in Vietnam shaped John Kerry's life more than any other experience.
Vietnam also arguably caused and defined his political career.
Kerry served as a Navy "swift boat" captain in charge
of ferrying soldiers and supplies up the Mekong River. The small
boats were easy targets for ambush from enemy soldiers on the
banks of the river, and often took fire as they sped through hostile
of the attacks, Kerry once proposed to his men that they launch
a counterattack against ambushers by quickly turning the boats
directly toward the gunfire and rushing the enemy position. On
Feb. 28, 1969, Kerry and his crew successfully executed his counterattack
plan, capturing and killing enemy soldiers. Kerry himself chased
down and killed a soldier carrying a rocket launcher.
the firing began I gave the order to turn and -- phoom! -- we
just went in and beached and took them by complete surprise, and
we routed them and we didn't take a wound," Kerry said in
a 2002 New Yorker profile by Joe Klein.
During another battle Kerry rescued a Green Beret Army lieutenant
named James Rassman, who had been knocked off another boat and
into the river during an intense firefight. Spotting Rassman in
the water, Kerry steered his own boat into enemy fire, leaned
over the bow and pulled the soldier to safety.
Note: The above description of events is based on Rassman's
and Kerry's account of what happened and on Kerry's official Navy
service records. In August 2004 a group of swift boat officers
who served with Kerry began publicly disputing Kerry's and the
Navy's account of Rassman's rescue. The group said that Kerry
was not under fire when he pulled Rassman from the water. Kerry
and Rassman steadfastly maintain that they were under enemy fire.]
Thirty-five years later, when the Kerry campaign was fighting
for its life in Iowa, it was Rassman, now a registered Republican
and retired sheriff's deputy living in Oregon, who joined Kerry
on the stump, repeatedly telling the story of the rescue. Observers
have said Rassman's support injected crucial energy into the campaign.
Other veterans who fought with Kerry have also emerged to pledge
their support and friendship.
Douglas Brinkley said that during his Vietnam service, Kerry began
for the first time to mingle and work with a diverse group of
"[C]oming from a life of privilege like John Kerry did, getting
to go to private schools and Yale, you might want to say he lived
in a rarefied world as a young man -- meeting (West German Chancellor)
Conrad Adenauer in Germany or getting to see (French economist
and diplomat) Jean Monnet through his father," Brinkley told
the NewsHour. "Suddenly in Vietnam he was with men from Selma,
Ala., and Illinois and Columbia, S.C., and Ames, Iowa, many of
them had just graduated from high school and never went to college.
If they did go to college it was a two-year technical school."
While Kerry made new and lasting bonds with his fellow servicemen
in Vietnam, he also felt the deep pain of loss. Two of his closest
friends, his former Yale roommate Richard Pershing, the grandson
of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, and fellow swift
boat commander Don Droz died in combat. Kerry has said that these
losses were severe emotional blows that would later influence
his opposition to the war.
Kerry's Vietnam experience has also given him a deep bond with
fellow veterans he has never met. Kerry calls the former military
men who throng his campaign events his "band of brothers."
For his service in Vietnam, Kerry was awarded a Silver Star, a
Bronze Star with Combat V (for valor), and three Purple Hearts
for being wounded in battle three separate times.
The future senator returned home in early 1970 with his decorations
and deep misgivings about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
By Jason Manning, Online NewsHour