Kerry said Monday that he surrendered his Vietnam ribbons but not his medals during a 1971 anti-war rally when protesters tossed their war medals over a fence at the U.S. Capitol.
"I stood up in front of the country, reached into my shirt, visibly for the nation to see, and took the ribbons off my chest, said a few words and threw them over the fence," the Massachusetts senator told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday. He called the flap a "phony controversy."
Kerry's campaign Web site calls Republican accusations that he surrendered his medals a "right-wing fiction." Instead, the site says, "John Kerry threw away his ribbons and the medals of two veterans who could not attend the event."
But according to news reports issued Monday, Kerry told a Washington, D.C., television station on Nov. 6, 1971, that he "gave back, I can't remember, six, seven, eight, nine medals."
When the interviewer at the time pointed out that Kerry had a Bronze Star and a Silver Star as well as three Purple Hearts, Kerry said, "Above that, I gave my others."
In the interview Monday morning, Kerry said the military at the time made no real distinction between medals and ribbons.
"Back then, you know, ribbons, medals were absolutely interchangeable. ... The U.S. Navy pamphlet calls them medals, we referred to them as the symbols, they were representing medals, ribbons."
The alleged medal throwaway took place 33 years ago last weekend, on April 23, 1971, when Kerry led Vietnam Veterans Against the War (search) in an anti-war protest.
"In a real sense, this administration forced us to return our medals because beyond the perversion of the war, these leaders themselves denied us the integrity those symbols supposedly gave our lives," Kerry was reported at that time as saying to the Boston Globe.
Commenting on the medal controversy, Kerry said Monday: "This comes from a president and a Republican Party that can't even answer whether he showed up for duty in the National Guard." He continued, "This is being pushed yesterday by Karen Hughes (search) at the White House, on Fox."
On Sunday, Hughes, a Bush adviser, said on CNN's Late Edition, "I also was very troubled by the fact that he participated in the ceremony where veterans threw their medals away, and he only pretended to throw his ... I think that's very revealing.
"Did he think he did commit them or not? And who else did? And what was he really saying? Was he totally exaggerating? Was he making it up? I think the press ought to follow some line of inquiry about that."
On Monday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan praised Kerry for his service in Vietnam, but said he has a duty to explain the inconsistencies in the medal story.
"This whole medal ribbon story and its various versions over the years are really symptomatic of a larger problem Kerry has, which is trying to be on both sides of every issue," Republican consultant Barbara Comstock told Fox News on Monday.
Fred Malek, a Republican consultant and Vietnam veteran conceded that Kerry "served his country honorably," but added that discarding medals "shows a choice of personal vanity over loyalty to the people you fought alongside."
Democrats say that the issue is a distracting tactic so that the public does not focus on the war in Iraq. "It's no surprise that the Bush administration is trying to focus on something that happened 33 years ago because they have every incentive to take Americans' attention away from the war in Iraq," Elaine Kamarck, former senior campaign adviser to Al Gore, told Fox News on Monday.
Kerry defenders also say the details of the 33-year-old incident are not as important as the fact that the Democratic presidential candidate has a distinguished record in the Vietnam War.
"He risked his life to save others. That's the issue. What we have seen is a smear campaign. ... John Kerry is a hero. You cannot say that about George Bush. You cannot say that about Dick Cheney," Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee (search) chairman, told Fox News on Monday morning.
Responding to a question about the allegation that Kerry threw away military awards, McAuliffe said, "Leave our veterans alone. They served our country; they served admirably."
Fox News' Peter Brownfeld and Steve Centanni contributed to this report.