Kerrey's tale a memorial to the atrocities of war

May 02, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Standing at the Vietnam War Memorial wall the other day, Keith Parks, a salesman from Kansas City, was asked whether he thought former Sen. Bob Kerrey should give back the Bronze Star he got in 1969 for a mission in which the Navy SEAL squad he led killed more than a dozen Vietnamese women and children.

"I think Senator Kerrey served his nation," Mr. Parks said of the man who later lost part of his leg in another firefight. "He did probably what he had to do. You can't judge him in today's light on what happened 30 years ago. When the Army ... can give his leg back, I think he can give the medal back."

It was a sentiment widely shared by other Americans as they strolled on a balmy spring morning past the long black wall near the Lincoln Memorial that lists the names of the men and women who died, or are still missing in action, from the war in Vietnam.

In the POW-MIA booth at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial nearby, where for about 20 years Vietnam veterans have carried the torch for their comrades still missing, the official number is now 1,981. Edward Wallace, who served in Vietnam in 1975, said of Mr. Kerrey:

"He did his job. He carried out what he thought was right. You don't have time to sit there and think whether these people are carrying weapons or not. If somebody's firing at you, you're gonna have to fire right back. He has to live with this the rest of his life. For one of the people in his squad to come out and say the wrong thing against him, and he was right in the midst of it, I think there's something wrong with him."

For Mr. Kerrey to have to give back the Bronze Star, Mr. Wallace said, would be "like telling him, `You did the wrong thing. You were supposed to die.' ... The rules of engagement when you're in combat do not apply. When somebody's firing upon you, there are no rules. You fire back or you don't come home."

Asked what he would tell Mr. Kerrey if he had the chance, Mr. Wallace said: "One thing I'd tell him, `It don't mean a thing. You know in your heart you did what you felt was right.' It isn't them [critics] that has to go through life remembering all the pain and the death that was around you. They were not there."

Jerry McDonald of Marrero, La., who served as a pyschological warfare officer in Vietnam in 1968, said: "If you remember back 30 years, we didn't talk about it. We said, `Forget the war'; we were baby-killers and all that. He [Mr. Kerrey] probably wanted to forget it, just like we all did. I didn't even talk about it for 17 years. ... It was dark and everybody was scared; and they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, and if they're detected, they're killed. ... People just lose their values when they start fighting. When we were in a position, anything that moved got shot. ... I think they ought to leave it alone."

Harold Moore, an educator from Jackman, Maine, said: "I don't think he [Mr. Kerrey] really knew what he was up against. He was basing his actions and his men's actions on information relayed to him by higher-ups. When you're put in that predicament and you're expecting enemy forces, you have to go in looking to do the job you were sent to do, and then suffer the consequences if you make a mistake. It was a judgment call, not any easy call for anyone to make. There's the old saying: Hindsight is 20-20."

"I don't think anybody who has not been in that circumstance can go back and judge anybody who has not been through that," said Kent Smith of Centerville, Utah, who had not been in the military, "and that's exactly why I don't feel I have a right to judge."

As for calls on Mr. Kerrey to return the Bronze Star, Mr. Smith said, "I don't think anybody has that right. You're talking about 30 years ago. It's ridiculous to go back and conjure up what's going on. You have to let it die there."

As these men spoke, younger men and boys walked along the wall, some taking rubbings of names with white sheets of paper and pencil -- American names, mostly, of our own casualties. But the many others lost in Vietnam are not forgotten, as Mr. Kerrey with his story has sorrowfully acknowledged.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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