Politics & Policy

Kerry’s Brief Brotherhood

The truth behind a sensational rumor about Kerry's "band of brothers."

In the last few days, there’s been a new accusation floating around the Internet about John Kerry’s Vietnam record. It involves speculation that David Alston, one of the “band of brothers” who served on board Kerry’s Swift Boat, did not actually serve with Kerry at all. If such a story were true, it would be sensational news, given that Alston has made extensive public statements, including a speech at the Democratic National Convention, about his time with Kerry. The only problem is, it’s not true. Alston did indeed serve under Kerry.

But the attention the rumor brought to Alston and his service aboard Kerry’s boat, PCF-94, has cast new light on the time the men were together. And it appears that while Alston was in fact on board PCF-94 when Kerry was in command, his total time of service under Kerry was quite brief–perhaps as little as seven days. According to records of Kerry’s service posted on his campaign’s website, it appears the two men were in actual combat together on two of those days.

Alston, a gunner’s mate, was wounded in battle on January 29, 1969, while serving on PCF-94. The skipper of the boat at the time, Lt. Tedd Peck, was seriously wounded in the same incident. In Peck’s absence, Kerry was chosen to take over command of PCF-94. Alston was also replaced, temporarily; his job was taken over by an Arkansas native named Fred Short.

According to Short, who supports the Kerry candidacy and appeared alongside Alston with Kerry at last month’s convention, Alston was gone during the month of February and did not return to the boat until March. Short remembers going on his first patrol on PCF-94 on February 18, 1969–he recalls the date clearly because it was his birthday. Short remembers taking part in his last operation on PCF-94 around March 4. He believes Alston returned a few days later.

Alston himself, while not questioning Short’s recollection, remembers being away for a shorter period of time. Alston says he was not as seriously wounded as some have assumed–the scar tissue that is visible on his head, he says, is the result of a scalp condition and not the result of a grievous war wound. Rather, Alston says, he suffered a relatively minor wound to the head along with a more serious injury, which he described as a “clean bullet wound” in the arm. “I was not hospitalized,” Alston says. “I was treated on a Coast Guard Cutter…I was only off the boat [PCF-94] two weeks, and that’s when Fred Short took my place.” Alston says he doesn’t have an exact memory of when he returned to the boat–”You’re talking about 30 or so years ago,” he says.

Alston spoke only briefly with National Review Online, saying all interviews must be approved by the Kerry campaign. Asked about Alston’s length of service, John Hurley, the campaign’s national director of veterans’ issues, said, “My understanding is that he [Alston] was gone for a month…. Fred [Short] was on the boat for about a month.” Hurley said he has not checked the specific dates of Alston’s time on PCF-94, but, like Alston, Hurley cautioned, “It’s 35 years later, and memories are different.”

Whatever the exact dates, Hurley confirmed that Alston was not on board PCF-94 on February 28, 1969, the day Kerry earned a Silver Star for an engagement in which he beached his Swift Boat and chased down and killed a Viet Cong guerilla armed with a rocket launcher. That suggests that Alston, who was wounded on January 29, was indeed away for at least a month. Short was manning the guns on February 28 and received the Navy Commendation Medal for his work.

According to Hurley, Alston was on board PCF-94 during the now-famous March 13, 1969 engagement in which Kerry pulled Army Green Beret Jim Rassman from the water after one of the boats in Kerry’s group struck a mine. Kerry won a Bronze Star for that action, as well as a third Purple Heart.

After that engagement, Kerry made use of a regulation that allowed three-time Purple Heart recipients to leave Vietnam. It is not clear if Kerry engaged in any more patrols after the Rassman rescue incident, but a timeline of Kerry’s after-action reports on his campaign website shows no missions after March 13. (The timeline also shows that PCF-94 came under Viet Cong fire the day before, March 12, which was the other time Alston and Kerry appear to have been in combat together.)

In light of the timeline and interviews with the participants, it seems likely that Alston’s time with Kerry was at most two weeks, and, if Short’s recollection is correct, as little as one week. Given that, it is possible that some of Alston’s public statements might have left audiences with the impression that he and Kerry were together for a longer period of time. “I know him from a small boat in Vietnam where we fought and bled together serving our country,” Alston said at the Democratic convention. “We usually patrolled the narrow waterways of the Mekong Delta, flanked on both sides by thick jungle.” After combat engagements, Alston said, “Lieutenant Kerry always took the time to calm us down, to bring us back to reality, to give us hope, to show us what we truly had within ourselves. I came to love and respect him as a man I could trust with life itself.”

In addition, Alston has on at least one occasion seemed to give the impression that he was present for Kerry’s Silver Star-winning actions on February 28. “I know when John Kerry told [crew member Del Sandusky] to beach that damn boat, this was a brand-new ball game,” Alston told ABC’s Nightline on June 22. “We wasn’t running. We took it to Charlie.”

For his part, Kerry has sometimes left the impression that he was present when Alston was wounded. Paying tribute to Alston’s service during a speech before a South Carolina veterans’ group in May 2002, Kerry said, according to an account in The New Republic, “He [Alston] sat up in a turret above my head in the pilot house–firing twin fifty-calibers to suppress enemy fire from ambushes. We were extremely exposed–always shot at first…. On one occasion in an ambush his turret was riddled with almost one hundred bullets penetrating the aluminum skin. This gunman kept firing even though he was wounded–one bullet going through his helmet, grazing his head and another hitting his arm….”

That description sounds precisely like the incident on January 29, 1969 in which Alston was wounded. But Lt. Peck, and not Kerry, was in command of PCF-94 that day.

According to a report in the Boston Globe, the Kerry campaign website has in the past listed Kerry as being the skipper of PCF-94 at the time of Alston’s wounding. When Kerry’s military records were first posted on the site, according to the Globe, “the campaign summarize[d] action that took place on Jan. 29, 1969, this way: ‘While Kerry’s boat and another (PCF-72) were probing a canal along the river, Kerry’s boat came under heavy fire and was hit by a B-40 rocket in the cabin area. One member of Kerry’s crew Forward Gunner David Alston suffered shrapnel wounds in his head….’” The campaign website also listed two other incidents that took place prior to January 29 as having occurred under Kerry’s leadership.

Peck, who would later sign a letter to Kerry written by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, protested. “Those are definitely mine,” he told the Globe. “There is no doubt about it.” The campaign later removed the January 29 reference from the website.

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