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Join Date: Jul 2000
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From today's NY Newsday
Their uniform bitterness
Many local veterans see their war of words with John Kerry as a definitive act of patriotism
BY ARNOLD ABRAMS
September 7, 2004
His first words and actions as an official presidential candidate were designed to stress his military background.
"I'm John Kerry," the Democratic nominee said on July 29 as he stepped up to the podium and snapped off a crisp salute to a packed party convention in Boston. "I'm reporting for duty."
Among his highly enthusiastic supporters in Boston that night -- as well as at his subsequent campaign appearances around the country -- were numerous Vietnam veterans, many of whom bear physical and emotional scars from their conflict.
Those men, now well into middle age, were readily visible. Most wore at least one piece of camouflage paraphernalia. Some sat in wheelchairs or needed canes; others wore one-sleeved shirts or walked on artificial legs.
Whatever their appearance, their presence was no accident. It was sought and planned because Kerry, 60, is making a specific pitch to this nation's approximately 26 million military veterans, a potentially critical segment -- more than 13 percent -- of nearly 195 million eligible voters.
But his effort seemingly has flopped.
Although some seasoned political observers say it is too soon for final judgments about the election campaign, Kerry now is trailing President George W. Bush by 11 percentage points, according to recent national polls. Moreover, Kerry has fallen behind Bush by 18 points (56 to 38 percent, according to an Annenberg poll) among former military personnel.
An informal Newsday survey of veterans on Long Island and in New York City reflected those nationwide findings. In addition, the survey also found particularly vehement anti-Kerry sentiment prevailing among those who were in Vietnam, where nearly 3 million Americans -- including more than 300,000 from this area -- served in uniform.
Among typical survey findings were views expressed by Bob Lohrer, 57, a West Hempstead resident who spent most of 1968 with the Army in Vietnam and headed the Nassau County chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America for five years.
"No way in hell am I going to vote for this man," Lohrer said of Kerry. "He tarred all of us, and I took it personally."
Nick Graziano was even more fervent.
"I consider him a traitor," said Graziano, 57, a Mineola resident who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 and subsequently contracted by cancer (attributed to Agent Orange) and post-traumatic stress syndrome. "He has blood on his hands because he gave aid and comfort to the enemy."
"He slandered a whole generation of veterans," said Harold Leung, 56, a Jackson Heights resident who served two tours of duty in Vietnam between 1968 and 1970.
They -- and more than a dozen other Vietnam veterans interviewed at random -- remain bitter about vivid testimony Kerry gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971.
Then a 27-year-old leader of an anti-war movement among veterans, Kerry, who three years earlier had commanded a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, asserted that he and other U.S. troops had committed "atrocities" against enemy forces and civilians in Vietnam.
He said that Americans had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies and randomly shot at civilians."
He personally had not done such things, Kerry said, but he noted that, under orders, he had participated in combat actions -- such as shooting in free-fire zones (firing at anything, at will), launching harassment and interdiction fire and conducting search-and-destroy missions -- that contravened the Geneva Conventions and could be considered war crimes.
Apparently regretting how hard-edged his statements seem, the candidate has tried to soften them of late. "The words were honest," he told reporters in March. "On the other hand, they were a little bit over the top."
Kerry insisted that he had not intended to smear American soldiers. He merely wanted to point out, he said, that horrific actions were condoned by their superiors and were caused by weak national leadership.
Not all Vietnam veterans, however, were angered by Kerry's testimony.
"I understood what he was saying," said Don Fedynak, 63, an Astoria resident who was a military policeman in Vietnam during 1969-1970. "I read his testimony carefully, and he never said all American soldiers were responsible for atrocities. I think he was right, and his statements showed he has the courage and intelligence a president needs."
While other Vietnam veterans in this area and throughout the nation agree with Fedynak, they are greatly outnumbered.
"Kerry's testimony basically spit on everyone who served in Vietnam," said Joyce Rommel, president of the Long Island POW-MIA Coalition of Veterans and Concerned Citizens. "And most of those guys have neither forgotten nor forgiven."
Vietnam veterans, moreover, are not the only former soldiers still bitter about that 33-year-old testimony.
"Yes, some terrible things happened in Vietnam -- as they do in all wars," said Al Krietsch, 81, a Northport resident who participated in the Normandy invasion of World War II as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. "But you don't accuse your fellow soldiers of being murderers and sadists, and you certainly don't malign your country."
Which, Krietsch added, largely explains why he will vote for the incumbent. "Bush didn't go to Vietnam," he said. "But at least he didn't speak out against his country."
In stressing his meritorious service in Vietnam, where he earned three Purple Hearts as well as a Bronze and Silver Star, Kerry has sought to present a clear contrast between his military record and that of Bush in the Texas Air National Guard -- which, like most reserve units during the war , was widely considered a haven from active duty in Vietnam.
In addition to emphasizing his battle experience, Kerry has portrayed himself as a superior candidate for commander in chief, one who will be strong on national defense and more capable of prosecuting the nation's global war against terrorism.
But that tack may have been badly damaged by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry group that surfaced in recent weeks with publication of a book, "Unfit For Command," and television advertisements aired in swing states.
Members of the group, who served in the same sector of Vietnam as Kerry and reportedly have financial and personal ties to top Texas Republicans, have bluntly questioned Kerry's military record and his entitlement to medals.
Although Kerry aides angrily denied those charges, and Bush himself said Kerry "should be proud of his record," the president's nationwide lead among veterans developed after they started in early August.
Nevertheless, some veterans in this area insist their support for Bush was not triggered by the anti-Kerry group. Robert Fountain is one of them.
"The charges they made are part of every campaign, and I don't pay much attention to them," he said, adding that his doubts about Kerry's military record predated the group's formation.
"He spent something like four months there, and he walked out with all kinds of medals," said Fountain, 62, a Baldwin resident and former medevac helicopter pilot in Vietnam, who commanded the American Legion's Nassau County chapter in 2000. "I know how the medals game works, and it usually doesn't go that fast."
Even though U.S. efforts in Iraq have not fully succeeded, Fountain said, he will vote for Bush because he "did the right thing" there and in Afghanistan.
"Nobody likes to see coffins coming home," he explained. "Still, we had to act against the terrorists and he did."
But not the right way, according to Martin Andrews, commander of the Long Island chapter of American Ex-POWs.
"Iraq didn't present an imminent threat to us, and its invasion was not necessary," said Andrews, 85, a Port Jefferson resident and former B-17 pilot whose plane was downed during a bombing mission over Germany in World War II. "That's Kerry's position, and I agree with him."