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Fog of War

Swift boat vet Weymouth Symmes speaks


“Individual experiences in war are intensely personal, and of the most limited scope,” writes Weymouth Symmes in the introduction to his April 2004 book War on the Rivers: A Swift Boat Sailor’s Chronicle of the Battle for the Mekong Delta. “Each participant in combat has a unique perspective on the action, and all participants’ perspectives will be different to varying degrees.”

Weymouth Symmes was a retired Missoula banker when he wrote those words. Today, the Vietnam vet who served as leading petty officer on Swift boat PCF-56 from February 1969 to February 1970 is at the center of a national campaign controversy as the treasurer of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the non-partisan organization whose TV ads attacking Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Navy service have been at the forefront of the news for the past month.

That “the most ordinary group of middle-age people” could mobilize into a national force impacting the 2004 campaign is, says Symmes, “a great story of America.”

Not everyone agrees. In past weeks, Arizona Sen. John McCain has called the Swift Vets’ ads, which have yet to air in Montana, “dishonest and dishonorable.” Georgia Sen. Max Cleland has labeled their attacks “scurrilous” and “slanderous.” Even President Bush said last Thursday he does not believe Sen. Kerry lied about his war record.

But Symmes says no matter how much Bush “begs” his group to take its ads off the air, they intend to “forge on.” Despite having received its largest donations from longtime Texan Bush supporters Bob Perry and Harlan Crow, “We’re very politically naïve,” says Symmes. “We’ve had no coordination with the Bush campaign or the Republican Party at all…This isn’t a political group. It’s how we feel personally about John Kerry.”

At the heart of the Swift Boat controversy: What really happened during the incidents for which Kerry received his three Purple Hearts—awards that qualified him to leave Vietnam after four months of his 12-month tour. The Swift Vets recall Kerry’s wartime actions as unworthy of the medals. Kerry supporters who served with him in Vietnam recall his actions as heroic. Veterans on both sides are certain of their memories.

But, as Symmes articulates in his book, combat is confusing, and perceptions can vary.

Especially 35 years later, in an election year. Symmes, who says “John Kerry did lie about his military service,” doesn’t talk much about his book these days—a book that does not, in fact, indict John Kerry, but rather includes what Symmes today calls a “neutral” account of Kerry’s attendance at a “wonderful” 1995 Swift boat veterans reunion in Washington, D.C., along with a photo of Kerry and the full text of the speech the Massachusetts senator gave that day.

It was coincidence, Symmes says, that his book was published the same month retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffman (overall commander of Kerry’s Swift boat group) called him to see if Symmes would be interested in forming a group to fight back against negative portrayals of Hoffman in Kerry’s biography, Tour of Duty, by Douglas Brinkley. After that phone call, Symmes received an e-mail inviting him to an organizational meeting in Dallas in early April; 10 people showed up, Symmes included, and became the steering committee for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which now counts 250-plus members.

According to Symmes, the Swift Vets wouldn’t have formed at all if Kerry hadn’t made his military service a central platform of his campaign.

“There’s a culture in the military,” says Symmes. “The Navy expects its officers to be gentlemen…the Navy expects you to conduct yourself as an honorable individual. That’s just what’s expected.” And Kerry, says Symmes, disrespected the military by leaving Vietnam with questionable Purple Hearts after just four months and then testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 about atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam. That testimony, says Symmes, was “an absolute lie.” He sees Kerry’s postwar involvement with the “radical” Vietnam Veterans Against the War as a “sort of stain” that “has stayed with us as Vietnam veterans, and it’s very personal.”

That personal reaction is part of the Swift Vets’ problem, says retired Skipper of PCF-31 Skip Barker, whose interview with the Independent was arranged by the Kerry campaign. Barker served on Swift boats alongside John Kerry in 1969 and now works as a cotton farmer and lawyer in Selma, Ala. “Their anger over [Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony] is causing them to contrive and create out of their own cloth, in an attempt to discredit his war record,” he says. “Really they’re mad about what he said in 1971. I submit people like them who are angry are intellectually lazy…or dishonest on the issue of the subject matter of his testimony.”

Symmes says the subject matter of Kerry’s testimony—atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam—“just didn’t happen…All I can speak for is myself,” he says. “I never saw [atrocities]. I never was aware of it. People I served with aren’t aware of it. It just didn’t happen. I’m not saying it never happened in Vietnam. War is an ugly thing. Unfortunately there are consequences for civilians in war that are tragic.”

Also referencing those tragedies, Barker points out that even President Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has called Vietnam a mistake. If you “look back with the enlightenment subsequent to [Vietnam],” says Barker, “John Kerry wasn’t naïve, and he wasn’t a peacenik. He was prescient. He could see reality for what it was because he’s intelligent, curious, and determined to understand. That’s where he was in 1971.

“I think it takes a very big man to on the one hand say I honorably served my country at a time of war,” continues Barker, “but on the other side say it was a wrong war. There’s a disconnect there that requires some real intellectual work and honesty, and I’m afraid that a lot of these [Swift Vet] guys are not capable of it.”

What Symmes can be undeniably credited with, though, is belief in his cause. He speaks with a deep-seated sense of military honor when he says that “all off us had superficial wounds of the type that John Kerry had, and we would never have thought of asking for a Purple Heart.”

Yet, Kerry was awarded three Purple Hearts. He was honorably discharged. Symmes acknowledges this and says, “Nobody’s denying that he was there and that it was highly dangerous. But just to kind of game the system to sort of build your résumé and then realize after three months this is really dangerous and I don’t want to be here anymore and then leave—” Symmes stops.

