Boston, Mass.–Some of John Kerry’s fellow Swift Boat veterans–the ones who were not on stage with him at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night–are questioning the account of Kerry’s Vietnam service as presented in a nine-minute biographical video played at the convention.
In particular, the film portrayed an incident in which Kerry, in command of a Swift Boat, rescued Army Green Beret Jim Rassman during a fight on a river in South Vietnam. The film graphically illustrated the incident, in which a group of Swift Boats, including Kerry’s, came under attack on March 13, 1969. The film recounted the often-told story of how a wounded Kerry pulled Rassman out of the water while under enemy fire.
The veterans raise two objections to the story. First, they question Kerry’s version of events. Second, they question the convention video’s portrayal of Kerry’s version of events. First, the video. The film included what appeared to be pictures of the incident itself. But one of Kerry’s fellow officers who was involved in the action that day says there is, to his knowledge, no film of what went on. “I can vouch for the fact that there was probably no way that that incident was filmed that day, in the chaos of that moment,” says Larry Thurlow, who was, like Kerry, a Navy lieutenant in command of a Swift Boat.
There is some confusion about what the film actually shows. In 1996, the Boston Globe reported that Kerry bought an 8-mm movie camera during his time in Vietnam and used it to film reenactments of some of the action in which he was involved. The Globe reporter recounted how Kerry showed the reporter a video made from that old film during an interview in Kerry’s Boston home. “Kerry jumps repeatedly from the couch to adjust the Sony large screen TV in his home entertainment center,” the Globe reported, “making sure the picture is clear, the color correct. He fast forwards, rewinds and freezeframes the footage. His running commentary–vivid, sometimes touching, sometimes self-serving–never misses a beat.”
The New York Times later reported that Kerry had not reenacted any action. And James Moll, the Hollywood director who made the Kerry convention film, told The New York Observer that he did not see any “reenacted” scenes of actual battle. But Moll’s comments did not answer the question of what was shown in the convention video. “When Jim Rassman is talking about how John Kerry saved his life, I’m using some of that footage,” Moll told the paper. “It shows the swift boat and various shots of the swift boat, and some firing like you see in the water. Bullets in the water.”
But the Observer also reported that “the bullets in the water were not from the actual event,” and that Moll said the footage was “illustrative.” Whatever the case, the campaign video featured footage of Swift Boats in action, and of apparently hostile fire. In the end, it is not clear whether the events portrayed were real or a reenactment.
Another of Kerry’s fellow veterans, Steven Gardner, says that Kerry did indeed make movies of himself, and asked his crew members to take pictures as well, but, wisely, always at times when the crew was not in danger of making contact with the enemy. “One of the guys would be taking pictures of him, but never in a fire zone,” Gardner says. “Anytime he discharged a weapon or anything like that, it was strictly play action.” (Gardner is the only enlisted man from Kerry’s crew not to join the so-called “Band of Brothers” supporting Kerry. He says he never got along with his old skipper.)
“If I was making a movie of my tour of duty and wanted to show people when I got home, I’d probably do the same thing,” says Larry Thurlow. “If you wanted to enhance the fact that you were in Vietnam and saw some action, you’d probably want to dramatize it a little bit. But he couldn’t have taken pictures that day, because he had to be in control of his boat.”
As for the first, more fundamental objection to the convention video, Thurlow says that Kerry’s version of the events of March 13, 1969, is simply wrong. “His story is a total fabrication,” Thurlow says. One of the Swift Boats did hit a mine that day, Thurlow says, but much of the rest of Kerry’s story is inaccurate. “This thing about being under intense enemy fire is a falsehood…There was no fire off either bank [of the river]. This thing about getting Jim out of the river under a hail of bullets with these serious injuries is totally fabricated.”
“We fired our weapons onto the bank to suppress any chance that there might be snipers that might try to pick off guys in the chaos,” Thurlow says. “But I don’t remember any fire from the banks.” Thurlow also says he saw Kerry briefly toward the end of the day, and “he wasn’t bleeding, and he wasn’t hurt.”
Thurlow’s recollection of events, along with those of other veterans who were there, will be part of an upcoming book by John O’Neill, a leader of Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, a group of Kerry’s former colleagues, mostly his fellow Navy officers, who oppose Kerry’s presidential candidacy.