Sen. John Kerry talks about his four months in Vietnam — it's a centerpiece of his presidential campaign — but there's one thing he won't talk about: the day he killed a Vietcong soldier at close range and earned a Silver Star.
"It's a key part of him," said a Kerry friend. "It was a pivotal moment in his life. But he doesn't talk about it."
Added another source close to Kerry, "it's the reason he gets so angry when his patriotism is challenged. It was a traumatic experience that's still with him, and he went through it for his country." It affects the way Kerry lives his life every day, the source said, since "he knows he very well would not be alive today had he not taken the life of another man [he] never ever met."
In past interviews, Kerry has responded vaguely to questions about how he earned the medal. "You know, I got it — surviving, I guess, is the best way to put it," Kerry told CBS' 60 Minutes, adding: "I just am not comfortable going into the story."
When asked by Univision if he had to kill somebody, Kerry answered: "It is a matter of record, what I did in Vietnam. And over the months that I was in combat, yes, we know that we were responsible for the loss of enemy lives. But that's war."
He would not acknowledge the impact this had on him. "Well, I think it affects anybody who carries a gun in another country, shooting at other human beings," he said of the incident. "Unless you're insensitive, it has an impact on you."
Even his family has not heard much about the incident. His daughter Vanessa, 27, told MTV News that when she was growing up her father told her the enemy ran away. She only learned the truth as an adult, she said.
Since Kerry will not talk about the day he killed a man, four of Kerry's crewmates from the Navy Swift boat he commanded sat down with Nightline to try to explain what happened, though not one was eager to revisit the events of that day.
A Dangerous Mission
They had been on a mission that sent Navy Swift boats deep into enemy territory. "We were in ambushes and firefights, you know, one, two, three, four times a day," recalled Del Sandusky, Kerry's second in command on PCF94. "And we'd be on patrol for a day or two, sometimes on a special operation. Sometimes just on a regular patrol up and down the river. But mostly, it was special op."
It was dangerous duty. "Going in a river, you know, the enemy hears you. He knows you're coming. You don't know where he is," recalled gunner David Alston.
Being on the water added to the danger, according to crewmember Gene Thorson. "When you got a 50-foot boat, and you go up 18 feet high from the water up, you're nothing but a floating target," he said.
A Bad Day
Feb. 28, 1969, was a day that started out badly and got much worse. Kerry and his crewmates were given a mission to take their Swift boat up a canal off the Bay Hap River, surrounded by thick mangrove brush and many, many Vietcong. There were two ambushes.
"I guess we had gotten 800 yards or 1,000 yards at the most," recalled crewmate Fred Short. "And this time, another B-40 rocket hit, and maybe a couple more. But this one was close aboard. It blew the windows out of the crew cabin. I see out of a spider hole a Vietcong stand up dressed in a loin cloth, holding a B-40 rocket."
"Charlie would have lit us up like a Roman candle because we're full of fuel, we're full of ammunition," said Sandusky.
Protocol at the time would be for Kerry's Swift boat to fire to shore and then take evasive action. But Kerry ordered Sandusky, his second-in-command, to drive the boat onto the beach — directly into the ambush.
"I knew right away that, you know, uh-oh, we're in the doo-doo now," Sandusky said. "But, yeah, I knew — you know, John was intent. You know: 'We got to go and get this guy.' There was no way we were going to back down off the beach." Alston recalled: "I know when John Kerry told Del to beach that damn boat, this was a brand-new ball game. We wasn't running. We took it to Charlie."
They saw their enemy up close, Short noted. "I would say he was so close that I could see that he had a mustache, a very weak mustache, that he was growing. I could see the mustache on his face. And things were going slow-motion now, because you feel you were, you know, this is really getting scary."
Things almost went against the sailors. "He needed like, 25, 30 yards to arm that rocket, all right," Sandusky said, "and as we beached, he could not aim it at us. So he got up out of the spider hole, started running."
Tommy Belodeau was manning the boat's M-60 machine gun, Short said. "Tommy in the pit tank winged him in the side of the legs as he was coming across," he said. "But the guy didn't miss stride. I mean, he did not break stride."
Kerry assessed their options quickly, according to Sandusky. "John sized up the situation and realized that once Tommy had started shooting at the guy and wounded him in the leg, you know, that this was the only course of action — you know, John was going to chase this guy down and kill him. 'Cause if he didn't, we were all dead."
The man was still running down a path when they got to the bank. Kerry, Belodeau and Michael McDarris, in hot pursuit, saw the Vietcong soldier. Short recalled: "The guy was getting ready to stand up with a rocket on his shoulder, coming up. And Mr. Kerry took him out … he would have been about a 30-yard shot. Which, we were dead in the water up on the bank, point blank. If he missed us, he would have to, you know — there's no way he could miss us. He could've thrown a rock and taken me out."
The others agreed that it was a close call. "If this guy would have got up, and he had a clear shot at us, we would have been history," Thorson said. "Wouldn't have been no doubt about it." "If that RPG had exploded in the pilot house or anywhere in that area," Short said, "we were toast."
A Difficult Burden
Kerry and Mike Medeiros searched the soldier's corpse, confiscated the rocket launcher and returned to the boat. Kerry did not talk to the crew about what he had just done. But for a Navy man, killing a man face-to-face was unusual.
"We usually didn't see Charlie," Sandusky explained. "So, to do an actual event like John did, you know, he never came back and displayed any symptoms or signs of problems that it bothered him. But I know it would have bothered me, you know, to do that actual, you know, kill a man, face-to-face."
Short added: "When you're close enough to see him, to count the whiskers on their face, to be that close to someone, it becomes very personal. And that would affect anyone, I would suspect."
Kerry refuses to discuss in public how that event shook him and shaped him. And his crew will not betray matters he has told them in confidence about that moment.
Back at the base in An Thoi, Kerry's commander said — half tongue-in-cheek — he didn't know whether banking the boat and chasing down the Vietcong soldier merited Kerry a medal or a court-martial.
But days later in Saigon, Kerry was awarded the Silver Star for valor by Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the commander of Naval forces in Vietnam.
Only weeks later, Kerry earned a Bronze Star for saving a Green Beret while wounded and under sniper fire. He also earned his third Purple Heart, which at the time meant he could be transferred home.
It wasn't until 1996 that he even talked to many of his crew again. He was in the midst of a tough Senate re-election contest, and a Boston Globe columnist questioned the circumstances under which Kerry was awarded his Silver Star, wondering how much of a threat a wounded Vietcong could really have posed. Called by the campaign to defend their former officer, the crew immediately flew to Boston to defend his actions, saying they owed him their lives.
Kerry's response that day, visceral in his emotions, vague in the details of what he went through, is pretty close to his reaction to attacks on his service today.
"This was a firefight, life or death," he said. "And it was that way every single day. And for some desk jockey who wants to come in, who hasn't seen a firefight in his life, to try to say that, that is just wrong."
Kerry's crewmates have experienced a wide variety of post-war reactions, ranging from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder to normal acclimation in society. Kerry himself, by all accounts, has dealt with his demons, though both his first and current wives have spoken about the Vietnam ghosts that cause him nightmares.
Killing that Vietcong soldier was a necessary action, Kerry's crewmates believe. It also is one that has left a mark on the senator — whose precise effect we may never fully understand.