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Old 02-17-2004, 12:11 PM   #1
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Outwardly a Good Soldier/Inside a Man Full of Doubts

Vietnam War Illuminates, Shadows Kerry's Campaign
Tue Feb 17, 7:55 AM ET Add Top Stories - Los Angeles Times to My Yahoo!

By John M. Glionna Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON Amid the solemn atmosphere of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the place known simply as The Wall, Dewey Brown reaches up to touch one name among tens of thousands engraved in the polished black granite.

Ramrod straight at age 76, the retired Army colonel is not a man prone to tears. But his voice breaks in anger as he recalls that divisive war and what he terms Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's disrespect for the men who fought and died there.

Good soldiers do their duty and keep their mouths shut. They don't come home to criticize their country's mission while others are still fighting. But that, in his view, is what Kerry did.

Standing nearby, Vietnam veteran Brian Hoffman, 58, begs to disagree. To him, Kerry was a hero who performed the most difficult duty of all.

"John Kerry (news - web sites) returned from battle to speak out against what he considered an unjust war," the Army veteran said. "Who can fault him for that?"

Almost three decades after America ended its involvement there, Vietnam is playing a pivotal, if fractious, role in the nation's presidential race.

As President Bush (news - web sites) defends his service in the Air National Guard amid questions from Democrats about whether he fulfilled his duty, Kerry the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination faces criticism from some veterans and former POWs over his antiwar record.

Throughout his political career, the four-term senator has drawn heavily on his experience in Vietnam. He has talked of being wounded three times and of the hard lessons learned during a hazardous tour as skipper of a river patrol boat.

In his quest for the presidency, Kerry mentions the war in nearly every campaign speech. Flanked by fellow veterans he calls his "band of brothers" and endorsed by Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia who lost three limbs in Vietnam, Kerry evokes cheers for his medals the Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

But a topic Kerry mentions less often is his controversial role in the Vietnam era: that of a disillusioned activist.

Following his return from Vietnam in 1969, he led protesters on a Washington march not far from where The Wall stands today.

He testified before Congress and accused fellow servicemen of committing wartime atrocities against civilians. He also headed a demonstration in which he and other veterans threw war medals onto the Capitol steps.

For some, the 60-year-old Kerry embodies America's conflicted feelings about Vietnam. He served with distinction but led the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and challenged Congress, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Many veterans say that, in hindsight, they agree with Kerry's bold opposition to a conflict that killed 58,000 Americans. They say history has proved him right about Vietnam, and they have flocked to support his campaign.

Others call Kerry's protest activities the reflection of a man so ambitious for a career in politics that he consciously held on to his own medals, now displayed in his Washington office. During the protest at the Capitol, Kerry, then 27, threw the medals of two other servicemen, along with his own ribbons.

As a senator, Kerry has championed veterans' concerns such as better military health and retirement benefits. But some servicemen still vilify him for leading, with Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record) (R-Ariz.), a 1990s Senate committee that determined there were no surviving POWs in Vietnam. That conclusion helped normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam.

The rift among veterans went public last week when a Washington newspaper and television news shows ran a photo showing Kerry sitting near then-activist Jane Fonda at an antiwar rally. The photo sparked renewed debate and unleashed simmering emotion about Vietnam, the mass protests against the war, and "Hanoi Jane," the nickname veterans gave the actress after she visited North Vietnam at the height of the war.

Historians say the controversy surrounding Kerry's candidacy shows how America has yet to come to terms with Vietnam, a war that ended 29 years ago.

"That war is not behind us. It's still very much in our minds today," said Douglas Brinkley, author of "Tour of Duty," which details Kerry's wartime experiences.

"We have yet to close ranks on what occurred in society during those years. It's turned into an outright battle, with the legacy of a generation at stake. And in the middle stands John Kerry."


A Tormented Veteran

John Kerry returned from Vietnam in April 1969 with war decorations and a troubled conscience.

