Boat commander disputes attacks on Kerry

Editor at Chicago Tribune served in Vietnam beside presidential candidate

Election 2004

The Race For President

August 22, 2004|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The commander of a Navy Swift boat who served alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during the Vietnam War stepped forward yesterday to dispute attacks challenging Kerry's integrity and war record.

William B. Rood, an editor on the Chicago Tribune's metropolitan desk, said he decided to speak about the Feb. 28, 1969, mission that resulted in Kerry's receiving a Silver Star because recent portrayals of Kerry's actions published in the best-selling book Unfit for Command are wrong and smear the reputations of veterans who served with Kerry.

Rood, who commanded one of three Swift boats during that 1969 mission, said that Kerry came under rocket and automatic weapons fire from Viet Cong forces and that Kerry devised an aggressive attack strategy that was praised by their superiors. He called untrue the allegations that Kerry's accomplishments were "overblown."

"The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there," Rood said in a 1,700-word first-person account published in today's Tribune.

The Tribune is owned by Tribune Publishing, which also owns The Sun.

Rood's recollection of what happened on that day at the southern tip of South Vietnam was supported by military documents, including his citation for a Bronze Star he earned in the battle and a glowing after-action report written by the Navy captain who commanded his and Kerry's task force and who is now a critic of the Democratic candidate.

Rood's previously untold story and the documents shed new light on a key historical event that has taken center stage in an extraordinary political and media storm generated by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The book, co-written by one of the leaders of the group, accuses Kerry of being a coward who fabricated wartime events and used comrades for his "insatiable appetite for medals." The allegations have fueled a nearly two-week-long TV ad campaign against the Democratic nominee. Talk radio and cable news channels have feasted on the story.

Animosity toward Kerry from some veterans goes back more than 30 years, when Kerry returned from Vietnam to take a leadership role in the anti-war group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Anger reached a boiling point with Kerry's presidential nomination and his highlighting of his service during the war, a centerpiece of his campaign strategy against President Bush, who spent the war stateside in the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama.

A poll released Friday by the National Annenberg Election Survey reported that more than half the country has heard about or seen TV ads attacking Kerry's war record, a remarkable impact for ads that have appeared in a handful of states.

Kerry strongly disputes the allegations made in the ads. Last week he called on the White House to denounce the TV ads and accused Bush of relying on the Vietnam veterans "to do his dirty work." On Thursday, Kerry challenged Bush to a debate on their respective war records. Democrats point to unresolved questions about whether Bush served all the time he was credited with serving in Alabama.

The Bush campaign has denied any association with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth but has declined to condemn the book and the group's TV ads. A report in Friday's New York Times disclosed connections between the anti-Kerry veterans and the Bush family; Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove; and several high-ranking Texas Republicans. Some of the recent accounts from veterans critical of Kerry have been contradicted by their earlier statements, the Times reported.

Rood's account also sharply contradicts the version put forth by the anti-Kerry veterans. Rood, 61, wrote that Kerry had contacted him and other crew members, asking that they go public with their accounts

Rood said that he had "wanted to put it all behind us. ... My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it."

Rood declined requests from a Tribune reporter to be interviewed for this article. Rood wrote that he could testify only to the February 1969 mission and not to any of the other battlefield decorations challenged by Kerry's critics -- a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts -- because Rood was not a witness to those engagements.

In February 1969, Rood was a lieutenant junior grade commanding PCF-23, one of the three 50-foot aluminum Swift boats that carried troops up the Dong Cung, a tributary of the Bay Hap River. Kerry commanded another boat, PCF-94,and Lt. j.g. Donald Droz, who was killed in action six weeks later, commanded PCF-43. Ambushes from Viet Cong fighters were common because the noise from the boats, powered by twin diesel engines, practically invited gunfire. Ambushes, Rood said, "were a virtual certainty."

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