Transcript: Debating Kerry's Vietnam Record

Published August 23, 2004

| FoxNews.com

The following is a transcribed excerpt from 'FOX News Sunday,' August 22, 2004:

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: The biggest political story this week has not been about the war on terror or the economy. No, it's been about John Kerry's service in Vietnam (search) 35 years ago.

Today we hope to get past all the name-calling to some actual facts. Joining us are John Hurley, national director of Veterans for Kerry (search), and Van Odell, a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), the group that says Kerry is lying about his record.

And welcome to both of you. Let's get to it.

VAN ODELL, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH: Thank you, Chris.

WALLACE: Mr. Odell, I want to start by asking you about contradictions in what some leaders of your group have been saying over the years.

George Elliott, who was the commander of the division that all of your swift boats were part of, let's look at what Elliott says in one of your ads now and what he said about John Kerry back in 1996. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE ELLIOTT, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELLIOTT: John turned his boats to the beach, and the enemy was routed. The fact that he chased an armed enemy down is something not to be looked down upon but it was an act of courage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Back then when there was no presidential campaign, Mr. Elliott said that Kerry had acted courageously.

ODELL: Well, yes, he did. And one of the things that they were defending -- I said the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are for the truth.

But at that time, John Kerry was being attacked for being a war criminal by his opponent. And George Elliott -- I've never defended John Kerry. George Elliott felt that it was necessary to defend him because of the lies that were being told about him for his service at that time.

And right now we're trying to expose the lies that were told in Vietnam.

WALLACE: But here's a man who says John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam, and in '96 he said he acted courageously.

Let me show you a statement by another one of your members, Adrian Lonsdale. Let's take a look at what he says now in one of your ads and what he said in 1996. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADRIAN LONSDALE, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH: He lacks the capacity to lead.

It was mainly won because of the bravado and the courage of the young officers that ran the boats, the swift boats and the Coast Guard cutters. And Senator Kerry was no exception. He was among the finest of those swift boat drivers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Again, here's a man who now lacks the capacity to lead, according to Mr. Lonsdale, but back in 1996 showed courage, bravado and was one of the finest swift boat drivers.

ODELL: Well, again, you have to ask Lonsdale what he said about that.  But they were, again, defending him against lies that he was a war criminal. He wasn't a war criminal any more than we were, even though he said so on TV. And at that time, we were, again, trying to defend the truth about what actually happened in Vietnam.

And what we're trying to do now -- and Lonsdale, Elliott and all of us agree that he's not fit to be commander in chief for what he did in Vietnam and what he did when he came back from Vietnam.

WALLACE: How do you explain these 180-degree contradictions in what these two men are saying now and what they said eight years ago?

ODELL: Well, I know they've been on TV explaining this. I can't explain exactly what was in their heart. But I do know that they wanted to defend him against the lies about that he was a war criminal.

He wasn't. We weren't war criminals, even though he said it whenever he came back to the U.S. Senate.

WALLACE: OK.

Let's switch to you, Mr. Hurley. Senator Kerry has repeatedly said that he was sitting on a gun boat five miles inside Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968, being shot at, while the president denied that there were any U.S. troops there.

In a 1986 Senate speech, Kerry had this to say: "I have that memory, which is seared, seared in me."

Simple question: What proof do you have that John Kerry was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968?

JOHN HURLEY, NATIONAL DIRECTOR, VETERANS FOR KERRY: I think, Chris, that what is seen in John Kerry's mind is that he was under fire in Cambodia. On Christmas Eve 1968, John Kerry, PCF 44, his first command over there, was on patrol up near the Cambodian border. They did come under fire that night. An old man was killed that night. They came under fire three times that night.

It's a watery area. There's no sign that says, "Welcome to Cambodia."  They were in that vicinity. I don't think anyone knows for sure whether or not they were in Cambodia that night, but they were near Cambodia on Christmas Eve.

WALLACE: But he doesn't say "near Cambodia" or "a watery area." He says, "It was seared in my memory that we were in Cambodia" -- five miles inside Cambodia -- on a specific night.

