'Unfit for Command' Author Unspun

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," Sept. 7, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST: The book "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," is No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Co-author John O'Neill has been all over TV and radio promoting the book. But I didn't want to talk to him until I read the book and investigated his charges independently.

And now, that's been done and Mr. O'Neill joins us from Los Angeles. All right, you know, you've given hundreds of interviews and let's make this one a bit different. I'm going to read you what we've found out in our investigation and you tell me whether it's true or not, OK. And I think that will advance this story a little bit.

First of all, you didn't know John Kerry in Vietnam, even though you took over his boat. Your paths didn't cross over there, right?

JOHN O'NEILL, "UNFIT FOR COMMAND," COAUTHOR: That's true, Bill. The book, of course, is based on more than 60 people who served directly with him. Many of them were there when I got there.

O'REILLY: You didn't know him there. And you met up with him on the Dick Cavett Show, where you debated his antiwar position once he returned to the United States, correct?

O'NEILL: I met him on the Dick Cavett show. Of course, I was there because of his war crimes claims against our unit and others.

O'REILLY: OK. You know, I'm going to try to get that broadcast upstairs. Let's see if we can get that. That would be interesting to see. Now, in Vietnam, at the time John Kerry was in command of the swift boat, there were two things going on. One, there was medal inflation in the Navy. They were giving out medals like crazy to boost morale and to encourage more aggressive action.

And number two, the swift boat commanders didn't keep daily logs. Both of those things true?

O'NEILL: Not quite, Bill. I don't think there was medal inflation like crazy.

O'REILLY: Really?

O'NEILL: I don't know of any other Purple Heart incidents like the ones involved with John Kerry.

O'REILLY: All right, let me just quote you from David Hackworth -- you know David Hackworth. He's a very famous Army analyst, and he says that "the Army grossly," and Navy, "grossly inflated awards, and it sunk to a new low at that period in time."

So there's a disagreement, but some people believe there was medal inflation.

O'NEILL: We don't know of any, for example, Purple Hearts in the absence of hostile fire for self-inflicted wounds, other than the three that John Kerry...

O'REILLY: All right, would you cede that it was easier to win a Silver Star in Vietnam than during World War II?

O'NEILL: I think that that probably is fair, Bill.


O'NEILL: I think that's probably...

O'REILLY: That's all we want to be is fair, and we want to set the record straight if we can.

O'NEILL: Sure.

O'REILLY: We have found out that John Kerry was anti-Vietnam War before he even got to Vietnam and we base this on his address that he gave to his Yale graduating class, where he questioned the war and he questioned the intervention there. So before Kerry even got to Vietnam, he was antiwar. Did you find that out?

O'NEILL: We found out exactly the same thing, Bill, that's true.

O'REILLY: OK, good, all right, nine out of 10 people on Kerry's boat still support him. Did you find that out?

O'NEILL: I believe it's more like eight out of nine. One is dead.

O'REILLY: Steve Gardner, yeah, OK. Steve Gardner is the lone dissenter, correct?

O'NEILL: Right. And I think it's important, when we say support him, they support him for president. They don't necessarily support him on these stories, like the one in Cambodia, and all that.

O'REILLY: No, but they think he's an honorable man. So we've got nine out of 10 on his boat think he's an honorable man. Gardner is the dissenter. Now, do you know this man Michael Bernique? Do you know who he is?

O'NEILL: Michael Bernique is one of the officers who served, you know, at An Thoi. Of the people at An Thoi, 17 of the 23 officers who served with John Kerry have joined with our organization and condemned Kerry as unfit. Michael Bernique is one of the people who's taken no position.

O'REILLY: Right. He is the most highly decorated swift boat commander in Vietnam, and he basically says, quote, "Kerry was a great American fighting man, but," Bernique says, "after he came back from Vietnam, he diminished that by his unfair criticism."

Would that be what you know about Bernique?

O'NEILL: Michael Bernique is certainly a very highly decorated guy.

O'REILLY: Yeah, he's a true war hero.

O'NEILL: No question about it, hands down. I'm not sure if he was the most decorated, but he's certainly among the most decorated.

O'REILLY: Yeah, from what we know, he is the most decorated. All right, so what I'm trying to get across here...

O'NEILL: He wasn't with Kerry on the deals we discussed in our book, he wasn't there. But I think generally, his position has been that Kerry served honorably, but that he diminished everything, behaved dishonorably when he came back.

O'REILLY: That's true, absolutely true. Now, why I peppered you with all of those things is because I want you and I to have some common ground, and the common ground is this: From what we found out -- and yeah, he might have inflated his heroism, and yeah, the medals probably weren't what they were in World War II -- but he did perform heroically and he did go way overboard when he came back and unfairly besmirched Vietnam veterans. So it's kind of a dual thing here. Now, I'm going to let you go ahead.

O'NEILL: Bill, I agree with the second. You know, a lot of good people protested the war in Vietnam. I have no problem with them. One of them was my professor at the Naval Academy, who sacrificed his career. Where John Kerry was different than anybody else was meeting with the North Vietnamese while he was still a Naval officer, by claiming that we were the army of Genghis Khan and the like.

