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August 22, 2004

Kerry's Third Purple Heart--Fraudulent

[UPDATED, 11:49 p.m. Aug. 22 at the end) It is clear that Kerry lied about being in Cambodia and about what he did with his medals after he came back to the States, but I'm still trying to sort out whether he deserved the medals. It is best to go one medal at a time. This is interesting both with regard to Kerry, and, more generally with regard to how well the Navy prevents fraudulent medal awards. So I went over the records released by the Kerry Campaign carefully (according to the Washington Post (R) , 6 pages out of about 100) looking at just one medal-- the third Purple Heart, of March 1969. Below I lay out the evidence (with images of the relevant parts of the documents at the end of the post). I originally wrote this Saturday night using just 1969 documents-- not any 2004 witness reports. Then I read the August 21 Washington Post (R) article. I've put information from there in italics below.

The March 1969 injury was received when a mine blew up near Kerry's boat. There may have been small arms fire around, too (this is disputed), and the American boats were certainly firing. Kerry received his Bronze Star in this action, for turning back his boat to rejoin the other American boats and rescue an army observer who had fallen out of his boat (exactly what happened is confused, too, but let's stick to one medal at a time).

(1) The Bronze Star citation says, "another mine detonated... wounding Lieutenant (jg) Kerry in the right arm. ... Lieutenant (jg) Kerry directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire, while from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain..."

(2) The Bronze Star recommendation says "another mine detonated... wounding LTJG KERRY in the right arm. ... LTJG KERRY, from his exposed position on the bow of the boat, managed to pull LT RASSMAN aboard despite the painful wound in his right arm."

(3) The Kerry Campaign's description says, "... a second mine detonated near PCF94, wounding Kerry ... Kerry, who had received shrapnel wounds and hurt his right arm,..."

(4) The August 21 Washington Post (R) says, "Although Kerry's injury report speaks of a mine that "detonated close aboard PCF-94," helmsman Del Sandusky believes it was more likely a rocket or rocket- propelled grenade, as a mine would have inflicted more damage. Whatever it was, the explosion rammed Kerry into the wall of his pilothouse, injuring his right forearm."

Okay-- so far it seems that Kerry was wounded in his arm by shrapnel from the mine. Note, by the way, that (1), (2), and (3) are all ultimately based on (2), the recommendation for the Bronze Star, which in turn may have been based on an action report written by Kerry himself (this is disputed). But compare (1), (2), (3), and (4) with the medical documents:


(6) The Personnel Casualty Report says " LTJG Kerry received shrapnel wounds in left buttocks and contusions on right forearm when a mine detonated...".

Merriam Webster Online says a contusion is an "injury to tissue usually without laceration : BRUISE"

(7) The Spot Report also says (not in the excerpt in the image below), "TREATED BY MEDICAL OFFICER ABOARD USCGC SPENCER (WHEC-36) AND MEDEVACED." (The August 21 Washington Post (R) seems not to have tried to contact that person.)

This raises two questions. (A) Was Kerry's arm really bleeding, or just bruised? and (B) Why isn't the shrapnel wound in the left buttock mentioned in the Bronze Star reports, when it seems to have been the more serious injury? Is it just too embarassing to be wounded there? Or did it come later, as a result of friendly fire?

This last possibility is important because, as Swiftboats.net says, to get a Purple Heart for a wound, it must be:

As the result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed force.


A "wound" is defined as an injury to any part of the body from an outside force or agent, sustained while in action as described in the eligibility requirements. A physical lesion is not required, provided the concussion or other form of injury received was a result of the action engaged in. Except in the case of a prisoner of war, the wound must have required treatment by a medical officer .

The August 21 Washington Post (R) clears up the buttocks mystery. First, a red herring:

On the core issue of whether Kerry was wounded under enemy fire, thereby qualifying for a third Purple Heart, the Navy records clearly favor Kerry. Several documents, including the after-action report and the Bronze Star citation for a Swift boat skipper who has accused Kerry of lying, refer to "all units" coming under "automatic and small-weapons fire."

The "automatic and small-weapons fire" dispute is not relevant to the Third Purple Heart (though it is to the Second Bronze Star). Kerry's arm contusion occurred at the time of the mine explosion, which was enemy action, and nobody claims the bruise was caused by "automatic and small-weapons fire".

