An officer who served with John Kerry (search) finally broke his silence Thursday about the Swift vets controversy — and said Kerry accidentally wounded himself before requesting his first Purple Heart.
In a detailed new account that is certain to fuel the growing controversy, eyewitness William Schachte Jr. (search), a retired rear admiral, told columnist Robert Novak (search) for Friday's papers that he was "astonished" to hear Kerry's version of the events of Dec. 2, 1968, when Schachte was in command of Kerry aboard a skimmer boat on the Mekong River.
Schachte said that Kerry:
— Wasn't wounded by hostile fire.
— Wasn't even under fire by the enemy.
— "Nicked" himself with a grenade launcher and "requested a Purple Heart" afterward.
If Schachte's version is accurate, Kerry would not have been eligible for the award, the first of the three Purple Hearts he received.
To win a Purple Heart, military personnel must have a wound that requires medical treatment, and it must have been received during the course of an engagement with the enemy, even if the wound was not a result of hostile fire.
What happened that day on the Mekong River became an issue after some of Kerry's fellow Vietnam War officers charged in a book, "Unfit for Command," and in TV ads that he didn't deserve his medals.
Two former enlisted men who are supporting Kerry have said they were with him in the boat that day — and that Schachte was not.
But Schachte, then a lieutenant junior grade like Kerry, told Novak he was in command of the boat that day, which was Kerry's first combat mission in Vietnam.
They were aboard a small boat called a skimmer, or Boston Whaler, he said.
Schachte, now living in Charleston, S.C., said the boat fired a flare to flush enemy forces from the shoreline.
Kerry's M-16 rifle jammed, so he picked up the M-79 grenade launcher, Schachte said.
"I heard a 'thunk.' There was no fire from the enemy," Schachte recalled.
Schachte's former superior Grant Hibbard said he told Kerry to "forget it" when Kerry came to him the day after the incident and asked for a Purple Heart.
Schachte is not a member of the anti-Kerry Swift boat vets, hasn't been contacted by the Bush campaign, and told Novak that he has backed candidates from both parties in past elections.
The retired rear admiral said he hadn't spoken out earlier because "I didn't want to get involved," but changed his mind after his own role in the incident was disputed on TV.
In a related development, Robert Lambert, a fellow crewman in a separate incident for which Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star, disputed their former commander and said the boat did come under fire.
He added that Lt. Larry Thurlow, the boat's commander who has challenged Kerry's account, was too distracted to notice the gunfire because he was busy rescuing other sailors.
All five Swift boats in the task force "came under small-arms and automatic-weapon fire from the river banks," Lambert said.