Kate’s Take: Brothers Against Kerry


Kate O'Beirne

On Tuesday morning, John Kerry’s other, bigger, band of brothers visited Washington to announce that their Vietnam sibling is unfit to be commander-in-chief. According to its organizers, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth represents “the large majority” of those who served with Lieutenant Kerry on the Navy’s Patrol Craft-Fast (PCF) vessels. Older, grayer, reluctant but determined, they remain a formidable force.

A huge photograph of Lt.j.g. Kerry with 17 of his fellow officers stood to the side of the podium where about a dozen veterans spoke on behalf of the almost 200 who have signed a letter to Senator Kerry asking him to release his “complete and unaltered” military records. The newly organized group includes 12 of the officers who posed for that photograph 35 years ago. “We have been silent long enough,” the letter declares. These Vietnam veterans have organized in 2004 to reclaim their reputations from the distortions and betrayal they believe they suffered at the hands their fellow swift-boat veteran in 1971.

But for that shot of those handsome young men in uniform, this gathering of middle-aged men might be a Lion’s Club meeting of local community leaders. These are the kind of men who quietly returned to those communities, with their medals and memories of honorable service, to resume their civilian lives. They quietly watched John Kerry make his claims about widespread atrocities in the “obscene memory” that was Vietnam. In a veteran-to-veteran face-off, John O’Neill engaged John Kerry in 1971, but the rest of these men were content to let the politicians and historians argue over the war and its aftermath. Until now.

Capt. (Ret.) George Elliott explained that he hadn’t “talked for 30 minutes in 25 years” about John Kerry’s role in the antiwar movement. Andy Horne from Houston said that he was silent 35 years ago about John Kerry’s allegations about atrocities, but vowed that he “won’t be silent ever again.” The passage of time has had little effect on the raw emotions of these gray-haired veterans. Former Lt. Robert Elder of Pennsylvania talked about the “deep sense of betrayal” he feels at the hands of a fellow naval officer. Cdr. (Ret.) Robert Brant from Michigan planned to head over to the Vietnam Memorial “to tell two of his old pals and the other 49 ‘Swifties’ that they are still the best.” Not a single one of these veterans witnessed any of the horrors John Kerry solemnly testified to before the Senate and assert that his oath obliged him to report alleged war crimes to his command.

Rear Admiral (Ret.) Roy Hoffman, the chairman of the group, bluntly stated that the John Kerry who served in his command is unfit to command himself. He states that after four months and 12 days, with his “specious medals secure,” Kerry “bugged out of Vietnam.” As far as the admiral is concerned, “the real band of brothers are those who honorably and reliably stayed the course.”

Since their activities have hit the news, these Navy veterans are again taking incoming fire. Predictably, they are being accused of being partisan shills. In an ironic echo of the past, they’re being dismissed as “bitter alcoholics.” But, these men are determined to fight one more battle to salvage the reputations of the tens of thousands who served honorably. It’s not about partisan politics they explain, it’s a “veterans’ issue.” If the Democrats “had a fit choice for president we’d go home.” They “do not want Senator Kerry to be commander-in-chief of our brave and honorable men.”

What of George Bush’s controversial record in the National Guard? John O’Neill says that if his fellow Guardsmen have a problem with the president’s service they ought to come forward. This group of veterans is raising specific objections to one specific veteran with whom they served.