THE WOUNDS THAT NEVER HEAL:
A VIETNAM VETERAN'S PERSPECTIVE
JOHN KERRY'S VIETNAM
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
** 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
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.
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
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.
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; 13,392 Hits