April 26, 2001 -- Following is an unedited transcript of ABCNEWS' George Stephanopoulos interview with former Sen. Bob Kerrey about his experiences in Vietnam. The interview took place Wednesday, April 25.
ABCNEWS' GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Your Bronze Star citation the night of Feb. 25, 1969, describes two firefights; and the end results were 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed, and 2 enemy weapons captured. But that's not what happened that night, is it?
FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY: No.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What did happen?
KERREY: First of all, we filed an operation report to file what happened. The Bronze Star citation was not written up by me nor requested by me. It was written by somebody else and received by me after I got home, until, you know, still in the hospital care for another 7 or 8 years, so it's not like I wrote myself up.
We went in that night in an area that was extremely dangerous. We had reliable intelligence that there was going to be a district level meeting of the VC in that particular village. I'd flown the area the afternoon before in a fixed wing aircraft. The Navy intelligence flies out often; it had every reason to believe that there were not civilians in the area.
We went in at night, six men (including myself, 7 men total); and we found some people in the first hooch that were — we believed outpost — and we killed them. We went on, we took fire from the area that we thought we were expected to have this meeting occur and we returned fire. And we returned a lot of fire.
And by the time the firefight was all over, we had — I don't know what the total number was — a group of people. They were all women and children; they were all civilians.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Every one of them civilians?
KERREY: Yes. Now, that theater where we were, there is no such thing as everyone being a civilian; there was no doubt in my mind they were at least VC sympathizers. They were in a free-fire zone where they are not supposed to be — the district chief had said there wasn't going to be civilians there — anybody who was there is considered to be enemy.
And the truth of the matter it's very difficult to distinguish under the best of circumstances and this was hardly the best of circumstances.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How about the Bronze Star citation? How did the government get it wrong?
KERREY: How did the government get it wrong? The government almost always gets it wrong when it comes to citations. The only medal that I am certain I deserved is the Purple Heart. Citations are written by other human beings. God only knows why they write them.… [inaudible]
STEPHANOPOULOS: But when you thought knew it was wrong.…
KERREY: I'm in a hospital for God sakes, trying to get my life back together, trying to get back into civilian life. In that particular time there were protests in the street for… [inaudible] Even going over there.
People of the United States of America sent us over to Viet Nam to fight a war and then decided midstream they didn't want us to do it. So no, I'm stacking my arms, putting my uniform away, trying to get back to civilian life, and I'm not sitting there making moral judgments about whether or not I should or should not receive a medal, that's the least of my worries in 1969 and 70.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, another member of your squad, Gerhardt, has been talking to news organizations, giving quite a different account of what happened that night. Do you know what he is saying?
KERREY: I have a pretty good idea of what he's saying. He said we rounded up a bunch of civilians and we shot them in point blank range — which did not happen.
Look, Gerhardt and I are platoon-mates. I selected him for my platoon. He had more experience than I did, he had a tour over to Viet Nam once before, a 20-year veteran… [inaudible] All in all, and he and I agree on a number of things. My guess is one of them was night, the second is free-fire zone, the third is we expected to find enemy and fourth is we took fire, so there's a lot of things we agree on. I regret he's got a different memory because it's not the memory that I've got. It's not the memory that other members of the squad have either.
STEPHANOPOULOS: He says you intentionally targeted civilians?
KERREY: That's not true. We did not intentionally target civilians. I'd flown the area the day before for the express purpose of finding and make certain there weren't civilians in the area. We did not expressly target civilians. Our operation that night came as a consequence of reliable intelligence, that there was going to be a meeting at the district level of the Viet Cong; that was the purpose of the operation.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You've seen him several times since 1969, correct?
KERREY: Oh God, over the last 32 years, yeah.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Have you ever talked to him about that night?
KERREY: We don't do that sort of thing. I don't know, you just don't talk about the bad memories nearly as much as you do the good memories. I have no other explanation other than that. I've seen all my squad members one time or another the last 32 years, and it's not a subject we feel necessarily very proud of and so we are not likely to bring it up.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you have any idea at all why he might be giving this account?
KERREY: No, I don't. I mean I… I don't.
Look, I've made a decision to talk publicly about this. I was approached by a reporter at the very time I was writing a book to tell this very whole story anyway. So I've consciously made a decision to talk publicly because I've been sitting on this memory for 32 years and believe that, as a public memory, I can do something more constructive than I can holding on to it as a private memory. And that is where I am trying to go.
So I'm not going to try to go to a place where I get into a firefight with Gerhardt over the details of the operation. I'm not going to line people up and attack his credibility as a consequence of trying to question his motives. He can explain himself as to why he felt the way.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But he has talked to news organizations. Are you telling your story now to get your version out first?
KERREY: No, I'm not. I made a decision to take this memory public, know, I am not talking to news organizations in order to get my story out first. I consciously made a decision when approached sometime ago to talk about this, to talk about it. I've included it in the text of a book that I'm going to put out relatively soon. No, this is a decision I've made on my own to take my own private memory public because I think it can be useful.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you stayed silent for 32 years. And in your speech at VMI last week you just said you were haunted by the memory. If you were haunted then why stay silent for so long?
KERREY: My sweetest, dearest friend, Bob Spire, who was the attorney general in Nebraska, was in the second battle of the Philippines. The bloodiest battle in the entire Pacific campaign — 25 percent of American casualties in the Pacific were in the second battle of the Philippines. He never told me why. I tried to get him to talk about it, he wouldn't talk about anything. All he would say is, "I saw horrible things and did horrible things."
The idea that somebody who has done something horrible in a war is not willing to talk about it for 32 years is hardly a shocking idea. Quite the contrary.
