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The Wounds That Never Heal

Now that Senator John Kerry has, surprisingly, given his Vietnam War record a prominent place in his presidential campaign, its time to look at that record carefully.

Using His Vietnam Record as a Shield

Kerry uses it, first, as a "sword" for the positive images loosely associated in the public mind with a junior officer leading men in war. But, second, Kerry uses Vietnam as a "shield" against criticism or even careful review of all kinds: of his Vietnam record in the both the United States and in Vietnam, and of his defense voting record in the U.S. Senate.

Its the use of his war record as a "shield" which makes Kerry's campaign unique. In a kind of left-wing McCarthyism, any critique of Kerry's defense record in the Senate or Vietnam war record is labelled as attacking Kerry's "patriotism". This extends even to mentioning certain undisputed facts (e.g., that he accrued three Purple Hearts without spending even a day in a hospital; or that he left Vietnam at his own request after only 4-1/2 months of a twelve month tour; or that he met with North Vietnamese officials in Paris while we were still at war; or that he voted against certain defense and intelligence funding). From Kerry himself and his campaign, you've all heard: its "wrong" to criticize someone who fought for his country; you can't criticize him if you "weren't there" or you didn't experience combat yourself; or it's improper to impugn the patriotism of someone who "took three bullets for his country" (an interesting quote from a leading Kerry campaign aide in the NY Times, insofar as Kerry has never "taken" or been touched by any bullets at all, for his country or anyone else).

The Facts on Kerry's Vietnam Record: Post-Navy

Let's look at the facts. First, regarding Kerry's post-Navy actions in the united States while the war continued:

** Kerry testified to the u.s. Senate in April 1971 that the United States in Vietnam was "reminiscent of Genghis Khan"; that officers like me routinely let their men plunder villages and rape villagers at will; that "war crimes committed" in Vietnam by my fellow soldiers "were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command".

** Kerry urged "an immediate withdrawal from South Vietnam, unconditionally, leaving our Prisoners of War in enemy hands with no hope of release.

** Kerry's 1971 book, "The New Soldier, by John Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War", displayed on its cover a photograph of protesters simulating the famous Marine Corps flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima -- with an upside down American flag. In that book, Kerry wrote that he "will not quickly join those who march on Veterans' Day", and that he "will not uphold traditions which decorously memorialize that which was base and grim."

** Kerry threw away (or pretended to throw away) awards, decorations, or medals over the Capitol fence in front of television cameras. At these protest events, handbills from Vietnam Veterans Against the War (in which Kerry was a key leader) claimed that the U.S. Infantry would "turn your son into a butcher", who would shoot civilians, rape women and children, and so forth. The accusation concluded with, "American soldiers do these things every day to the Vietnamese".

** Kerry met with North Vietnamese officials in Paris while the war continued and American POWs were still in enemy hands. The North Vietnamese, in turn, display Kerry's picture in an honored place in Ho Chi Minh City's war museum as a hero to the communist war effort.

** Kerry ran for Congress, taking the position that all U.S. armed forces outside the United States should be under the command of the United Nations.

The Facts on Kerry's Vietnam Record: Navy Service

That's a summary of Kerry's post-Navy activities during the Vietnam War. Now let's look briefly at his Naval record.

** As an alternative to the Army draft and to an almost certain assignment to Vietnam ground combat, Kerry volunteered for the Navy. While assigned to a warship patrolling off the coast of Vietnam, Kerry asked to switch to patrol boats (the so-called "Swift Boats"), which at the time also patrolled off the coast (these boats did not patrol in interior rivers of vietnam when Kerry asked for reassignment) and which an officer of his grade would command over a crew of 5 or so sailors. After Kerry's reassignment to patrol boats, the patrol boat mission was changed to interior river patrols to interdict communist supply lines.

** Kerry commanded a patrol boat for about four months, receiving a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts from shrapnel (metal fragments). His and other patrol boats came under enemy fire on several occasions. He was never hospitalized and was never wounded from small arms fire (bullets).

** After a little more than four months of a twelve month tour in Vietnam, Kerry asked to be reassigned out of the combat zone, back to the United States; and in the United States, he then asked to be released from the Navy early (which was granted).

That, then, is his record in the Navy.

