WASHINGTON – Records of John Kerry's (search) Vietnam War service released Wednesday show a highly praised naval officer who volunteered for a dangerous assignment and at one point was "unofficially credited with 20 enemy killed in action."
With conservative critics questioning his service, the Democratic presidential candidate posted more than 120 pages of military records on his campaign Web site. Several describe him as a gutsy commander and detail some of the actions that won him three Purple Hearts (search), a Bronze Star (search) and a Silver Star (search).
Kerry's most harrowing experience came during the nearly five months when he commanded a swiftboat along Vietnam's Mekong Delta (search). The future Massachusetts senator was commended for gallantry, heroism and valor during the tour, which was cut short when Kerry was wounded three times and sent back to the United States.
"He frequently exhibited a high sense of imagination and judgment in planning operations against the enemy in the Mekong Delta," wrote Lt. Cmdr. George Elliott, Kerry's commanding officer. "Involved in several enemy initiated fire fights, including an ambush during the Christmas truce, he effectively suppressed enemy fire and is unofficially credited with 20 enemy killed in action."
Talk radio conservatives and some veterans have questioned whether Kerry was wounded severely enough to leave combat, but Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) said he is eager to compare Kerry's record to President Bush's. McAuliffe accused Bush of using family connections to avoid service overseas and failing to show up for duty while in the National Guard (search).
"Simply put, Kerry has a proud record of sacrifice and service whereas Bush has a record of cashed-in connections and evasion," McAuliffe said in a statement Wednesday.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson said, "Like so many of Terry McAuliffe's comments, this one is not worthy of the dignity of a response."
Kerry's medical records from the Navy were not included in the materials released. Campaign spokesman Michael Meehan did not return telephone messages left Wednesday for comment.
Kerry's records show that throughout his four years of active duty, superiors gave him glowing evaluations, citing his maturity, intelligence and immaculate appearance. He was recommended for early promotion, and when he left the Navy in 1970 to run for Congress, his commanding officer said it was the Navy's loss.
The lowest marks Kerry earned were the equivalent of average — in military bearing, reliability and initiative. But narrative comments from his commanding officers said he was diplomatic, charismatic, decisive and well-liked by his men.
The records cited Kerry's education at Swiss boarding school, his speaking and debating awards and his role as class orator at Yale University's commencement. He lettered in varsity soccer and lacrosse, fenced, had a private pilot's license and had experience sailing and ocean racing.
Kerry traveled throughout Europe in his youth and spoke fluent French and some German. His supervising officer later commended him for taking it upon himself to learn Vietnamese (search).
Kerry cited his sailing experience before the Navy when he volunteered to command a swiftboat, a 50-foot-long craft that could operate at high speeds in the rough waters of Vietnam's rivers and tributaries.
Some critics have questioned whether Kerry's injuries were severe enough to warrant reassignment to the United States. His records briefly describe shrapnel wounds to his arm and thigh for the first two Purple Hearts, but they don't detail the severity of the wounds.
According to a naval instruction document provided by Kerry's campaign, anyone serving in Vietnam who was wounded three times, regardless of the nature of the wound or treatment required, "will not be ordered to service in Vietnam and contiguous waters."
On Feb. 28, 1969, Kerry's and two other boats came under heavy fire from the riverbanks. Kerry ordered his units to turn into the ambush and sent men ashore to charge the enemy. According to the records, an enemy soldier holding a loaded rocket launcher sprang up within 10 feet of Kerry's boat and fled. Kerry leapt ashore, chased and killed the man.
Kerry and his men chased or killed all enemy soldiers in the area, captured enemy weapons and then returned to the boat only to come under fire from the opposite bank as they began to pull away. Kerry again beached his boat and led a party ashore to pursue the enemy, and they successfully silenced the shooting. Later, with the boats again under fire, Kerry initiated a heavy response that killed 10 Viet Cong and wounded another with no casualties to his own men.
He won the Silver Star "for gallantry and intrepidity in action" that day. Two weeks later, another fire fight led to a Bronze Star for heroic achievement and the third Purple Heart that would result in his reassignment out of Vietnam.
Kerry was commanding one of five boats on patrol on March 13, 1969, when two mines detonated almost simultaneously — one beneath another boat and one near Kerry's craft. Shrapnel hit Kerry's buttocks, and his right arm was bleeding from contusions, but he rescued a boatmate who had been thrown overboard by the blast and was under sniper fire from both banks. Kerry then directed his crew to return to the other damaged craft and tow it to safety.
In April 1969, Kerry was sent stateside to the Military Sea Transportation Service, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, in Brooklyn, N.Y. On Nov. 21, 1969, Kerry requested that he be released from his commitment to serve actively until August 1970 so he could run for Congress.
He was promoted to full lieutenant on Jan. 1, 1970, and soon after was discharged from active duty and became a reservist.