It seems to me this is the sort of thing that needs to be talked about. People put euphemisms on the war; and they don't understand that if you're going to send a young man off to fight a war you better be sure that the moral cause it just you'd better be sure you justified it, because it can be a heck of a lot harder to kill for your country than it is to die for it. And that is what we were trained to do.
We weren't trained to pass out leaflets. We weren't going over there to try to persuade people that communism was inferior to democracy. We were sent over there to kill people as brutally and as ruthlessly as we possibly could to persuade them to stop fighting. That's what we were doing. This was not a political effort. This was a war and we tried to conduct it in as tough and ruthless a fashion as we could, to be as effective as we could.
My overriding priority at the time was to keep my men safe and I think it's important for the American people to understand that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you kill people that night?
KERREY: I would assume so. I killed people before and after; yes.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Keeping silent also created some political risk. But you were in the presidential campaign, your war record was discussed extensively. You traveled with the Navy SEALs, they were out campaigning for you. Were you at all worried at some point in the campaign, say you got the democratic nomination, this could come out and cause some sort of scandal, it could deny the Democratic Party the presidency? It never came up?
KERREY: Never came up. Are you saying it was a worry of mine?
STEPHANOPOULOS: It was a worry? What do you think you would have done had the story come out in the middle of the campaign?
KERREY: I don't have any idea. I mean, the story is coming out because I am making the decision to talk about it. That's why the story is coming out. And I will continue to talk about it.
I'm president of a university where I'm trying to help young people understand not just what they need to know in order to live good economic lives, but to live good political and social lives as well.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you wish you would have come out with it earlier?
KERREY: I wish I hadn't done it that night. Frankly I don't give a damn about afterward, about what I did do politically or didn't do politically. What I tried to do was describe the darkest evening in my entire lifetime. And I've run that tape back. And indeed on the operation I was injured we adjusted operations and I've got guys in my squad to tell me that's the reason I got injured and almost killed them.
The thing that I'm most concerned about in this situation is just simply trying to tell the truth as best I know it and try to get to a place where I can say to human beings, "You're better than the worst thing you ever did in your life."
Secondly, no matter who you are, peacetime or wartime, you can do something you regret deeply because you were not sufficiently prepared. You didn't think about what you were doing; you were putting something higher on the priority list perhaps than what should have been. There's all sorts of things that perhaps I can do once I get to a point where people adjusted to this and understand that's who I am.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The seven members… Have you talked to the other five members of the squad about what happened that night?
STEPHANOPOULOS: And is there any kind of a consensus?
KERREY: Yeah, there is absolute consensus that we went in in a free-fire zone where there was enemy expected to be. The enemy had been operating there and we expected to find a district-level meeting going on with Viet Cong. There is absolute concurrence on that. And there's, I believe relatively strong concurrence that we had taken fire and returned fire and that's where the civilian casualties was produced.
Nobody in the squad that I have talked to has the same memory that Gerhardt's got. It doesn't mean that Gerhardt doesn't have that memory, or that he's not tortured and tormented by that memory. I'm not going to criticize either his motive or his memory. He is a human being just like every veteran of a war trying to adjust and make some sense of an experience that he had that was awful.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But your memory is absolutely different?
KERREY: No, not absolutely different. My memory is we went in at night, we went into a VC-controlled area, expecting to find district levels of Viet Cong. It was a dangerous mission and my first and most important priority was to get my men out alive. Gerhardt does not disagree with that. He agrees with every single thing I have just said. He has a different memory of the outcome; a different memory of what happened in the last moments when the killings occurred.
STEPHANOPOULOS: In the past, you've talked about when you first received the Medal of Honor — for a different incident. You were reluctant to accept it?
KERREY: Reluctant? I went back out to seal team in 1970, in January, February, 1970. Actually, the fall of 1969, when I was notified that I was going to receive it, told them I didn't think it was justified, that I didn't want to take it and didn't want to hold it for the rest of my life. And they persuaded me — on behalf, and I think correctly, of other people who didn't receive anything — that I should accept it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Did it have anything to do with the events of Feb. 25?
KERREY: Did it have anything to do with being administrative officer of [inaudible] and writing medals up? And from that experience I know that there's got to be an action, it's got to be written by somebody, it's got to be written by somebody who likes you. There's all kind of politics that goes into it, and it tends to clean the war up; it tends to make people think it's something other than what it is. This is May of 1970, a few days after Kent State.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And you're in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon
KERREY: I am in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon, with my mother, my father, five of my family. I'm in the Oval Office with my family, wearing a uniform, standing there still thinking that maybe I shouldn't accept it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: [inaudible] …member of your squad said, "If Bob Kerrey walks around like a man who knows a secret, you want to know." I guess you have been walking around with a secret for a long time.
KERREY: I don't know if that is what Dwight had in mind. And by the way, my guess is you're walking around with a few secrets. Who isn't? I mean that's part of life. Part of life is learning to accommodate that.
And one of the things I am very much aware of, as a consequence of being a public figure, that I'm in a position where I've got to decide how am I going to use these memories. And I am also very much aware that it can create problems for other people — people who prefer to be private, your private citizens. If I was a private citizen I may choose an entirely different course than I'm choosing right now.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Maybe not saying anything?
KERREY: Maybe not saying anything, maybe just come to terms with it this some other way.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What good do you think will come of it?
KERREY: I don't know. I mean it's already been considerably good. You know, I've had long conversations with my son, 26 years old — he is older than I was when I went over. My daughter… knowing that they still love me, is still a good thing. I already feel better from that. If nothing else comes out of it than that, I feel fine.