Sunday, August 22, 2004

Officer From Another Swift Boat Breaks Silence and Defends Kerry

August 22, 2004
Officer From Another Swift Boat Breaks Silence and Defends Kerry

A Vietnam veteran who served with Senator John Kerry on a Swift boat mission broke a 35-year silence this weekend to support Mr. Kerry's version of events from one of their operations together and to chastise veterans critical of the senator as having "splashed doubt on all of us."

The veteran, William B. Rood, is now an editor at The Chicago Tribune, which ran on its Web site yesterday and in Sunday's paper a 1,750-word first-person article in which Mr. Rood recounted the mission. [Article posted below.] His account added to a growing debate over the most serious claims from the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. And it ensured that questions swirling around the veracity of the group's claims, and the Kerry campaign's accusations that the group was connected to the Bush campaign, would dominate the contest for yet another day.

Mr. Rood stepped forward after Mr. Kerry called him and another veteran on Mr. Rood's boat as members of the Swift boat group blanketed cable television and radio talk shows to repeat their claim, also made in a book and a television advertisement, that Mr. Kerry had fabricated his military accomplishments to win medals.

Mr. Kerry's phone calls were part of his campaign's first concerted push to address the group's claims, which surfaced weeks ago. That push also included the release of a new Internet advertisement on Saturday highlighting accusations made about Senator John McCain by military supporters of Mr. Bush in 2000 and a public call by Mr. Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards, for Mr. Bush to tell the group to cease running advertisements against Mr. Kerry.

The Swift boat group, which garnered much of its initial financing from men who have supported Mr. Bush's and his father's political endeavors, has been ready to defend itself and quickly provided a statement Saturday saying Mr. Rood's article was politically motivated. The group continues to raise money and on Friday introduced an advertisement with former prisoners of war recounting the pain Mr. Kerry's 1971 antiwar comments caused them when they were being held by the Vietcong.

Mr. Bush's campaign confirmed on Saturday an accusation by the Kerry campaign that one of the veterans in the that advertisement was a member the Bush campaign's veterans' advisory committee. The Bush campaign said in a statement that it did not know that the man, retired Col. Kenneth Cordier, was going to appear in the advertisement and because of that he was no longer a volunteer.

The Bush campaign denies involvement with the Swift boat group and on Saturday released a statement to the Federal Election Commission saying that the Kerry campaign's accusations of coordination were untrue. The Bush camp has declined to tell the group to stop running advertisements, but aides said Mr. Kerry should join Mr. Bush in calling for all outside groups to stop advertising.

In his article Mr. Rood disputed a claim the Swift boat group made in its book, "Unfit for Command," that Mr. Kerry had received his Silver Star for chasing down a lone Vietcong teenager "in a loincloth" who may or may not have been armed on Feb. 28, 1969.

Mr. Rood was the skipper of one of three boats involved in the mission with Mr. Kerry, conducting a sweep for the enemy through a tributary of the Bay Hap River. "I have no idea how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was," Mr. Rood wrote, but "he was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore." He also wrote that Mr. Kerry had devised a plan to face into enemy fire, a breach of typical procedure.

He added, referring to John O'Neill, a co-author of "Unfit for Command" and a leader of the Swift boat group: "The man Kerry chased was not the 'lone' attacker at that site, as O'Neill suggests. There were others who fled. There was also firing from the tree line well behind the spider holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well."

Mr. Rood also noted that Roy F. Hoffmann, a retired rear admiral who was the Swift boat group's commander, lauded the operation at the time in glowing terms. Mr. Hoffmann is, with Mr. O'Neill, one of the main engineers of the anti-Kerry group's effort.

The Swift boat group released a statement yesterday from Mr. O'Neill saying he stood by its account. He said the account was consistent with those of two biographies of Mr. Kerry, "Tour of Duty" and "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By The Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best," and that of Larry Lee, a crewman on Mr. Rood's boat. Mr. O'Neill said he had tried to contact Mr. Rood for his book and that Mr. Rood's decision to come forward now was "an obvious political move."

The biographies do say that Mr. Kerry was running after the man he shot, but the books do not describe him as a teenager and they say he was armed with a rocket launcher. The Globe account that the group cites says the man had begun to run away, but also quotes Mr. Kerry saying that he had not shot him in the back and that he believed the man would fire again.

Mr. Rood said he confirmed the details of his recollection with the leading petty officer on his boat, Jerry Leeds. Mr. Leeds, who lives in Kansas, said in a brief interview that he had not read The Tribune and could not comment on it. But he said the boats were under significant enemy fire and at great risk.

Mr. Leeds said Mr. Kerry had phoned him, too, last week. He said Mr. Kerry did not ask for his support or for any statements on his behalf. "Mostly we just visited about that day," Mr. Leeds said.

Mr. Rood acknowledged in his article that Mr. Kerry's calls did affect his decision to write it but also wrote, "What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did." He added, "My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it."

The idea to contact Mr. Rood came from Mr. Kerry himself, aides said.

The candidate called Thomas Vallely, a longtime Kerry supporter, a former Massachusetts state legislator and a marine who now runs the Vietnam program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "He said 'We've got to find Billy Rood,"' Mr. Vallely said in an interview on Saturday. "John said, 'He's a reporter in Chicago,' that's all he knew."

Mr. Rood had been watching the dispute unfold and considering what to do. He wrote in his article that he had long been reluctant to talk about his experience and had even refused to grant an interview to his own newspaper. But watching Mr. O'Neill on TV incensed Mr. Rood, Mr. Vallely said.

"He was very, very angry, he was on his feet," Mr. Vallely recalled. "I said, 'Would you talk to John?"' Mr. Rood agreed to a phone call.

Mr. Vallely also called Mr. Leeds, the leading petty officer on Mr. Rood's boat, and asked both men if they would speak with a reporter from The New York Times last week. The two men said they wanted to think about it for a few days, and the result was two stories in The Tribune, a news account and Mr. Rood's first-person article. "They wanted to do it their way," Mr. Vallely said.

Meanwhile on Saturday, Mr. Kerry's campaign continued on the offensive.

It sent out a new Internet advertisement to supporters highlighting an exchange between Mr. McCain, of Arizona, and Mr. Bush during a debate in 2000. In that debate Mr. McCain confronted Mr. Bush for playing host at an event where the leader of a veterans group that Mr. McCain characterized as "fringe" questioned his commitment to veterans.

The spot includes an on-screen heading that says, "George Bush is up to his old tricks."

Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said, "The president has made clear that he regards John Kerry's service as noble service." And he chastised Mr. Kerry for statements from campaign surrogates last week questioning Mr. Bush's National Guard service. He also criticized Mr. Kerry for failing to call on liberal groups who have run $63 million worth of advertisements against Mr. Bush to stop. Some of the liberal groups have connections to Mr. Kerry's campaign and political party.

On Saturday night, at a fund-raiser in East Hampton, N.Y., Mr. Kerry suggested that his political opponents were trying to undercut his military record because he had been persuading voters he would make an effective commander in chief. "In the past month, they've seen me climbing in America's understanding that I know how to fight a smarter, more effective war," Mr. Kerry said. "That's why they're attacking my credibility. That's why they're personally going after me."