Kerrey says war raid killed only Viet civilians

Ex-senator was awarded Bronze Star for action

April 26, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Bob Kerrey, a former U.S. senator, has acknowledged that a combat mission in Vietnam for which he was awarded the Bronze Star caused the deaths of 13 to 20 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.

Days before an investigation of his role in the incident was to be published in the New York Times Magazine, Kerrey described his version of the events in interviews with two other newspapers and in a speech.

The Times' magazine investigation was carried out jointly with "60 Minutes II," the CBS News program. The article will be the cover story of the Times Magazine Sunday and will be broadcast on CBS Tuesday.

In the interviews with the Times Magazine, Kerrey described leading a team of Navy Seals on Feb. 25, 1969, in a mission into Thanh Phong, a peasant hamlet in the Mekong Delta.

"Fire was directed at us," he said, and he ordered his squad to return fire.

In interviews published yesterday with the Wall Street Journal and the Omaha World-Herald, and in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute last week, Kerrey gave a similar account.

"But when the fire stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men," he said in the speech April 18 to ROTC cadets attending a leadership seminar at VMI.

At the time of the incident, Kerrey was a 25-year-old lieutenant who had arrived in Vietnam only a month earlier. He was leading a group of six Navy Seals - known as "Kerrey's Raiders" - on a mission to capture a Viet Cong leader.

"It was not a military victory; it was a tragedy, and I had ordered it," he said in his speech. "How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake? Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years."

After the incident, the commander of Kerrey's squad reported that they had killed 21 Viet Cong. Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star for the mission.

On March 14, 1969, Kerrey led another mission and lost part of his right leg in a grenade explosion. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970.

Kerrey spent months in a military hospital, and after his recovery he returned to Nebraska and opened a successful string of health clubs and restaurants. In 1985 he was elected governor of Nebraska, and in 1988 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

He served two terms in the Senate before choosing not to run again last year. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and considered running against Al Gore for the party's nomination for president in 2000, but decided against it.

The magazine article includes accounts, recalled across more than three decades, by Kerrey and two other members of his squad.

One of those members, Gerhard Klann, said the Seals knowingly killed the civilians on Kerrey's orders because they felt they could not otherwise safely retreat from the village.

In his interviews with the Wall Street Journal and the Omaha World-Herald, Kerrey denied that version of the events. He told the World-Herald that he was speaking about the incident only because he knew Klann's version was going to become public.

Another squad member, Mike Ambrose, told the Times Magazine that he did not agree with Klann's version of events.

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