(Interestingly, the Swift Vets’ own website clarifies that use of the “three injury-loophole to leave combat early” was not Kerry’s idea, but fellow Swift Officer Thomas Wright’s, who, with two other officers, “informed him of the obscure regulation, and told him to go home.”) Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Keefe, who served two tours with the Marines in Vietnam and now lives in Missoula, echoes Symmes’ sentiments. “The main issue of that period was integrity,” he says over the phone. “I stayed in Vietnam because I’d just taken over a battalion because my best friend was killed in combat…I believe that a guy doesn’t desert his troops.”

Vietnam Army vet Pete Lawrenson, who retired as Missoula Police Chief in 2000 and is now Security Chief for Montana Rail Link, also speaks out against Kerry. While he is “not saying the Americans did everything perfectly” in Vietnam, he says that their actions were also not the atrocities about which Kerry testified, and he is still offended about what Kerry said in 1971.

Asked if he thinks the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is politically motivated, Lawrenson says, “I think, sure, there are some political undertones to it. Otherwise, why haven’t we seen it before?” Symmes and the Swift Vets are particularly concerned with the day Kerry received his first Purple Heart. Symmes says Kerry got the award for nothing more than a Band-Aid wound, a “tiny sliver” of shrapnel in his arm after he fired an M79 grenade launcher in Cam Ranh Bay on Dec. 2, 1968. He says Kerry asked Commander Grant Hibbard (now a Swift Vet) if he could apply for a Purple Heart, and “Hibbard said, ‘forget it,’” says Symmes.

So how did Kerry get the Purple Heart?

“Well, we’re not sure,” says Symmes. “If we had the military records, we could say a little better, but our assumption is that after [Hibbard] left [Vietnam], he took the copy of the medical form, took it to another person and had them sign off on it, so [the Purple Heart] got issued later.”

Barker, as a lawyer, says that to deny the Swift Vets’ attacks he relies on Kerry’s released military records as evidence from a time when “you do not have bias or prejudice or political agendas.” He says, “I look at the contemporaneous memorializations in writing by Grant Hibbard, Roy Hoffman, [Lieutenant Commander] George Elliott, and [Division Commander] Joe Streuli, and you find this black-and-white memorialization of what they then thought of John Kerry’s performance in Vietnam.

“And lo and behold,” says Barker, “Hibbard ranks [Kerry] as one of the top few…Streuli submits a fitness report on John Kerry…and again ranks him as one of the top few.” Elliot, says Barker, gave Kerry the “highest possible grades” in 11 of 16 leadership categories and wrote “that John Kerry emerges as the acknowledged leader of his peer group.”

Symmes argues that Kerry has made available only a selection of his military records; if Symmes himself were to show you just a couple of his records, he says, “you’d think, boy, this guy could be admiral tomorrow.”

Retired Skipper of PCF-103 Foster Wright (also referred by the Kerry campaign), whose boat was in the same unit with Kerry in both Cat Lo and An Thoi, says in a phone call from New Hampshire that he’s weighed both sides’ claims and feels the most generous support he could give the Swift Vet argument is that wartime was confusing.

Referencing the incident for which Kerry received a Bronze Star (awarded for valor) and third Purple Heart (awarded for injury sustained during enemy fire) for pulling First Lieutenant Jim Rassmann out of the water after one of the boats in their group hit a mine, Wright, who was not present with Kerry that day, says: “The evidence is overwhelming that the way it was written up by the Navy officially is accurate.”

The Swift Vets’ trouble with Kerry’s awards that day is twofold: First, claims Symmes, Kerry’s boat fled the scene rather than helping the damaged boat (Symmes suggests Rassmann fell from Kerry’s boat as a result of the surge Kerry created by fleeing; Wright recalls being told that a B-40 rocket or another mine had blown Rassman into the water). Secondly, claim the Swift Vets, and contrary to official Navy records, there was no enemy fire that day, which is a requirement for a Purple Heart. Yet swift boat Commander Larry Thurlow, a Swift Vet who also received a Bronze Star that day, and today says there was no enemy fire, didn’t question Kerry’s Bronze Star until now.

Says Symmes: “They probably didn’t—they almost certainly didn’t—come under enemy fire.”

Asked if Bush’s incomplete service in the National Guard during Vietnam was as dishonorable as Kerry’s leaving after four months of combat, Symmes says, “I really am trying to stay apolitical in this…Our issue is with John Kerry and his service. Those are perfectly appropriate questions, and they should probably be put to Bush.”

Asked how the Swift Vet attacks against Kerry might impact troops in Iraq, who might wonder if their service, too, might one day be questioned by their peers, Symmes says, “Haven’t even thought of it, to be honest. I don’t think there’s one of the 250-plus of us that don’t fully honor the men and women that are serving today.”

He also emphasizes that he and the Swift Vets have questioned no other Vietnam vet’s service but Kerry’s. Of Rassmann’s account of Kerry saving his life, Symmes says, “I am not disparaging [Rassmann’s] service. He was there. He was in the water. There was gunfire…He’s got his memories of it. The people who served with John Kerry have their memories of it.”

Mustn’t Kerry also have his memories of the incident? “Sure he does,” says Symmes. “Vietnam is the most traumatic event for this country since the Civil War. People just don’t realize how emotional this whole issue is, and it’s particularly emotional for those of us who were over there.”

In listening to the Swift Vets for the past few weeks, retired Skipper Foster Wright has heard their emotion, too. “They’re angry that we lost the war,” he says. “They’re saying that we would have won if it wasn’t for guys like Kerry…There’s a visceral anger, and they’ve convinced themselves that all these other bad things have happened, and I don’t think they did. We were so young,” he says. “We were all in the thick of things. I think memory becomes convenient sometimes, but evidence, in my mind, is overwhelmingly on the side of John Kerry.”

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