HURLEY: Right. He was five miles in Cambodia. What's been confused -- but not that night. He was five miles into Cambodia on a different occasion. What's been confused here is the night.

He was near Cambodia on Christmas Eve. That's well-documented. They come under fire three separate times that night. And it's the being under fire, I think, that is what is seared in his mind.

WALLACE: Well, let me pursue that. What proof do you have that Kerry was ever five miles inside Cambodia?

HURLEY: John Kerry's word.

WALLACE: Do you have a single record?

HURLEY: No, I do not. John Kerry was in Cambodia. They were requested to drop off various operations group and deliver various supplies. They were in there. His crew will say the same thing.

WALLACE: Well, you say the crew. He has had crew members who have stood up and defended him on almost everything else. Do you have a single crew member who's come forward to say he was five miles inside Cambodia?

HURLEY: This hasn't been an issue until really recently. And why we're going back now and revisiting where John Kerry was on a single night in 1968 is beyond me.

I mean, the same questions can be asked of President Bush. Where was he when he was supposed to be reporting for duty in Alabama? Those questions need to be raised and asked, as well.

John Kerry acknowledges he was in Cambodia. Where he was on any given night is not part of this discussion, or should not be part of this discussion.

WALLACE: I take it then the answer is no, you don't have a single crew member who will say he was in Cambodia, five miles inside Cambodia, on Christmas Eve 1968 or any other night.

HURLEY: On other nights, yes, they will say that. On December 24th, they will not say that.

WALLACE: Who's going to say that? Because I haven't heard a crew member who's...

HURLEY: It was the 94 boat.

This issue hasn't come up. And it's the reason why it hasn't been addressed.

But on Christmas Eve, he was on the 44 boat. They were near the Cambodian border. They may or may not have crossed over.

On a different occasion, on the 94 boat, they were five miles deep into Cambodia. It was a month later, a month and a half later. The crew will testify to that.

WALLACE: OK.

Mr. Odell, let's go back to you. Let's talk about the one key incident that you and John Kerry were both a part of, March 13, 1969, when your swift boats came under attack and Jim Rassmann was thrown out of Kerry's boat.

You say, your group says, but you specifically say that John Kerry's Bronze Star citation is a lie, and that in fact he did not come under enemy fire that day. Do you stand by that?

ODELL: I stand by that 100 percent. And let me tell you, because I was there, we were on the battlefield together, so to speak, in this small river. But we came up, and the 3 boat was blown up when we came by some fishing weirs on the left side of the river. John Kerry's boat was on the right side of the river.

Now, if you listen to what he and Rassmann first said, is they all took off, the whole fleet, quote, "took off."

Well, we brought it back and said, no, they couldn't have because the 3 boat was dead in the water. Everybody on the 3 boat was incapacitated.  The 3 boat couldn't even move.

So we stayed there, the 23 boat, with me and Jack Chenoweth and two other crew members who have now come forward, and the 51 boat with Larry Thurlow, and we protected it. The 43 boat protected on the other side.

John Kerry went down river. He came back. He picked up Rassmann.  But during that time, our boat picked up two members that were blown off...

WALLACE: But specifically, you say, and you say as you sit here today, that there was no enemy fire from either bank.

ODELL: There was no enemy fire from either bank.

Now, let me say something. John Kerry's report said there was 5,000 meters of fire. That's 3.2 miles. That's longer than the cemetery ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

We would have all been dead if they had 1,000 men lining that river, shooting at us. There was no bullet holes in any boat, and no one else was wounded. There couldn't have been fire coming from it.

WALLACE: All right. Let's look at the records from 1969. I have here John Kerry's -- the recommendation for him to receive a Bronze Star medal, and let's look at what this document says.

It says that there were two mine explosions, including one that knocked Jim Rassmann off Kerry's boat.

And then it says this about Kerry: "He immediately turned his boat around to assist the man in the river, who by this time was receiving sniper fire from the river banks. Throughout the entire action, Lieutenant Junior Grade Kerry proved himself to be calm, professional and highly courageous in the face of enemy fire."

