Ballot Box

The Best of John Kerry

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of John Kerry—and what they leave out.

The story: “Even though he disagreed with the [Vietnam] war, Kerry enlisted in the Navy because he believes in the code of national service. Kerry, who volunteered to command what was known as a ‘swift boat,’ repeatedly showed courage under fire and gained the admiration of his crew. He was wounded three times and received three Purple Hearts. He also was awarded a Bronze Star for saving the life of a Special Forces lieutenant, and a Silver Star for boldly leading a counterattack into enemy fire.” (Chicago Sun Times, May 9, 2003)

“Mr. Kerry won his Silver Star by ordering his patrol boat straight into a Vietcong ambush, all guns blazing. This looked foolhardy to some other commanders, but it threw the guerrillas into disarray—and Mr. Kerry carried the day.” (Economist, July 19, 2003)

“Kerry went from having one of the safest assignments in the escalating conflict to one of the most dangerous. … [S]wift boats were charged with patrolling the narrow waterways of the Mekong Delta to draw fire and smoke out the enemy. Cruising inlets and coves and canals, swift boats were especially vulnerable targets. … Because bullets could easily penetrate the hull, sailors hung flak jackets over the sides. The boat’s loud engine invited ambushes. Speed was its saving grace—but that wasn’t always an option in narrow, heavily mined canals. … Under [Adm. Elmo] Zumwalt’s command, swift boats would aggressively engage the enemy. Zumwalt, who died in 2000, calculated in his autobiography that these men under his command had a 75 percent chance of being killed or wounded during a typical year.” (Boston Globe, June 16, 2003)

Reality check: On March 17, 1969, Kerry’s superior officer passed along a request from Kerry to be reassigned “as a personal aide in Boston, New York, or Wash., D.C. area.” The basis for this request was a rule that allowed any Navy officer with three wounds to seek reassignment “regardless of the nature of the wounds.” Kerry had indeed received three wounds, but all were minor (they had caused him to miss only two days of service), and the third was on March 13, 1969, just four days before his transfer request was forwarded. In sum, he got out as soon as he could. The Boston Globe noted that “none of [Kerry’s] wounds was disabling” and that he got his transfer “six months before his combat tour was slated to end.” According to the Globe, “Kerry declined … to sign a waiver authorizing the release of military documents that are covered under the Privacy Act and that might shed more light on the extent of the treatment Kerry needed as a result of the wounds.”

Still, Kerry and Wes Clark are the only 2004 presidential candidates who fought in Vietnam. And before leaving, Kerry made sure his crew members were also reassigned to safer jobs. *

Correction, Feb. 4, 2004: The article originally said Kerry was the only 2004 presidential candidate who fought in Vietnam. After the article was posted, Wes Clark, a fellow Vietnam veteran, announced his candidacy.