Analysis of Kerry's Vietnam Record

Now let's analyze and comment on that record. His post-Navy actions in the U.S. Senate (and related actions, such as throwing away medals in protest) amounted not just to, or even primarily, opposition to the war; his actions were, instead, false accusations against those who were fighting the war, against his fellow servicemen. Kerry now seeks to re-characterize his post-Navy activities as merely "anti-war", but they were really "anti-U.S." and "anti-soldier". Not only did he accuse the country of criminal government policies; he also accused soldiers of being butchers and told Americans that Vietnam had traumatized American servicemen, emotionally scarring them. He was a leader in fostering and perpetuating the myth of the dysfunctional, victimized, misfit veteran. He is a significant reason why Vietnam veterans continually explained to their parents and wives and children that they had not in fact, butchered or raped villagers, that they were not in fact emotionally disabled, that they could hold jobs and function in society like everyone else. Kerry said in a recent speech that "the first definition of patriotism is keeping faith with the people who wore the uniform of our country." Its obvious that Kerry fails his own definition.

It is now beyond dispute (by Kerry's own subsequent admissions) that Kerry did not witness individual atrocities to which he testified. After all, if he had, he should have stopped them and taken corrective punitive actions. Kerry defends much of his rhetoric based on the so-called "Winter Soldier" conference held in a Detroit Howard Johnson's in early 1971, conducted by vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) with financial assistance from Jane Fonda. The "Winter Soldier" accusations were later I unmasked as significantly fraudulent by uncontrovertible (and now undisputed) proof showing that many of the individuals making claims as Vietnam veterans had never been to Vietnam at any time, and still others had never been in military service at all (many assuming the names of actual veterans without their knowledge). But Kerry and the anti-war media were undeterred by these revelations of fraud. In any event, Kerry defended the Winter Soldier conference even after learning that a key individual had lied. When public news broke that a leader of the VVAW, who claimed in Detroit to have seen atrocities in Vietnam, had never even been to Vietnam, and the VVAW leader confessed to the lie, Kerry commended him for having the courage to "tell the truth" (the "truth" being that he, like other Detroit participants, had lied).

A Most Egregious Offense: Bearing False Witness

The record is compelling: John Kerry bore false witness against his fellow servicemen, making despicable claims for which he had no substantial basis and which he had to know were not true. When he couldn't get sufficient attention for himself by simply arguing that the war was unsound strategically and militarily, he switched to the self-righteous ethical claim that those who fought it routinely committed war crimes.

His actions were selfish, reflecting a lack of honesty and integrity; self-serving at the expense of others who served honorably, tarring them for his own gain. He lent his phony aura of knowledge, based on having "been there", to validate false claims about which he had no knowledge or substantial basis. By doing so, he made himself the center of attention, the hero of the anti-war movement, the symbol of the elite counter-culture. By doing so, he betrayed and smeared the generation of young Americans who fought a difficult war with honor and with respect for civilian life at increased risk to their own lives. Kerry committed the most egregious of offenses by bearing false witness against his fellow servicemen, an offense for which he will forever bear the mark of Cain.

Undercutting U.S. Efforts:
Meeting the Enemy in Paris / Aid and Comfort to the Enemy

These actions clearly undercut the efforts of the United States to negotiate the release of our POWs in North Vietnam and Laos in 1971 and 1972. Kerry compounded these actions with an inexcusable act of betrayal to those POWs (as well as to his country), meeting with the North Vietnamese enemy in Paris while the war continued. Providing aid and comfort to the enemy, Kerry symbolized the roadblock to peace and release of our POWs which the anti-war movement constituted.

Exaggerated Claims and the Judgment of His Fellow Naval Officers in Vietnam:
"Unfit to be Commander-in-Chief"

Kerry first volunteered for the Navy; and then volunteered for patrol boats which sailed along the coast, not boats on interior river patrols which were likely to come under fire. When he was put on the interior rivers under hostile fire, he worked his way out of there as fast as he could, "unvolunteering" himself in less than 4-1/2 months of a 12 month tour. It is duplicitous to claim to be a volunteer while in fact being an "unvolunteer".

