1950
incident, but he is unsure whether any were killed. "I presume some were,
but not many," he said.
Becton's troops would later tell him that they had never seen him as
shattered as he was that day. An Army chaplain tried to comfort the young
"He said, 'Now before you condemn yourself, think about this: Would you
have let your men go in there without shooting first? The answer is no.
What else could you have done?'" recalled Becton, a former D.C. public
schools chief who was awarded the Silver Star.
Whether they had faced combat or not, a few veterans who visited the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday agreed that no one should lightly
judge another person's conduct in a do-or-die situation.
"Things happen in war that a person's not responsible for," said Thomas
Cooper, a retired postal employee from Georgia who served with the 199th
Infantry Division at an ammunition depot in Long Binh. Cooper, who was
wounded during the Tet Offensive, said the routine savageries and
absurdities of life in the combat zone sometimes called into question
whether there could even be such a thing as the ethics of war.
"A lot of guys talked about, 'Let's just kill 'em all,' " he said. "Most
of them were kidding. They were just kids."
Combat can cloud judgments, Cooper said.
Emotions veer wildly almost moment to moment, from profound fear to
exhilaration, from the belief that you would be the next to die to the
certainty that you would live forever.
"Kerrey's a real war hero. We should treat him with respect because he's
been there. A person who's not been in combat doesn't know," he said.
Rascon said, "Hopefully, people will understand that [Kerrey's] not the
only person, nor will he be the last."
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