-- by Robert J. Caldwell
In a race appropriately dominated by questions of presidential leadership, the war on terror, Iraq and the economy, Vietnam nonetheless continues to haunt Democrat John Kerry. For this, Kerry has only himself to blame.
It is Kerry who quite deliberately made his brief four months on Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam in 1968-69 his signature credential to be commander in chief 35 years later. It is Kerry and his surrogates who repeat constantly the mantra that he "defended this country as a young man." It was Kerry who presented his "band of brothers" – the seven (out of eight) members of his Swift Boat crew who support him for president – as a backdrop at the Democratic National Convention.
Yet, the echoes of Vietnam also have grievously wounded Kerry's presidential aspirations, and rightly so.
A month of largely unanswered attacks by other Navy Swift Boat veterans on Kerry's war record and his subsequent anti-war, if not anti-American, radicalism helped President Bush build a lead in September. The Swiftees' anti-Kerry critique, detailed in their best-selling book "Unfit for Command" and publicized in television ads, raised profound questions about Kerry's fitness for the presidency. Against the seven supportive members of Kerry's Swift Boat crew, more than 250 Swift Boat combat veterans who served alongside Kerry in the same units denounce him as unfit to be commander in chief. Among them are 17 of the 20 officers in Kerry's chain of command in Vietnam.
Now, the anti-Kerry Swiftees are being joined by a second aggrieved group, former American prisoners of war. In North Vietnam's fetid prisons, they were subjected to years of torture and tormented by their interrogators with propaganda from America's anti-war movement. These highly decorated ex-POWs denounce Kerry for giving aid and comfort to a vicious communist enemy. In some cases, they recall being threatened with trial and execution by interrogators quoting Kerry's outrageous accusations.
In 1971, Kerry testified under oath before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. forces in Vietnam were guilty of systematic war crimes, including rape, murder, mutilation and pillage with the full knowledge and complicity of their entire chain of command.
Virtually all of America's former Vietnam prisoners of war also believe – with good reason, as North Vietnam's army commander has since said publicly – that the anti-war movement Kerry helped lead in the early 1970s encouraged Hanoi to fight on despite the odds. That prolonged the imprisonment of American POWs.
Ralph Gaither, a Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and spent, as he notes, "seven years, three months and 23 days" as a prisoner of war, is unsparing about the radical protest movement Kerry helped lead in the early 1970s.
"My imprisonment was extended by the anti-war movement. The war would have ended sooner if the (North) Vietnamese had not believed that the anti-war movement would win in the United States. It prolonged the war. I had friends die during this time. One was beaten to death, one died on a hunger strike and a third of malaria," Gaither says.
George 'Bud' Day, an Air Force pilot who won the Medal of Honor for his heroic resistance in North Vietnamese captivity, says this of Kerry:
"This man committed an act of treason. He lied, he besmirched our name and he did it for self-interest. And now he wants us to forget. What he stands for is wrong."
Leo Thorsness, another former POW and Medal of Honor winner, says the North Vietnamese threatened to execute him if he did not confess to war crimes.
"John Kerry and that whole movement made our lives more difficult. The things he said were just devastating because he was using words like 'war criminal.' He (was) saying the same things we were being tortured to say. I was told by them the penalty for this was death," Thorsness says.
James Warner, a Marine pilot who spent years in North Vietnamese captivity, recalls that John Kerry's 1971 accusations against the U.S. military were quoted and thrown in his face by a table-pounding interrogator at a punishment camp for resistant POWs.
"'This naval officer admits you are all war criminals. These words prove you all deserve punishment,'" Warner remembers his interrogator shouting. "He (Kerry) abandoned his comrades. His allegations were utterly absurd. To be charitable, at a minimum, he showed abominable bad judgment."
Mike McGrath, now a retired Navy captain, was a POW in North Vietnam for six years. Torture broke his back, dislocated both shoulders and broke an arm and a leg. "I nearly died," McGrath says. "They wanted us to make statements against the war."
Of John Kerry's lurid litany of accusations in 1971, McGrath says, "I agree with the Swiftees. I was ashamed that a Navy lieutenant would give such testimony. I'm disappointed this guy did the wrong thing. He shouldn't be commander in chief."
The testimony of these and other American POWs from the Vietnam War is the basis for a documentary entitled "Stolen Honor" that the Kerry campaign is trying, shamefully, to suppress.
Politics aside, no one can question the right of these men to be heard. No one can doubt the authenticity of their words.
How could this not be a legitimate issue as John Kerry, the unrepentant anti-war activist whose slanderous testimony did so much damage, seeks the presidency, and with it, the command of America's armed forces?
This article was published by the San Diego Union-Tribune.