Kerry received three awards for minor injuries (sometimes at his own insistence and over the initial objection of his commanding officer), what Army grunts (infantrymen) derisively called "band- aid" Purple Hearts. Assuming the band-aids resulted from enemy fire (that is, ignoring reports from the doctor who dealt with the first award that a thorn caused greater injury and that a crewman claimed that the boat never came under enemy fire, that it was their own mortar fire that ricochetted back toward the boat, and ignoring that Kerry reported to a routine sick-call the day after the alleged wound), the Purple Hearts were authorized. But veterans know of many soldiers who were never offered or declined Purple Hearts in such circumstances. Even Newsweek magazine characterized Kerry's injuries as so minor that many soldiers wouldn't take a Purple Heart in such cases. In any event, it is uncontestable that soldiers were often returned to combat after weeks in a hospital from combat wounds, none of them thinking that they had a ticket home. For Kerry to request reassignment out of Vietnam after little more than a third of his tour of duty was up, without ever having spent even one night in a hospital from his injuries, based on those very insubstantial injuries, is not an act of honor. Someone else had to enter into harm's way to accommodate Kerry, with less experience and thus exposing those who remained to greater danger.

The officers I knew always felt bad if they had to leave their men; they did not seek to do so voluntarily and out of ordinary sequence. Thus, the claim of a "band of brothers", trying to capitalize on the award-winning book and TV series about paratroopers in World War II, rings hollow indeed. In fact, in that paratroop "band of brothers", a wounded soldier was expected to do everything possible to get back to his unit in combat, including breaking out of a hospital or rehabilitation center against orders if necessary.

These observations provide insight into the causes of a recent statement by Swift Boat veterans who knew Kerry in Vietnam. In early May 2004, every officer in Kerry's chain-of command in Vietnam, from immediate superior to the flag officer in charge of the whole Naval coastal program, announced that they judge Kerry "unfit to be commander-in-chief". In addition, 19 of the 23 officers who served with him in Coastal Division 11 likewise state that he is "unfit" to be commander-in-chief". The ex-commanders and fellow officers wrote that Kerry has "withheld and/or distorted material facts as to [his] own conduct in this war" and that Kerry "grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct of American soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen of that war (including a betrayal of many of us, without regard for the danger your actions caused us)".

The War John Kerry Chose, the War He Now Wants, and the War He Deserves

John Kerry is the living embodiment of the philosophical proposition that "we each get the war we deserve." That is, whatever the circumstances or situation in which we find ourselves in this world -- whatever our time and place -- we each make choices regarding those circumstances, for which we are responsible. We choose how to relate and react to our circumstances. These choices shape our identities and our lives. The choices John Kerry made about the Vietnam War define his war. His war, then, is not the same as other soldiers' Vietnam War. Kerry chose to accuse American soldiers of being like Genghis Khan, of routinely ravaging and plundering villages, of being butchers. He chose to meet with enemy officials in Paris while the war was still underway with American soldiers fighting in the field and while peace talks (especially the return of American POWs) were in a delicate stage. In the book repeating the Genghis Khan accusations, he chose to parody the U.S. Marine raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi by showing protestors simulating the flag raising with the American flag upside down. He chose to throw away his awards in a symbolic repudiation of the U.S. armed forces.

These choices defined Kerry's war as a war of dishonor, betrayal, and shame -- these are the hallmarks of Kerry's war, the elements which permeate all understanding of the war. Its either the country's dishonor or Kerry's dishonor, but either way dishonor is a defining element of Kerry's war. Its either betrayal by the U.S. or betrayal by Kerry; the country's shame or Kerry's shame -- with betrayal and shame as defining elements of Kerry's war either way.

There are always alternative ways to define and experience the central elements of any event, including the Vietnam War. In other words, there can be a "different war" for someone else, based on the different choices they made. Some of those choices might include: (1) staying for a full tour to fight for freedom for the Vietnamese (rather leaving prematurely yourself, urging your country to abandon its ally, and redefining communism as no threat to freedom); (2) respecting your comrades by staying the course assigned (rather than putting someone else in harm's way to increase your own safety); (3) investigating and prosecuting any soldier seen or reported to have committed war crimes (rather than claiming to have witnessed crimes but done nothing about them when corrective action was possible); (4) showing some faith and confidence in soldiers (rather than believing horror stories from masquerading non-veterans); (5) honoring and supporting veterans in the U.S. (rather than bearing false witness against them with broad general accusations of misconduct); and (6) siding with your country rather than with the enemy in peace talks. This is a war viewed and experienced through the elements of honor, commitment, sacrifice, and pride.