Commanding a swift boat, the Navy lieutenant ran missions in and out of ambush alleys across the hostile Mekong Delta and was awarded Purple Hearts on three occasions for being wounded in action.

He also earned a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, the latter for beaching his patrol boat and jumping ashore to chase down and kill a Viet Cong guerrilla who used a rocket launcher to fire on his men.

Kerry, a graduate of Yale University and son of a foreign-service officer, was keeping a journal to privately voice growing reservations about the war. What he could not openly share with superiors or comrades he penned into spiral notebooks or typed up diary-style while on leave.

Not only did he lose his five best friends in Vietnam, he says he witnessed events he could not forget including watching in despair as a crewmate killed a boy who may or may not have been an innocent villager.

"There were two sides to John Kerry," Brinkley said. "The outward good soldier and the inward self-doubter wracked by a moral dilemma."

Once discharged from the Navy in 1970, he moved home to Newton, Mass., to make an unsuccessful run for Congress. Months later, Kerry became a leading voice in the nation's antiwar protest. He attended numerous rallies, including the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971 in which 150 Vietnam veterans met at a Detroit hotel to trade stories of what they termed wartime atrocities by U.S. servicemen.

It was not the first time that Americans heard of war crimes. That same year, Army Lt. William Calley and 15 others were charged in connection with the 1968 attack on the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai in which 347 villagers were slain.

On April 22, 1971, the day before he threw away his combat ribbons, Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivering a powerful message that Brinkley says convinced many Americans their country was waging an immoral war.

Kerry's testimony was the lead news story on all three networks that evening, making him one of the faces Americans attached to the antiwar movement.

Dressed in his combat fatigues and ribbons, he told Congress that U.S. soldiers had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads randomly shot at civilians in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan." He later acknowledged that he did not witness the crimes himself but had heard about them from others.

The speech prompted the Nixon administration to open a file on Kerry, who was placed under FBI (news - web sites) surveillance. It also brought him lasting enmity among some Vietnam veterans who say Kerry broad-brushed them as a group of maladjusted, dysfunctional losers.

Paul Galanti learned of Kerry's speech while held captive inside North Vietnam's infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison. The Navy pilot had been shot down in June 1966 and spent nearly seven years as a prisoner of war.

During torture sessions, he said, his captors cited the antiwar speeches as "an example of why we should cross over to [their] side."

"The Viet Cong didn't think they had to win the war on the battlefield," Galanti said, "because thanks to these protesters they were going to win it on the streets of San Francisco and Washington."

He says Kerry broke a covenant among servicemen never to make public criticisms that might jeopardize those still in battle or in the hands of the enemy.

Because he did, Galanti said, "John Kerry was a traitor to the men he served with."

Now retired and living in Richmond, Va., Galanti, 64, refuses to cool his ire toward Kerry.

"I don't plan to set it aside. I don't know anyone who does," he said. "The Vietnam memorial has thousands of additional names due to John Kerry and others like him."

But Mike Mahler says Kerry saved lives.

A former gunner's mate aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, he admits the antiwar protests at first "made me sick." Years later, he agrees the war was folly. And he believes that Kerry's voice helped halt the killing.

At age 57, Mahler, a lifelong Republican, has campaigned for Kerry in his home state of Iowa. For the first time, he says, Vietnam combat veterans many of whom have felt neglected and maligned by their country have one of their own in a position to become president.

Some Vietnam veterans returned to criticism from people who, they say, would never understand the nightmare service members endured in the humid jungles of Southeast Asia.

As president, Mahler says, Kerry could help bring a generation of neglected Vietnam vets out from the shadows of the national consciousness.

Mahler, the owner of a construction company in Davenport, said he recently asked a fellow veteran whether he thought any of his fallen Vietnam buddies could have become president. The friend, after a few moments, began to name several he thought might have achieved such success.

