Wounded Vietnam veteran Joseph Ponder approached the podium on crutches. The Swift Boat veteran nearly broke into tears as he took his turn speaking against his old war comrade, Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.).
“My daughters and my wife have read parts of the book Tour of Duty,” he said, referring to Douglas Brinkley’s recent biography of Kerry, released this year in time for Kerry’s presidential bid. “They wanted to know if I took part in the atrocities described.”
Ponder and about 20 other Swift Boat veterans appeared at a May 4 press conference at the National Press Club to denounce Kerry for falsely accusing Vietnam veterans of war crimes while simultaneously showing off his brief war service to get elected President.
The event was ignored by some news organizations–including the Associated Press–but was reported by several others.
“We left a lot of friends on the field, and we don’t appreciate a guy who lied about it and continues to lie about it right up to the present,” said John O’Neill, the group’s spokesman. “We believe, based on our experiences with him, he is totally unfit to be commander in chief,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill, who coincidentally commanded the same Swift Boat Kerry had commanded before he left Vietnam in 1969, used the press conference to unveil an open letter to Kerry with signatures from more than 200 of Kerry’s fellow “Swifties.”
Nineteen of the 23 officers who served with Kerry in Vietnam had signed the letter so far, as had nearly every officer who commanded Kerry for any substantial period of time, including retired Coast Guard Capt. Adrian Lonsdale, retired Navy Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann, retired Lt. Cmdr. George Elliot, and retired Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard.
“It is our collective judgment that, upon your return from Vietnam, you grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct of the American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen of that war,” the letter reads. The letter also calls on Kerry to let the Navy publicly release all of his records. Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan pointed out that most of Kerry’s military records, though not all his military medical records, are available on his website, JohnKerry.com.
At a hastily assembled press conference in the same building, three veterans backing Kerry’s run for President dismissed the others as acting from political motives as part of a “Republican smear machine,” as Kerry crewmate Del Sandusky put it.
But appearing on MSNBC that evening, O’Neill rejected such claims. “The problem John Kerry’s got is that 100–or now 200 and some Swift people have signed this,” he said. “There wasn’t some conspiracy to put all Republicans or all Democrats in Coastal Division 11 back in 1969.”
O’Neill, now a lawyer in Dallas, received the support of President Nixon when he debated Kerry over the Vietnam War on a special edition of the Dick Cavett TV show in June 1971. Kerry, then an organizer and spokesman for the left-wing group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, that American troops were committing gruesome war crimes “on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
“In 1971, I called him a liar, because he lied,” O’Neill said of the debate, which took place when he was 26 years old and Kerry was 27.
In his April 1971 testimony, Kerry claimed that U.S. policy in Vietnam had already or would soon cause 200,000 Vietnamese to be “murdered” by the U.S. annually, and that the United States was the world’s worst violator of the Geneva Conventions. He also called “bogus” the notion that communism was a threat to the United States and suggested at one point that as many as 80% of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam got themselves high on drugs every day in order to deal with the war–a claim he immediately retracted under questioning.
In the same testimony, Kerry also repeated several dubious and unexplored charges that had been made at the anti-war “Winter Soldier Investigation” in Detroit that year: “They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war,” Kerry told the committee.
Many of the speakers at the 1971 Winter Soldier event were later discovered to have lied about their Vietnam service or fraudulently used the names of real Vietnam veterans. In subsequent investigations by the military, none would sign an affidavit or help the military investigate atrocity claims.
Lonsdale, who commanded Kerry in An Thoi, remarked at the press conference that he recalled many conversations with Kerry during the war, but “never once heard Sen. Kerry say one thing about atrocities.”
Asked about his 1971 testimony on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, Kerry largely stood by his claims although he said the language he used to describe U.S. troops’ actions may have been excessive. When the show’s host, Tim Russert, pointed out that much of the Winter Soldier testimony had been discredited, Kerry replied, “Actually, a lot of them have been documented.”
An Early Return
At the press conference, Hibbard said he remembered Kerry’s first wound, which eventually won him a Purple Heart, as superficial and probably not the result of enemy fire. “He showed me a small scratch on his arm and a piece of shrapnel in his hand that appeared to be from one of our own M-79s,” Hibbard said of the incident, adding that other members of Kerry’s crew said they did not think they had taken enemy fire that night. Purple Heart awards can only be given for wounds received while in combat.
Kerry managed to return stateside after spending just four months in Vietnam because he received Purple Hearts for three injuries — a fact O’Neill returned to again and again.
“The average person in Vietnam, everybody in our unit, unless they had a serious wound, spent 12 months in Vietnam,” he told Human Events. “We had many people who were wounded three times. The only guy who came in early was Kerry. . . If he’d left that alone, it would be okay. But he’s actually trying to turn that around into the centerpiece of his campaign. That’s ridiculous.”