Another vet, another take on the duty of a patriot

August 29, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

JOHN KERRY is not the only Vietnam Veteran Against the War running for public office this season. There's another one of those VVAW types out there. So maybe Army Grunts For the Truth should cook up a hateful smear campaign against Steve Bunker, veteran of Pleiku, former Baltimore purveyor of maritime antiques and Fells Point community activist, now Democratic candidate for the Maine state assembly.

Bunker says he's running against a Republican incumbent "with more money than God" on the November ballot in Maine's 109th District. The seat pays $11,000 the first year, $8,000 the second (because the second legislative session is shorter than the first, see).

Old friends from Fells Point will be amused.

Bunker is at long last doing what they could never get him to do here.

"People used to ask me, but I refused to run for Baltimore City Council," Bunker said from Maine, where he moved his business, China Sea Trading Co., in 1999. "But I've always thought that, if you're going to get involved in community affairs and be an activist, it's cowardly not to step up at some point for some kind of electoral judgment."

He's resisted actually running for anything, but Bunker has been involved in this democracy, in one way or another, since the years after he returned from Vietnam. He served there in the Army in 1966 and 1967. ("I thought it was the patriotic thing to do," he says. "I was a grunt. I spent most of my time filling sandbags and digging latrines, and then every once in a while absolute hell broke loose.")

After Vietnam, first as a college student in Tennessee, then as an organizer for VVAW in Georgia and New Orleans, Bunker protested the war with other angry veterans, like Kerry, who were convinced it was wrong and had to end. "People in Tennessee couldn't believe Vietnam veterans were against the war," Bunker says.

And as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has made clear this summer with its smear campaign against Kerry, some people have never gotten over it. Some have never accepted what VVAW dished - that the long and costly war in Southeast Asia was a mistake, and that some Americans committed atrocities there.

In Kerry's famous speech before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 1971, he referred to these atrocities in graphic terms. Swift Boat Veterans has attributed these accusations solely to Kerry when, in fact, his references were based on testimony of dozens of veterans who had gathered in Detroit earlier that year for the "Winter Soldier" hearings.

These were like large group therapy sessions, organized by VVAW.

"Veterans from all branches of the military spoke up," Douglas Brinkley reports in his Kerry biography, Tour of Duty. "With great solemnity, in an atmosphere that resembled an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, veterans stepped to the microphone ... [and] the horror stories the veterans spun were chilling."

Kerry is not known to have spoken at the Winter Soldier hearings. He was there as a listener; he interviewed several veterans.

In all the recent noise about Kerry and Vietnam - and the particular screeching from the Swift Boat Veterans about his testimony on atrocities and war crimes - what's been forgotten was My Lai and the massacre of 347 Vietnamese civilians in that hamlet in 1968. Those revelations in The New York Times came in November 1969, a year and a half before Kerry got to Washington to testify.

"You know," says Steve Bunker from Maine, "Kerry wasn't with us [VVAW] for very long, really only briefly. I don't think he was fully comfortable with all these guys. A lot of these guys were really angry, and rowdy. Kerry was very controlled, and always very gentlemanly."

And not all VVAW members supported the Winter Soldier sessions. Bunker, for one.

"I was opposed to Winter Soldier personally. I thought a lot of guys were coming back from Vietnam, and they were very disturbed, and Winter Soldier was going to expose us on a stage and that was a little dangerous because some guys always embellish stories. You know, you get 20 people talking and there's always one scammer who brings down the credibility of the others."

Kerry was no scammer, says Bunker. "He's the real thing," he says. Kerry volunteered for duty, and he commanded a Swift boat. (Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt, the admiral who ordered Swift boats to aggressively pursue the North Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta, once calculated that these crews had a 75 percent casualty rate.) Until Kerry became a serious threat to George Bush no one challenged the decorations he received. "The guy's a hero," says Bunker. "There's no doubt in my mind."

And what Kerry did after his time in Vietnam was profound. The activities of VVAW should be honored, not smeared. "The attacks on Kerry dishonor our service, and it casts doubt on what others did during the war," Bunker says. "And it also casts doubt on the service we gave after we came back. And I'm just as proud of what I did after I came back. I thought it was the patriotic thing to do."

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