Kerrey, long considered a likely candidate for the Democrat presidential nomination, would not say whether his decision to stay out of the 2004 race was related to new controversy over the Vietnam revelations.
Kerrey, who lost part of his right leg just 17 days after the Feb. 25, 1969, raid at Thanh Phu in the Mekong Delta, said the raid had haunted him ever since. But "I am not sure I did anything wrong."
Conflicting stories have been swirling about the raid. Another member of Kerrey's Navy SEALS unit, as well as the widow of a Viet Cong who said she witnessed the event, told CBS interviewers Kerrey ordered the civilians rounded up and shot, point-blank.
"You are asking too much from me. … I'm trying to deal with it," he said in explaining why he would not go into detail at the press conference.
"I don't want to go at this stage publicly back to all the grisly details," Kerrey said. "I cannot explain it."
However, Kerrey told NBC Wednesday, "I would remember if we pulled these people ... into a group and killed them at point-blank range, and that did not happen."
According to Kerrey and squad-mate Gerhard Klann, their unit was sent into a "free-fire" zone where Viet Cong were known to be operating. Kerrey said the unit was fired on, and his men returned fire. When the shooting was over, they found the bodies of 21 women, children and old men, he said. Another member of Kerrey's unit, Mike Ambrose of Houston, told the Omaha World-Herald his recollection of that night jibed with Kerrey's.
However, Klann, who is described as the most experienced member of Kerrey's squad in an article to be published Sunday in the New York Times magazine, told CBS's "60 Minutes II": "We herded them together in a group. We lined them up and we opened fire."
The CBS program, which is to be aired Tuesday, also interviewed Pham Tri Lanh, the widow of a Viet Cong who says she witnessed the raid.
"It was very crowded so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one," she told "60 Minutes II."
"Two women came out and kneeled down. They shot these two old women, and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker, and they lined them up, and they shot all of them from behind."
Yet another account is revealed in military documents accompanying the Bronze Star that Kerrey was awarded as a result of the raid. Kerrey is cited for killing 21 Viet Cong, destroying two huts and capturing enemy weapons.
Kerrey has said he had no part in writing the Bronze Star citation. At Thursday's news conference the former senator and former Nebraska governor said, "It was not a secret to our commanding officer what happened that night."
But Kerrey said he had no explanation for why the dead were found all in one area when it was common practice for villagers to scatter when the firing started.
Kerrey said he had not tried to keep that night a secret, but admitted he has said little about it in three decades.
"I've chosen to talk about it because it helps me to heal," he said. "Perhaps a discussion will help combat troops be better prepared."
Kerrey said he had told his son and daughter about the raid.
"They told me they still love me. Their love heals. And it makes me glad I've begun to tell this story," said Kerrey, who also is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest military award.
In all the years, however, Kerrey said he never has been able to justify what happened that night either "militarily" or "morally."
In an interview published earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal, Kerrey said: "I went out on a mission, and after it was over I was so ashamed, I wanted to die. This is killing me. I'm tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside."
Kerrey was a 25-year-old lieutenant and had been in Vietnam only a month at the time of the raid.
"You could conceivably rescind the award of the [Bronze] medal. … Right now I know of no such effort under way or considered … (but) I'm not ruling that out," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said at a Thursday news conference.
A naval source in Washington told UPI the Navy would take no action until directed to do so by the Pentagon.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a likely seeker of the Democrat presidential nomination in 2004, issued a statement on the floor of the Senate urging the media not to go into a feeding frenzy over "a difference of memory" 32 years after the fact, noting the level of confusion that existed in the Mekong Delta.
"I served in the very same area that Bob Kerrey did. I served there at the very same time that he did. I remember those free-fire zones. I remember our feelings then, and the great confusion many people felt about the ambiguities we were automatically presented with … by a military doctrine that suggested that certain areas were wholly and totally 'enemy territory,' but nevertheless to the naked eye we could often perceive life as we knew it in Vietnam being carried on in those areas," Kerry said.
"Inevitably, there were older citizens, women, children and others who were often, as a matter of strategy by the Viet Cong, drawn into the line of fire and put in positions of danger without regard, I might add, for their side as well as ours.
"I fully remember what it was like to 'saddle up' for a nighttime mission with no moon, no light, trying to move clandestinely and trying to surprise people."
Kerrey said he was devastated when he saw the bodies.
"I just killed my own family," he said he thought. "I just did something really bad. I thought this shouldn't have happened.
"Hell's not an imaginary thing. It's a ... real place, and you can experience it on Earth, and I experienced it that night," Kerrey said in describing his reaction to "60 Minutes II."
After Kerrey lost his leg, he spent months recovering in a Philadelphia naval hospital before returning to Nebraska and going into business. He was elected governor in 1981 and to the Senate in 1988. He ran for the Democrat nomination for president in 1992, but decided against taking on Al Gore last year. He is president of New York University.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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