Now Kerry wants to change his war. For a long time, his war of dishonor, betrayal, exploitation, and shame served his political purposes. But that war, Kerry's war, has been rejected by the American people. It no longer serves Kerry's political purposes to have served in that war. In perhaps the ultimate act of exploitation, Kerry now wants to define his war as a war of honor, commitment, sacrifice, and pride. He now publishes pictures of himself in campaign ads in a clean white Navy uniform, standing at attention (rather than the scruffy fatigues and long hair of the protester and Senate witness, published during Kerry's war). He now publishes pictures of himself receiving his medals (rather than pictures of him throwing them away, published during Kerry's war). He now quotes from his Senate testimony about the difficulty of asking the last person to die in the war (rather than the testimonial accusations about Genghis Khan and war crimes, which were so often quoted during Kerry's war). This new and different Vietnam War would serve Kerry's present political interests much better than Kerry's Vietnam War, if he could just substitute this war for his war. As political winds change, Kerry hopes, this war too can be abandoned when expedient to do so; and if useful, due to military setbacks or international complications, Kerry will return to his original Vietnam War.

In other words, Kerry wants to take the war of the very veterans he once so harshly criticized, and make it his war. He wants the war of honor -- he wants my war and the war of veterans like me. And we're here to tell him that he can't have it.

Kerry's premise that we can change our histories -- that we change our wars once we've chosen them -- through press releases and media buys, overlooks the fundamental philosophical lesson. We each get the war we deserve. We cannot later change it because it is a consequence of our own actions, a consequence of our choices. Kerry already made his choices, choices for which he is responsible. In choosing how to relate and react to the circumstances in which he found himself -- in choosing how to relate and react to the Vietnam War -- Kerry created his identity. Kerry created his vietnam War of dishonor, betrayal, and shame. And Kerry got the war he deserves.

A Strange But Fitting Irony
(To Be More Respected By a Former Enemy Than By a Presidential Candidate)

More than 15 years after the war's end, the North Vietnamese Colonel who accepted the surrender of the presidential palace in Saigon in 1975, came to the Wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to lay flowers. "I have brought these flowers to pay my respect to you... in the U.S. armed forces," he said, "for your valiant and dedicated struggle on behalf of the ideals in which you put your faith." To my former enemy, my endeavor was "valiant", on behalf of "ideals" in which I believed; to John Kerry, I was "like Genghis Khan". A strange but fitting irony, perhaps, to the [misunderstood] Vietnam War and to this Vietnam veteran -- to be respected more by my former enemy that by a presidential candidate.

Conclusion: The Wounds that Never Heal

Now for a little personal memoir, in conclusion. In 1971, I awoke after three days unconsciousness from a combat wound to find that I couldn't see, my jaws were wired shut, a cheekbone was missing, and I had a hole in the side of my face -- and to find that John Kerry was telling the U.S. Senate and the world that I was in an army like Genghis Khan, that I routinely let my men plunder villages and rape villagers at will, that we in the military were "butchers" who committed atrocities "every day". Then Kerry went off to Paris to meet with enemy officials while our soldiers were still fighting in the field.

I was discharged from a military hospital eighteen months and several operations later, almost as good as new from the wounds inflicted by the enemy. Those wounds were just flesh and blood. But the wounds inflicted by Kerry -- the bearing false witness against me and a generation of honorable veterans -- those wounds were much more serious. Those wounds, intentionally inflicted without substance or cause, went to the heart and soul. Those wounds never go away.

Now my son is in the Marine Corps, flying F-18 Hornet jet fighters, during another war. That's the Marine Corps which Kerry mocked with a book cover showing protesters simulating the flag raising on Iwo Jima, with the American flag upside down. That's the F-18 fighter that Kerry voted against in the U.S. Senate. And today John Kerry's picture hangs in an honored place in the Ho Chi Minh City war museum, as a hero to the Vietnamese Communists.

In this global war on terrorism, I can say with confidence that John Kerry is not the kind of man veterans have earned to be in charge of veterans affairs. I can say with confidence that John Kerry is not the kind of man mothers and fathers deserve commanding their sons and daughters as commander-in-chief. In this global war on terrorism, I can say with confidence that John Kerry is not the kind of man Americans need or want sitting in the White House as President of the United States.

Dexter Lehtinen


This address was delivered at a fundraiser held in Connecticut on August 16, 2004 for the Kerry Lied Rally.

Dexter Lehtinen was wounded in Vietnam as a reconnaissance platoon leader in 1971. After eighteen months and several operations, he was retired as a 1st Lieutenant, going on to earn an M.B.A. from Columbia University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School (graduating first in his class). He has served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate, and as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and has argued before the United States Supreme Court. He is an adjunct law professor and practices in South Florida.

Last Updated Monday, September 13 2004 @ 08:03 PM MDT; 14,437 Hits View Printable Version