Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2004 / 19 Shevat, 5764

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Kerry's Vietnam service now fair game | I would not have contemplated writing anything even mildly critical of John Kerry's Vietnam service, were he not making it the centerpiece of his campaign, and were not he impugning President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. But as lawyers say before cross examination: "if the witness opens the door..."

Kerry joined the Navy after graduation from Yale in 1966, became an officer, and volunteered for Vietnam. After service on a destroyer, Kerry volunteered again to be a swift boat commander. This was courageous and commendable. Service on the swift boats, which patrolled the Mekong river, was about the only way a sailor who wasn't an aviator or a SEAL could get shot.

Kerry served on swift boats for about four months. During that time, he was awarded the Bronze Star (the lowest decoration for heroism in combat) and the Silver Star (the next higher decoration for valor) and three Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in battle. These latter decorations — like my title of "nationally syndicated columnist" — sound more impressive than they are. All three wounds were minor cuts from shrapnel, which, according to Kerry, caused him to miss a grand total of 2 days of duty.

For soldiers and Marines, especially of the enlisted variety, a Silver Star is a big deal. You've got to do something profound to get one. But the rules were different for officers, especially for naval officers.

This is the action on Feb. 28, 1969, for which Kerry was awarded the Silver Star: A Viet Cong fired a B-40 rocket at Kerry's boat, Patrol Craft Fast-94. Tom Belodeau, manning the twin 50-caliber machine guns at the rear of the boat, opened fire on the VC, wounding him. The VC fled behind a hooch. Kerry ordered PCF-94 to shore, leaped out of the boat, pursued the VC, and finished him off.

I can envision grizzled infantrymen shaking their heads. "He got the Silver Star for that?"

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Kerry had an advantage most servicemen do not. Medal recommendations have to be made by the commanding officer of the unit in which the heroism took place. Kerry was the commander of PCF-94. Presumably, Kerry's medal recommendation was made by the commander of the squadron to which PCF-94 belonged. But Kerry's commander wasn't there. The evidence he had of the heroism of Lt (jg) John F. Kerry came chiefly from the after action report of Lt. (jg) John F. Kerry.

Shortly after being awarded the Silver Star, Kerry took advantage of a provision in Navy regulations that permits a sailor who has been wounded three times to obtain early release from his combat tour. For Kerry — since his wounds were so minor — this was taking advantage of a technicality. There is nothing wrong with this. Many officers similarly situated would have done the same. But it wasn't heroic.

To recap: Kerry was a double volunteer. As a swift boat commander, he was brave and able. But I am unaware of any soldier or Marine who was awarded a decoration of any kind — much less the Silver Star — just for killing a wounded man who was running away.

Though it is being hyped far beyond what it warrants, Kerry's Vietnam service was honorable. What is not honorable is the way Kerry — in testimony before Congress in April, 1971 — falsely accused his fellow Viet vets of routinely committing grisly war crimes. Nor does it speak well of Kerry that in several demonstrations he marched under the flag of the Viet Cong. It is one thing to oppose the war in Vietnam. It is another to cheer for the enemy.

In the senate, Kerry has a reputation for trying to have things both ways. Kerry exhibited this tendency early on at an antiwar protest in which he flung medals over a fence at the White House — but the medals weren't his own. Kerry says now that he is proud of his Vietnam service. But he said then that he was ashamed of it.

If Kerry plans to use his war service as a credential, he also should also be held to account for his behavior in its aftermath.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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