Bob Kerrey's fellow Vietnam veterans say the retired senator's admission that more than a dozen civilians were killed in a 1969 raid he led doesn't make him any less of a hero.
"Every war since the beginning of time, there've been civilians that died," says Ron Stout, 55, who commanded a Navy river assault boat during the Vietnam War. "We all live with a certain amount of guilt."
Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner, has acknowledged his Navy SEAL unit gunned down numerous Vietnamese women and children during a nighttime firefight on the Mekong Delta 32 years ago.
"I was in firefights where there were civilians killed … It happens," says Jerry Garner, 55, who led an Army infantry rifle platoon in Vietnam. "When you're trying to keep from getting killed, you've gotta make a split-second decision to do something that maybe when you look back on it, you think, 'Well, why did I do that?'"
The former senator, Nebraska governor, and one-time presidential candidate insists his seven-man special forces team came under enemy fire during the mission and unintentionally killed the civilians while returning fire.
"In that kind of environment, you have to return fire to protect your troops," says Ron Lucas, 50, a retired Air Force colonel who was stationed in the Philippines during the war. "He may not be proud of what he did that night, but he was doing his duty."
'When the Memories Come to Haunt Him … '
Kerrey was awarded the Bronze Star for the mission and received the Medal of Honor for a subsequent operation in which he lost part of his leg to an enemy grenade.
Stout, the former assault boat commander, says Kerrey may find solace in the words of Medals — a poem written by Korean War veteran Roberto Prinselaar:
"Don't envy a man his medals All those ribbons on his chest," the poem reads. "He did not try to get them They're not there at his request … "
"He was told he had to wear them And to wear them all with pride But when the memories come to haunt him Those same medals make him hide."
As he searches for the name of a lost comrade on "The Wall" — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington — retired 2nd Lt. Garner says he has one simple message for Kerrey, now that he has gone public with the revelation.
"Hang in there," he says. "You've had that cross to bear for 32 years. Now, it may get a little heavier."