Mr. Odell, this recommendation for John Kerry to receive a Bronze Star, this recommendation that said he was courageous under fire, was signed by George Elliott, a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

ODELL: Yes, it was. Yes, it was. Because he trusted what his officers told him. He didn't have any reason not to trust them. The spot report was written by John Kerry. 

But I tell you this. I was there...

WALLACE: How do you have the evidence that the after-action report was written by John Kerry? Where's the evidence of that?

ODELL: He was the officer that volunteered to write it whenever it came back. Because the only people...

WALLACE: Do you have a document?

ODELL: No, I do not. I do not have a document that says that.

WALLACE: You do not have a document that says that he -- and you're saying that, with all of these people there, that he made up a story and with all of these other -- all of you there, that he made up a story that there was no enemy fire -- or that there was enemy fire and everybody else just accepted it?

ODELL: No, nobody else accepted it, because we never saw it. None of us knew that he even got the Bronze Star. None of us that any of this was going on. We didn't know until after he left about the Purple Heart. And I didn't know about his Bronze Star until about three months ago that they got for this action. As a matter of fact...

WALLACE: But wait a minute. Another member of your group, Larry Thurlow, who was also in that same action, also received a Bronze Star, and his citation also says there was enemy fire.

I want to show you something else. These are the after-action reports from March 1969. These are the reports of the action. These did not come from an individual person. They talk about -- and let's take a look at it.

They say that the boats received heavy A.W. -- automatic weapons -- and S.A. -- small arms -- from both banks. And they say that all of your boats sustained battle damage, including Thurlow's boat and Kerry's boat.

These are the documents.

ODELL: I've seen them. And these were written from Kerry's spot reports.

But I want to tell you this: There was no damage. The damage that was reported on Thurlow's boat, and the damage that was reported on the 94 boat, which were windows blown out, that happened the day before in an ambush on March the 12th.

I can tell you this. I mean, I was up at the highest point. I could see all around. I could see what was going on. I fired a few hundred rounds when the mine first went off. And after that we quit firing because -- and then we spent an hour in the kill zone, and nobody was shot or wounded.

WALLACE: Wait a minute. I mean, I've got here the recommendation that was written in real-time, 10 days after, to recommend a Bronze Star for John Kerry; also the one that was written for Larry Thurlow. I've got the after-action reports.

Do you have a single document, a single piece of evidence from 1969 that shows that John Kerry made up this story?

ODELL: Well, I have the fact that I wasn't wounded in that 5,000 meters of fire that he wrote about in here. I do not have a single document. But these came from spot reports...

WALLACE: The answer is no, you do not have a single document.

ODELL: No, I do not.

WALLACE: There's not a single document from 1969 to prove your story.

ODELL: Just seven eyewitness accounts.

WALLACE: From 35 years after the fact.

ODELL: Yes, but I tell you what, when you see a boat blow up in front of you and your good friends are on it, you remember everything that happened that day.

WALLACE: All right.

Let me switch, if I can, back to you, Mr. Hurley. The Swift Boat Veterans also attack Senator Kerry from his anti-war statements when he came back, especially his testimony before a Senate committee in 1971 in which he talked about war crimes and atrocities.

Let's look at part of an ad that the Swift Boat Veterans are now running. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: Razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in North Vietnam in the prison camps took torture to avoid saying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Mr. Hurley, didn't John Kerry vastly overstate the situation in Vietnam?

HURLEY: No, I don't think he did, Chris.

And I think that this ad that you just showed and what Mr. Odell was just talking about, in terms of Bronze Star day, reflect the distortions and lies that are part of this campaign by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

John Kerry testified in 1971 to atrocities being committed in Vietnam.  So also, the Toledo Blade has won a Pulitzer prize this year for the reporting on atrocities in Vietnam. General Tommy Franks has said John Kerry spoke the truth when he testified in 1971. The My Lai massacre was a fact of life back then.

What they have done is they've taken a piece of John Kerry's testimony, left out the part that says he was reporting, repeating the testimony that was given in Detroit at the winter soldier hearings, and presented it as his. And that's wrong.

WALLACE: Wait a minute. This is a fellow, John Kerry, in the middle of a war, with some of his colleagues still over there fighting, talking about systematic atrocities. You don't want to just pass this off -- "well, he was just saying what other people were saying." He was putting his credibility on these stories.

