In an interview published Wednesday by the Omaha World-Herald, Kerrey said he initially believed his squad was attacking a Viet Cong district meeting.
Kerrey, who lost the lower part of his right leg in a grenade explosion just 17 days after the Feb. 25, 1969, mission, received a Bronze Star "for heroic achievement" for his actions, which led to the deaths of 21 people.
"We entered two hours after sunset on a dark and moonless night," Kerry said in a telephone interview from New York, where he serves as president of New School University. "It was the most risky mission I had led in my short time in the country. My greatest fear was that some mistake on my part would end in the death of my men.
"When we received fire, we returned fire. But when the fire stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it.
"Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years."
Kerrey, who was a 25-year-old lieutenant at the time and had been in Vietnam only a month, said he was talking about the attack now because a former member of his elite Navy SEAL squad, Gerhard Klann, was telling a different version of the story. According to Klann, Kerrey's squad rounded up civilians and shot them because they did not feel they could retreat safely otherwise.
Another member of the squad told the World-Herald he backed Kerrey's version of events.
"Bob's account is absolutely accurate," said Mike Ambrose of Houston, the top enlisted man in the seven-man squad.
"We had a bad night. The rest of the action was unfortunate."
The Bronze Star citation tells yet another version. It credits Kerrey's squad with killing 14 Viet Cong, destroying two huts and capturing enemy weapons in Thanh Phong, a peasant hamlet in the Mekong Delta. Then as the squad waited to be evacuated, the citation says, it came under attack again and killed seven more Viet Cong.
Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner, said he did not help prepare the citation and makes no mention of the Bronze Star in his official biographies for the New School University, the U.S. Senate or the Nebraska Blue Book.
"I've lived with this privately for 32 years," Kerrey said. "I felt it best to keep this memory private. I can't keep it private anymore. My conscience tells me some good should come from this."
Kerry also has been interviewed about the attack by the New York Times' magazine and CBS's "60 Minutes II," and talked about the mission in a speech last week at the Virginia Military Institute.
After Kerrey lost his leg, he spent months recovering in a Philadelphia veterans hospital before returning to Nebraska and going into business. He was elected governor in 1981 and to the Senate in 1988. After two terms in the Senate he decided not to seek re-election. In January he became president of New School University.
Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 but decided against taking on Al Gore last year. He's mentioned as a possible candidate in 2004.
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