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Tags: Controversy | Surrounds | Kerrey | Account

Controversy Surrounds Kerrey Account

Monday, 30 April 2001 12:00 AM

Senators and Vietnam veterans John Kerry, Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel and John McCain addressed the controversy surrounding the former Nebraska senator on the ABC program "This Week," saying Kerrey's U.S. Navy SEAL squadron, known as "Kerrey's Raiders," accidentally killed the women, children and elderly of Thanh Phong village on Feb. 25, 1969, during a midnight raid.

"This is an error and it's tragic, but I think going back … and trying to blame somebody … is not the way to go," said Sen. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. "I think we ought to be proud of our service men and women and I'm particularly proud of Bob Kerrey."

The former squad commander is also an amputee, losing part of his right leg in an explosion during another raid. Kerrey won the Congressional Medal of Honor following his return and recuperation. He was also awarded the Bronze Star for the Thanh Phong village raid.

The senators, recounting their own Vietnam experiences, said that Kerrey should not be held responsible for the killing of some 21 people that night, as the distinction between soldier and civilian was often blurred.

"In Vietnam, the civilians were often the combatants. A 12-year-old kid could walk up to a cafe, and did, and lobbed a grenade into that cafe and blew up people," Sen. Kerry said. "Women would have a gun, perhaps hidden under … a dress, a skirt … this was a war where the combatants were completely confused with civilians."

In addition to their "This Week" defense of Kerrey, Sens. Hagel, Kerry and Cleland penned a letter that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post commending their former colleague for sharing his private memory of Thanh Phong and were hopeful that it might heal lingering public wounds concerning Vietnam.

"Bob Kerrey's personal and difficult disclosure last week demonstrates the courage we all have known in him for years," said the statement. "It also reveals the very real guilt and pain that persists among combat veterans of all war, and particularly Vietnam."

Kerrey's memories of the incident, which until recently he shared only with his mother, former wife and minister, have become the subject of much public speculation. After mentioning the village shooting during an April address at Virginia Military Institute, Kerrey went public with his account of the raid.

A contrary account by a fellow SEAL was featured prominently in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. In it, squad-mate Gerhard Klann says Kerrey and the SEAL unit killed civilians at point-blank range.

Kerrey told a news conference April 26 in New York that talking about the raid is helping him "to heal," and he again said that he and other SEALS had returned fire in a free-fire zone.

"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," Kerry 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."

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 (Neb.) World-Herald, his recollection of that night jibes with Kerrey's.

The former SEAL squad commando and five members of his team broke the 32-year vow of silence and went public with their account of what happened via a letter to the press on April 28.

"On February 25, 1969, our SEAL team squad went on a mission to eliminate the local political leadership of the South Vietnamese communists in the area," read the statement.

"From the beginning the mission did not go as expected. We have individual memories of a night that was a defining and tragic moment for each of us. These individual memories have been made worse by individual emotion and the advance of time. We will never know all the details of that night. …"

However, conflicting stories, such as Klann's, have been swirling about the raid. Klann, 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.

Described as the most experienced member of Kerrey's squad in the article, Klann told CBS' "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 of the incident is revealed in military documents accompanying the Bronze Star 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 he 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.

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."

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 told a Thursday news conference.

A naval source in Washington told United Press International the Navy will take no action on the matter until directed to do so by the Pentagon.

Sen. John Kerry 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."

In his official biographies for the New School University, where he is currently president, the U.S. Senate and the Nebraska Blue Book, Kerrey makes no mention of the Bronze Star.

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. Kerry ran for president in 1992, but decided against taking on Al Gore last year. He's mentioned as a possible candidate in 2004.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Senators and Vietnam veterans John Kerry, Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel and John McCain addressed the controversy surrounding the former Nebraska senator on the ABC program This Week, saying Kerrey's U.S. Navy SEAL squadron, known as Kerrey's Raiders, accidentally killed the...
Monday, 30 April 2001 12:00 AM
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