Politics & Policy

On Kerry’s Honor

The symbols of service should mean something.

“I’ve had thorns from a rose that were worse,” says Grant Hibbard, John Kerry’s former commanding officer about the wound the senator received on December 2, 1968, that earned him his first Purple Heart award. Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that Hibbard is among the Vietnam veterans who are questioning the awards that sent John Kerry home early from Vietnam. The controversy prompted Tim Russert to ask Kerry this past Sunday whether he would release all of his military records, including medical records and his officer evaluations. Kerry assured Russert that they’re already publicly available at his headquarters. But they’re not. And the tragic suicide of the Navy’s Admiral Mike Boorda in 1996 is a reminder of why the media should be clamoring for their release.

The Boston Globe took Kerry at his word and headed to his campaign office to look at the records the senator claimed would be available, only to be told nothing further would be released. “All” of the military records Russert asked about would not be made available after all, including the medical records from his second and third purple hearts, and his officer evaluations. The newspaper recalled that the White House released 300 pages of documents on President Bush’s National Guard service earlier this year.

In a press release this week, Tour of Duty author Douglas Brinkley announced that he thinks questions about whether Kerry legitimately earned those Purple Hearts are unseemly. Allowing that maybe he is “naïve, or too pro-veteran,” Brinkley declares: “Only somebody craven–or with a political agenda–could stoop so low.” But, it’s veterans who are raising questions. The ribbons we civilians admire as colorful adornments represent far more to veterans. Admiral Boorda recognized the importance of an award’s integrity to men in uniform.

In 1996, a left-wing news service raised questions about two small “V” clips that the chief of Naval operations wore over two of the medals on his chest full of them. The clips are awarded for valor under fire, and there was some doubt about whether Boorda’s two tours in Vietnam aboard combat ships qualified him for the awards, although the Washington Post reported that a 1965 Navy manual appeared to support Boorda’s right to wear the clips. Unlike Kerry, the awards did not provide grounds for Boorda to shorten his tours of duty.

Hours before he was scheduled to meet with Newsweek reporters to discuss the controversy, the admiral went to his home at the Navy Yard and shot himself in the chest. The CNO had been in command of the Navy during a troubled period and his leadership was being criticized by its senior officers. Still, among the notes he left was one to “the sailors” expressing his fear that the controversy over his decorations might harm the Navy. Boorda had lied about his age to join the Navy and was the first CNO to rise through the enlisted ranks.

Evan Thomas, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief who was scheduled to interview the Admiral, explained that he was devastated by his death, but defended his magazine’s pursuit of the combat award story. “We’ve got to do our job,” he said. “Part of that job is checking on the truthfulness of people in positions of power. Like the admiral.” And, like a prospective president. So far, Newsweek has ignored the controversy over John Kerry’s awards.

It might well be that the release of all of Kerry’s military records would refute the criticisms of some of those who served with him. But, in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, craven or partisan motives shouldn’t be attributed to Vietnam veterans who honor the symbols of honorable service.

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