"Vietnam has cost us an entire generation of potential leaders," Mahler said. "Some might have become judges or senators or even president. We all knew somebody like that. But they're gone. But maybe through John Kerry they can still do it."


A Tearful Reunion

When Kerry announced his candidacy for president last September, he was surrounded by Vietnam veterans.

At a news conference held outside an aircraft carrier in Charleston, S.C., Kerry had called together several crewmen from his Navy patrol boat, including David Alston, a Baptist minister. He was Kerry's gunner mate.

"Down in the Mekong Delta, we lived together, we fought together, we bled together and we survived together," Alston told the crowd in a scene described in "Tour of Duty."

"Whether we were Democratic or Republican was not the issue. The issues at the time were trust, courage, judgment and character."

At many campaign stops, Kerry talks about his combat experiences, saying they show his "character and stamina."

His antiwar activities, although mentioned by him less often, point to his willingness to stand "up to the powerful to be a voice to the powerless," he says.

In a tearful public reunion in Iowa, former Green Beret Jim Rassmann embraced the candidate before a crowd and pledged to help get him elected. Kerry had saved his life in Vietnam by hauling him out of a river during battle.

"I don't believe it; it's amazing to see you," Kerry said.

Rassmann, 56, a retired Los Angeles County deputy sheriff and registered Republican, let out a sob and hugged Kerry, who decades ago he had recommended for a Silver Star.

Rassmann, who lives in Florence, Ore., had read Brinkley's book about Kerry's Vietnam years, which includes the incident where the young skipper saved Rassmann's life. He called the Kerry campaign, asking what he could do to help.

Aides say the reunion replayed on local TV news across Iowa two nights before the state's caucuses helped Kerry surge to victory, creating a momentum for his candidacy that continues.

But dogging Kerry are Vietnam vets like Ted Sampley.

He posted the Fonda-Kerry photograph that made news last week on an Internet site he founded that is critical of Kerry. Now he plans to organize nationwide protests.

"We're slow getting started we didn't think Kerry would do so well" in the Democratic primaries, the North Carolina resident said. "But his success was a wake-up call."

Standing at The Wall, Brian Hoffman admits that America's 10 million Vietnam-era veterans are a potentially influential but stubbornly divided voting bloc. He hopes Kerry can provide the emotional bridge to finally heal the nation's wounds from Vietnam.

He stared at The Wall.

"This is a sobering place. I wonder what lessons it's taught us."

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Old 02-17-2004, 12:20 PM   #2
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Great article I thought. Very fair....and maybe helpful to some who do not quite understand the politics involving this period of our history.

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Old 02-17-2004, 12:21 PM   #3
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Good soldiers do their duty and keep their mouths shut. They don't come home to criticize their country's mission while others are still fighting. But that, in his view, is what Kerry did.
I have a time believing in this mentality.
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Old 02-17-2004, 12:23 PM   #4
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Originally posted by BonoVoxSupastar

I have a time believing in this mentality.
I do not having been in the Military. You do not turn your back on your own.


This does not mean I accept this mentality, and I found myself in hot water over a situation within my own unit for reporting something that was very WRONG.
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Old 02-17-2004, 12:30 PM   #5
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Originally posted by Dreadsox

I do not having been in the Military. You do not turn your back on your own.

What if your 'own' is the rest of the country? Shouldn't the country know what's going on?
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Old 02-17-2004, 01:03 PM   #6
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That is a good article. People came home from Viet Nam with all sorts of feelings and emotions. It was very hard to be a Viet Nam vet. I used to know one who became downright radical after the war--I am talking *socialist* here, the guy voted for Eugene Debs type socialists in the political elections and was at protests every other week-- and makes Kerry's activism look pretty "respectable" *by contrast*. Note that I say by contrast. I understand why some don't like it that anyone became an activist, but this war was highly divisive with many many Americans coming around to a belief that it was a terrible mistake, including many Viet Nam vets. They had to deal with all sorts of emotions.

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