HURLEY: Absolutely. He's a leader. He came back, and he spoke the truth.

Forty-four thousand guys had died already in Vietnam at that point.  They had died based on a failed policy, a failed war that Richard Nixon was still prosecuting.

Those guys, including myself, came back and opposed that war in Vietnam to save lives, and it worked. John Kerry had the courage and leadership to stand up and do something about it.

WALLACE: Did he overstate what happened in his testimony in 1971?

HURLEY: About the war in Vietnam? No.

WALLACE: You're saying that John Kerry today, as the presidential candidate, stands by everything he said about the atrocities committed by people in Vietnam in 1971?

HURLEY: John Kerry says that he regrets the use of the language that may have offended some people. He is not -- he stands behind the facts of his testimony. He stands behind the facts that atrocities were being committed in Vietnam. Nobody likes to talk...

WALLACE: On a systematic basis?

HURLEY: Nobody likes to talk about atrocities. But they are a fact of life.

Systematic, based on what? I mean, you can not say, and John Kerry never said, that every troop in Vietnam, as Mr. Odell's group would lead you to believe, that John Kerry has somehow smeared every veteran who ever served in Vietnam. That's ridiculous. That's the height of hypocrisy.

John Kerry honors the service of veterans who served in Vietnam. He came back and he fought for them. He fought to save lives. He's fought for veterans' rights and benefits ever since.

WALLACE: I just want to make it clear. You say, as the head of Veterans for Kerry, you're saying that he stands by, if not the language, he stands by the specific charges he made in his 1971 testimony?

HURLEY: He stands by the fact that he was reporting on what people testified to at the winter soldier hearings out in Detroit in 1971.

WALLACE: Well, yes, obviously they said it, but is he standing by that those were right or not?

HURLEY: Yes, of course, and so is the Toledo Blade, which won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on atrocities.

WALLACE: What he said about the...

HURLEY: Pardon me. Pardon me. That's right. What he said was the testimony of...

WALLACE: No, no, no. But what they said was right, is what I'm saying.

HURLEY: He is saying atrocities were committed. And Tommy Franks, General Tommy Franks, has said that John Kerry spoke the truth in 1971.

It cannot be ignored. Atrocities are part of Vietnam. It's a part nobody wants to talk about. I don't want to talk about it; John Kerry doesn't want to talk about it. But it is a fact of life, and that's why those guys won a Pulitzer Prize.

WALLACE: Mr. Odell, I want to get into one last area with you. Senator Kerry says that your group is a front for the White House and is doing its dirty work.

A couple of specific questions.

One of your biggest funders, Bob Perry, is one of the biggest contributors in Texas to Republican causes and, in fact, is a close associate of Karl Rove, the president's chief political man.

Merrie Spaeth, who is a public relations consultant to your group, has been working for Republican causes for years.

You have met with either of them?

ODELL: I've met with Merrie Spaeth. I've not met with Bob Perry. I bought one of his homes several years ago.

But what I want to say about that is that our message is our message, and no one tells us what to say.

I'm thankful that Bob Perry gave us that seed money to get started, but he's not the biggest contributor. The biggest contributor right now is the American people.

We were getting about $20,000 a day in donations. When Kerry came out against us and said he was going to land his boat, that first day we got over $100,000 and Friday we got $260,000.

WALLACE: I'm going to give you the last word, Mr. Hurley. You've got about 20 seconds.

Is this just the fog of war, 35 years later?

HURLEY: No, this is a Republican smear campaign.

John Kerry and the United States Navy -- the United States Navy awarded John Kerry a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.  Every single man who served under his command, when he won those awards, supports John Kerry.

These men were not with him on that day when he won those awards -- except for -- I do take that back with respect to Mr. Odell. But the number of others -- John O'Neill never met John Kerry in Vietnam.

This is a smear campaign. And it's wrong. And as McCain said, it's dishonest and dishonorable.

WALLACE: Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you both so much for talking with us today.

ODELL: Thank you, Chris.

HURLEY: Thank you.

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