San Diego Union Tribune

August 6, 2004

McCain assails attacks on Kerry wartime record
Ads are denounced as 'dishonorable'

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON A group of Vietnam veterans opposed to John Kerry's presidential bid are using a television ad and personal appearances to charge that most of Kerry's image as a thrice-wounded and highly decorated war hero is based on lies.

But the attacks were quickly denounced by Republican senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain as "dishonorable."

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which gets most of its funding from Texas Republican activists, launched a TV spot in three battleground states yesterday repeatedly charging Kerry with lying about his Vietnam service.

To reinforce the ad, members of the group are touring media offices, arguing that two of Kerry's Purple Hearts were for insignificant wounds that did not warrant the medal. They also claim that during the incident for which he received a Bronze Star for valor Kerry fled.

A Kerry campaign spokesman dismissed the charges, noting that nearly all of the group's funding has come from two prominent GOP donors and that it was organized by John O'Neill, a Texas lawyer and former swift boat officer who was backed by the Nixon administration to counter Kerry's anti-Vietnam war efforts in 1972.

"These men clearly have a partisan political agenda," said Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton.

But a potentially more effective defense came from McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war.

"I deplore this kind of politics. I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable," McCain told the Associated Press.

"As it is, none of these individuals served on the boat (Kerry) commanded. Many of his crew have testified to his courage under fire. I think John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam. I think George Bush served honorably in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War.

"It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me," he said, referring to accusations from Bush surrogates during the 2000 GOP primary fight that McCain had betrayed veterans.

McCain is supporting Bush's re-election and is serving as the president's campaign chairman in the senator's home state of Arizona.

McCain said he hoped that President Bush had no role in "such a cheap stunt" and urged the Bush campaign to condemn the ad.

The campaign did not. But spokesman Steve Schmidt said: "The Bush campaign never has and will never question John Kerry's service in Vietnam."

Four members of the group now attacking Kerry had praised his conduct either while he was in Vietnam or during his 1996 fight for re-election to the Senate when his Vietnam service also was questioned.

The group's 60-second TV spot, which is running in Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia, shows a succession of former swift boat officers and sailors accusing Kerry of lying to get his medals, of not being trustworthy in a fight and of having betrayed other veterans with his anti-war statements.

In interviews with Copley News Service, members of the group said Kerry lied about an injury that earned him his first Purple Heart and sharply disputed Kerry's version of a March 13, 1969, mission for which he received a Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart. Official military records raise no such questions.

Kerry received the last Purple Heart for injuries he said he received when an underwater mine rocked his boat and was cited for braving enemy fire to rescue Green Beret Lt. James Rassmann, who had been knocked into the river by that blast.

Larry Thurlow and Jack Chenoweth, who commanded swift boats with Kerry on that mission, and Van O'Dell, who was an enlisted gunner on Chenoweth's boat, all insisted there had been no hostile fire and the only mine explosion hit a different boat.

And while the other boats moved to help the crippled boat, Kerry's boat "fled down the river," Thurlow said.

Rassmann said in a statement that the critics' story was "a pure fabrication. . . . I was in the middle of the firefight."

"If Mr. Thurlow feels that what his story is purported to be is the case, he had ample opportunity 35 years ago to deal with it, and he never did, nor did anyone else," Rassman said during an appearance on CNN. "To bring it up now is very disingenuous."

And Del Sandusky, who was the senior sailor on Kerry's boat that day, said there had been "a hellacious firefight. I don't know how these guys can stretch the truth like this."

Another of the critics, retired Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, said he rejected Kerry's bid for his first Purple Heart because the injury he showed was "a little scratch" that he was told had been caused by an M-79 grenade Kerry had fired and that there had been no enemy fire during the night time incident.

Kerry was awarded the medal three months later, after Hibbard had left Vietnam, Hibbard said.

The three Purple Hearts enabled Kerry to leave Vietnam after four months of a normal 12-month tour of duty.