`I feel guilty' for attack in Vietnam, Kerrey says

Women and children died

former senator won't return medal

April 27, 2001|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK-A weary and defensive former Sen. Bob Kerrey expressed remorse again yesterday for the Navy SEAL action he led in Vietnam in 1969 that he insisted inadvertently killed a dozen or more Vietnamese women and children.

But Kerrey said he does not intend to return the Bronze Star medal he received for the night action against a village he said was designated as a "free-fire zone" and that intelligence reports said contained enemy fighters.

"We fired because we were fired on," he said at a news conference called to respond to a torrent of questions from the press. "We did not go out on a mission to kill innocent people. I feel guilty about what happened."

The former Nebraska governor and senator said he never considered himself a war hero and never campaigned as one when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. He said he never made reference on the campaign trail to the Bronze Star or the Medal of Honor he received for a later action in which he lost a leg.

The Bronze Star is awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service in military action against the enemy.

Asked why he had waited 32 years to tell the story, Kerrey, 57, said it was "no secret" to superior officers at the time, because the deaths were mentioned in a written field operational report.

Kerrey said initially that "women and children were unquestionably mentioned" in the report. Asked a second time, he said the report indicated that "civilian casualties were taken."

A reporter asked point-blank: "So they awarded you the Bronze Star for killing women and children?"

Kerrey replied that he could not say that the report said "exactly women and children, but it was not a secret to our commanding officer."

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley did not rule out an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the awarding of Kerrey's Bronze Star, but said he knew of no plans for one.

Kerrey said he was unable to reconcile his account of the civilian deaths with that of one of his subordinates on the SEAL team, Gerhard Klann, who told the New York Times and CBS News that the women and children were rounded up and shot on the order of Kerry, then a lieutenant who had been in Vietnam for less than two months.

"I don't know that you ever can," Kerrey said. "I know what happened that night, and I believe all members of our squad [except Klann] will say the very same thing. ... I had every reason to believe that there were soldiers in that area and every reason to believe ... our lives were in danger."

He insisted that he and Klann were in agreement "in significant areas" on what happened that night.

If so, he was asked, what did he feel he had done wrong?

"I don't know," he replied. "Maybe I did nothing wrong. I feel I did something wrong. I've not been able to justify it either militarily or morally."

The only way he knew how to deal with it, he said, was to talk about it.

Klann's account carried with it the strong implication that the 1969 episode in the Mekong Delta was akin to the My Lai massacre in 1968 in which Army Lt. William Calley was tried and convicted of what were then widely referred to as war crimes. The incident at My Lai involved the killing of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.

Kerrey, now the president of New School University in New York, dealt with his experience more in terms of requiring personal penance for a tragedy that grew out of a war gone sour, and learning lessons from it.

"My guilt is connected to the nature of the Vietnam War," he said in a prepared statement. "By the time I arrived in country, in 1969, the American people had had enough. The moral sanction so necessary to conduct that war had been removed."

"Perhaps my experience will help Americans to make better decisions about when to use military force," he said. "In addition to asking young men to risk their own lives, we were asking them to take the lives of others."

When asked whether he had given newspaper and television interviews not to promote self-healing but because he knew the story was about to break Sunday in the New York Times Magazine , Kerrey noted that he had cooperated with the reporter investigating the incident.

Kerrey said he had no plans to try to contact the families of the slain women and children, and that he was going to say "nothing more than I've already said" about regretting the tragedy.

Insisting he was trying to work through the painful experience of having the old story resurrected, Kerrey at one point observed almost plaintively: "You're expecting too much of me."

He said he has not decided "exactly what I'm going to do."

Kerrey pointed to his work in the Senate during both the senior Bush and Clinton administrations in restoring relations with Vietnam. He was among the first senators to urge President Bill Clinton to do so.

One thing he did seem to rule out was another campaign for the presidency in 2004. Asked if that were so, he turned to his wife, Sarah Pailey, standing just behind him and started to ask: "Sweetheart, are we ruling out ... ?"

Then he stopped, smiled and said, "Yes."

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