WASHINGTON – Two former Vietnam prisoners of war who appear in ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) were appointed by the Bush administration to a panel advising the Department of Veterans Affairs (search).
The former POWs in the ad, Kenneth Cordier (search) and Paul Galanti (search), serve on the VA's 12-member Former POW Advisory Committee. VA Secretary Anthony Principi appointed Cordier in 2002 and Galanti in 2003.
Cordier said the VA panel has nothing to do with the Bush campaign or the anti-Kerry group. "It's totally apolitical, and we meet twice a year to bring to the secretary's attention problems from around the country in VA hospitals," he said.
Cordier and Galanti appear in an anti-Kerry ad saying their Vietnamese captors used news of anti-war protests, such as ones Kerry organized, to taunt the prisoners. Cordier also was a member of a Bush campaign veterans' committee but quit earlier this month after that role was revealed.
VA spokesman Phil Budahn said Principi did not know about or encourage the veterans' appearance in the anti-Kerry ad. Budahn said federal regulations bar advisory committee members from engaging in political activity while performing their committee duties, but there are no other restrictions on their activities when not working on committee business.
Kerry has labeled the group running the ads, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), a front for the Bush campaign. Kerry's campaign complained to the Federal Election Commission that the veterans' group was illegally coordinating its attacks with the Bush campaign.
More than $100,000 of the group's initial funding came from Houston-area homebuilder Bob J. Perry, a longtime donor to Bush and other Texas Republicans. A Bush campaign lawyer also advised the Swift boat group and was dropped from the campaign staff after his role became public.
Bush and his campaign have denied any coordination with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Cordier said he got involved with the group because of his continuing outrage over anti-Vietnam war activists like Kerry. He said he got in touch with one of its leaders, John O'Neill, who later commanded the same Swift boat Kerry had overseen.
Cordier said he doesn't remember his Vietnamese captors specifically mentioning Kerry but he does remember them playing a tape of an address by anti-war activist Jane Fonda.
Cordier and Galanti are longtime friends and prominent former Vietnam POWs with long-standing Republican ties. Cordier said he suggested Galanti contact O'Neill.
Galanti coordinated Arizona Sen. John McCain's (search) presidential campaign in Virginia four years ago and was a member of the same VA advisory panel when Bush's father was president. Cordier gave $2,000 to Texas Republicans in 2000 and 2001.
The anti-Kerry group's ads have accused Kerry of lying to get some of the five medals he won as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam.
Navy documents and other servicemen who witnessed the incidents contradict the group's claims, and the group has not offered any documentary proof of its claims that Kerry lied about his medals. Kerry himself has given differing accounts of some incidents, however, and his past claim to have been in Cambodia on Christmas 1968 is not substantiated by any documents so far.
Navy records also show most of the anti-Kerry group's members were not in Vietnam at the same time as Kerry. The group has not released a membership list but did criticize Kerry in a May letter signed by 238 members.
Only 101 names on the letter match names of officers or enlisted men on the rolls of Kerry's units in Vietnam when he was there, from November 1968 through March 1969.
Van Odell, an enlisted man in Kerry's unit and a member of the group, said Swift Boat Veterans for Truth never claimed to be exclusively made up of veterans who served with Kerry. Finding such vets is difficult because Kerry was only in Vietnam for about four months, Odell said.
"It's hard to be there when he was," Odell said. "He was in and out so fast."
Before volunteering for Swift boat duty on Vietnam's rivers, Kerry served about a year on a Navy frigate offshore in the Gulf of Tonkin.
At least 30 men on the list, including one who appears in an anti-Kerry ad, served in Kerry's former Swift boat unit a year after Kerry left Vietnam, the records show.
Shelton White appears in the group's first ad, which claims it is quoting those who served with Kerry. In the ad, White says "John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam." Navy records show White served in Kerry's former unit, Coastal Division 11, from November 1969 to March 1970 — a full year after Kerry left.
Odell said White was referring to Kerry's anti-war activities after Kerry returned to the United States.