BOSTON – Standing with a dozen Vietnam crewmates, all fiercely loyal to John Kerry (search), former Special Forces officer Jim Rassmann told the nation how Kerry saved his life in 1969.
Rassmann's story of his dramatic brush with death came just before the presidential nominee's acceptance speech on the final night of the Democratic convention, designed to accentuate Kerry's leadership in wartime.
Kerry's service in Vietnam as commander of a Navy swiftboat (search) in the Mekong Delta (search) has been a main theme of the convention this week, and so has Rassmann's role in those events 35 years ago.
"You know, there was a time when I never thought I'd see these guys again. A lot of our friends never made it home. We still miss them, especially on a night like tonight," Rassmann said. "I've seen John Kerry in action. I know his character. I've witnessed his bravery and leadership under fire. And I know he will be a great commander in chief."
Rassmann, who was leading a group of Chinese mercenaries on special operations, was knocked from the deck of Kerry's 60-foot patrol boat during an ambush on March 13, 1969. He dived toward the river bottom to avoid the propellers, as bullets and rockets flew overhead. When he came up for air, the boat was gone and Viet Cong (search) on the river banks were sniping at him. Kerry, noticing the man alone in the water, turned the boat around and came back for Rassmann, who grabbed a rope net on the bow.
He was not able to climb onto the deck, but Kerry pulled him over, earning a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for being wounded that day.
The Vietnam experience was one that stayed with Kerry.
"I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can't tell friend from foe," the presidential nominee said in prepared remarks to the convention. "I know what they go through when they're out on patrol at night and they don't know what's coming around the next bend. I know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right when you're not sure that's true.
Many speakers at the convention have pointed to the swiftboat incident as evidence of Kerry's decisiveness in crisis.
It's a theme the swiftboat crew will take on the road over the next three months, as their jobs allow, either with Kerry or Edwards on the stump or to speak with veterans groups or at rallies, according to John Hurley, director of Veterans for Kerry. All those who appeared in Boston have also volunteered to continue working for Kerry, Hurley said.
Some have become active in their home states, others will travel nationally. The campaign plans to assemble the swiftboat crew, or as many as can make it, for bus tours through the swing states where the election will be decided. Sometimes they will be joined by younger veterans from Iraq. Their message, Hurley said, is a powerful force in the campaign's final months.
"We include the crew whenever we can," Hurley said. "These guys in particular, their story is compelling, these guys are the perfect ones to validate his character to be president of the United States."
Crewmate Fred Short, 56, from North Little Rock, Ark., said he is ready. "I'll travel if I need to travel. I'll burn the rest of my vacation on the campaign trail if I need to."
"We all love, honor and respect John Kerry, That's what it's all about," said Del Sandusky of Clearwater, Fla., who said he would go where the campaign needs him.
Some veterans have criticized the attention focused on Kerry's actions, saying they have been exaggerated for political gain. And Republicans have downplayed Kerry's war years. "The theme of the Democratic convention is to play up Sen. Kerry's Vietnam heroics, to obscure his Senate record," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.
Rassmann will have no part of that.
The former Los Angeles sheriff deputy was concentrating more on his hobby of raising orchids in a greenhouse in Florence, Ore., when he stepped into national politics in January. Rassmann, who had previously voted Republican, called Kerry's lagging presidential primary campaign in Iowa and, remembering what Kerry had done for him three decades earlier, asked if he could help.
He imagined working a phone bank or licking envelopes. Instead, he was asked to talk about Vietnam. His appearance in Iowa galvanized the campaign in that state, campaign aides have said. Rassmann has since flown around the country on Kerry's plane, talking to veterans' groups and rallies in many states.
"It's the first time I've had to address my Vietnam experience in such a public way. I'm much more relaxed talking about some of those things, even thinking about them," he said.
He has recounted how Kerry and he retrieved the body of a soldier killed by a mine, placing the man's shattered frame in a rain poncho to carry to the boat. He has said he expected to die in the river before the boat turned around. He recalled being exposed as a target to Vietnamese gunners while dangling from the net on the bow.
"I'll be forever grateful to John for pulling me over that thing," Rassmann said.