John Kerry Discusses Service in Vietnam

ByABC News

July 29, 2004 -- While serving in Vietnam, John Kerry had to kill "out of necessity," and he says the experience forever changed him.

When ABC News' Peter Jennings interviewed Kerry several months ago, the Massachusetts senator discussed his Vietnam story and how his experiences there altered his life.

Kerry enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Yale University. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

He acknowledged that he was scared — "terrified at times" — and that he had to kill "out of necessity," an experience that impacts all soldiers. "I mean, talk to any of these guys coming back from Iraq today," he said. "They'll be different forever, as were soldiers in World War II and every war."

He said he changed after returning from the war "in many of the same ways as all of them … you've been to a dark place, and you feel privileged, lucky, blessed to be alive. And it gives you a sense of responsibility — at least it gave me a special sense of responsibility — about how to use those days afterwards."

Despite that, Kerry said he never considered not serving, as did many members of his generation.

"First of all, it was 1965," Kerry said. "The Tonkin Gulf, supposedly, had just taken place. Lyndon Johnson had issued his call for an additional 500,000 troops. And I don't think that there was a clarity, moral or otherwise, at that point in time to our involvement in Vietnam.

"It wasn't until two years later, in 1967, when the first draft card was burned — it wasn't until then that the march on the Pentagon took place, and I was in uniform," he said. "So I think there was a transition that took place in our generation and in America, from the time that I raised my hand and was sworn in and made the decision until the time in 1968 … when I was a much less committed soldier. But I was nevertheless a soldier with a sense of duty and responsibility."A Campaign Topic

Kerry's campaign believes that his service in Vietnam is a huge asset in his run for the presidency. His military career has been noted in speeches throughout the Democratic National Convention to highlight the candidate's heroism — and to contrast his experience with President Bush's lack of time in combat.

Kerry himself said his military service gives him an added perspective on the role of commander-in-chief. "Certainly, the lesson I learned about when you put the lives of young Americans on the line, and what the standard is that the president ought to exercise in making that judgment, is very relevant to today."

Though Kerry was decorated for his Vietnam service, he declined to elaborate on how he earned his honors.

"[I] survived, basically. Did my duty. And, you know, sometimes people get recognized for it. And sometimes people don't. So I came back with a sense that, you know, the real heroes are the guys on the wall. And that's the way I'll leave it."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events