With respect to his service in Vietnam, we've always thought that that was less important. And I do believe that, on occasion, Kerry showed courage in Vietnam. I do believe that he inflated his medals specifically to get out of Vietnam, in a very short period of time. He was the only one in the history of our unit to leave, in his case, four months, including a month of training, with no serious wounds.

O'REILLY: Do you think he did that on purpose, he took advantage of the three Purple Heart rule or was it just happenstance? I don't think there's any question, from our investigation, that John Kerry... two things. He went in with looking not to support the war. He went in antiwar. And then, when he got there, he had an agenda and the agenda was to perform heroically and then come back here and capitalize on that.

I think that's true. I do believe that that's true. He might have exaggerated on occasion, but I don't see him as that calculating. In your book, he comes across as so, so unbelievably calculating.

O'NEILL: I don't think that he wounded himself intentionally and we don't say that. He didn't...


O'NEILL: ... to the best of my knowledge. I do think that he had very minor scratches. He had made a decision he had been there long enough, and he decided to go home and he used the three scratches to go home.

O'REILLY: Would you have done that same thing?

O'NEILL: Not in a million years. Bill, I never knew anybody that would do that.

O'REILLY: What do you think of James Rassmann? He was the guy that Kerry pulled out of the water to get the Bronze Star. Do you respect Mr. Rassmann?

O'NEILL: Absolutely. He was a Special Forces guy over there. I have nothing but respect for him. I do think that his vantage point from being in the water, after being dumped off the Kerry boat and watching Kerry disappear, was different, and not as good as the people who were on the other boats, trying to save the number three boat.

O'REILLY: Now, but Larry Thurlow was on another boat, who also got the Bronze Star there, he changed his story a little bit. But Rassmann told us on "The Factor" that he was getting shot at, had to dive to the bottom of the river to avoid the small arms fire. And this has become a real bone of contention here in your book and the debate throughout the country, that maybe Kerry wasn't under small arms fire, or whatever. Do you see Rassmann's position? I mean, if I'm in the water...

O'NEILL: Oh, sure.

O'REILLY: ... you know, I kind of know if people are shooting at me by the pings on the top of the water.

O'NEILL: Well, here's the problem. The first problem, honestly, Bill, is the story told at the Democratic Convention was that all five boats fled and Kerry came back. What really happened is all the other boats stayed, Kerry left, Rassmann fell off...

O'REILLY: ... he came back.

O'NEILL: ... Kerry ultimately came back. Now, the question is, when Kerry came back, was there still fire? Here's the problem with Rassmann's vantage point. When the mine went off under the number three boat, every single boat opened up. They opened up completely. Rassmann was in the water. For a minute, Rassmann sitting and watching fire everywhere...

O'REILLY: Everywhere.

O'NEILL: ... I mean, these boats, these boats had tremendous...

O'REILLY: Friendly fire can take you out as well as hostile fire, you know that.

O'NEILL: And that's why Rassmann says all boats left. Well, really, what he saw was the Kerry boat leave. The other boats stayed. Everyone admits they couldn't leave...

O'REILLY: I mean, I think to be fair, that to come back and Kerry to drag him out of the water deserved some kind of medal. I don't know about the others, but I believe Rassmann there. So what we have here is basically you saying that Kerry exaggerated his exploits in Vietnam. I think that possibly could have happened.

He was craven when he came back to the U.S. by besmirching all the fine soldiers in Vietnam. I think that's true. And then, the details, people see different things in battle. You know the fog of war better than anyone, Mr. O'Neill.

O'NEILL: It's true, Bill. People can reach different results. I will say, as you know from that book, there are a number of occasions when, for example, in the sanpan incident, it simply is Kerry's account in his book and then the actual report to the Navy.

O'REILLY: Yeah, that was a screw up.

O'NEILL: That's no longer fog of war.

O'REILLY: That sanpan thing was screwed up... oh, boy.

O'NEILL: And the Cambodia story.

O'REILLY: Yeah, but remember -- and I'm not making excuses for Senator Kerry -- it was 35 years ago. He was a young guy, he was an ambitious guy, he's there with an agenda, he's embellishing what happened to him, you know.

O'NEILL: Well, the problem, Bill, is the biggest thing for us has always been, you know, classifying, you know, 58,000 of our friends, 55 of our friends that we left back there, as the Army of Genghis Khan...

O'REILLY: I agree with you. What if Kerry made an apology for doing that? Would that...

O'NEILL: If he had apologized 35 years ago, I wouldn't be here, to tell you the truth, Bill. Neither would the 260 swift boat guys. The problem is, it's just a little late now.

O'REILLY: It is a little late, but everybody does stupid things when they're younger. And I think that people have to own up to those things. If I do talk to the senator, I'm going to ask him about this, of course, whether he overdid it. I enjoyed your book. I think that it's been taken by the ideologues to a degree that I didn't like.

I think you tried to do what you felt was right and I think people should read it and then they should listen to Kerry and his guys and make up their own minds. Would that be fair?

O'NEILL: It is, Bill. It's fair. And I thank you for having us and, earlier, Steve Gardner, on your show. I've always admired your fairness in allowing us to speak. And when we wrote that book, there were more than 60 of us that participated in it. We wrote it for the guys we left back there and for the guys that are in the military right now. That's why we wrote that book.

O'REILLY: All right, Mr. O'Neill, thanks very much. We appreciate you coming on the program.

O'NEILL: Thank you, sir.

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