Note, however, that the arm bruise, though received in combat, was minor-- presumably not needing medical treatment of any kind except Ben-Gay ointment or its equivalent. The Purple Heart would have been received for the mysterious buttocks shrapnel. Was it received during the same mined-boat action? The August 21 Washington Post (R) clears up the mystery:

As they were heading back to the boat, Kerry and Rassmann decided to blow up a five-ton rice bin to deny food to the Vietcong. In an interview last week, Rassmann recalled that they climbed on top of the huge pile and dug a hole in the rice. On the count of three, they tossed their grenades into the hole and ran.

Evidently, Kerry did not run fast enough. "He got some frags and pieces of rice in his rear end," Rassmann said with a laugh. "It was more embarrassing than painful." At the time, the incident did not seem significant, and Kerry did not mention it to anyone when he got back on the boat. An unsigned "personnel casualty report," however, erroneously implies that Kerry suffered "shrapnel wounds in his left buttocks" later in the day, following the mine explosion incident, when he also received "contusions to his right forearm."

Anti-Kerry veterans have accused Kerry of conflating the two injuries to strengthen his case for a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Kerry's Bronze Star citation, however, refers only to his arm injury.

Recall that Rassman is a strong Kerry supporter, one of his key witnesses. So from the Kerry side, we learn that the buttocks wound was not the result of enemy action, and so did not qualify for a Purple Heart. Unless the minor arm contusion that he *did* receive in action was severe enough to "require treatment by a medical officer," the Third Purple Heart was wrongly given. And the medical officer's report said that the contusion was minor even in comparison with buttocks shrapnel that failed to prevent him from walking back to his boat and carrying on with his duties.

I've heard it said that only the Marines really are careful about giving out medals, and medals from the Army, Navy, and Air Force are overused, as a means of cheap compensation. Any army has the following problem: the supposed hero, his superior who authorizes the medal, and the entire army all look good if they report an act of heroism instead of being skeptical. (And this isn't just an army problem-- I teach in a business school, and it is in our self-interest to give every single professor a teaching award, to impress students and outsiders.)

Recall, too, the suicide of Admiral Boorda back in 1996. Boorda, the top officer in the Navy, committed suicide after Newsweek discovered he was wearing Vietnam War decorations to which he was clearly not entitled. People in the Navy have gotten away with a lot, it seems.

This larger problem doubles back in being relevant to the Kerry Medals Kerfuffle, because it might explain the behavior of the Swiftboat vets. Why did so many of them wait so long to come forward? Maybe because a lot more people than Kerry got dubious medals, or authorized dubious medals for their subordinates. I'd like to know how many Bronze Stars, in particular, were given out. Kerry got one-- but maybe every other Swiftboat officer got three. And I wonder if there was pressure to award medals to justify the operations of the Swiftboats and to attract good officers and men to that duty.

The Boston Globe of April 24, 2004 (an article mainly about the first Purple Heart-- the one with missing records that Dr. Letson, "Medical Officer at Naval Support Facility, Cam Ranh Bay", says he saw and thought was trivial):

During the Vietnam War, Purple Hearts were often granted for minor wounds. "There were an awful lot of Purple Hearts--from shrapnel, some of those might have been M-40 grenades," said George Elliott, who served as a commanding officer to Kerry during another point in his five-month combat tour in Vietnam. (Kerry earlier served a noncombat tour.) "The Purple Hearts were coming down in boxes." Under Navy regulations, an enlistee or officer wounded three times was permitted to leave Vietnam early, as Kerry did. He received all three purple hearts for relatively minor injuries -- two did not cost him a day of service and one took him out for a day or two.

So, was Kerry's third Purple Heart justified? No, I would say from this account. The only issue is whether a minor contusion on the arm qualifies someone for a Purple Heart.

Does it matter? Kerry's Third Purple Heart is, after all, only one of his six medals, and not the most important (except for getting him out of the combat zone early).

Yes. Kerry has always put his war record at the centerpiece of why we should elect him President. If he lied about a significant part of it then, and upholds the lie now, that wipes out what he offers as his strongest suit. If the Third Purple Heart was fraudulent-- or even if it was standard procedure, but medals are given out for trivial reasons like bruised arms-- then we should be dubious about his other medals too. If we can reject the validity of the medals we can check on, we should not blindly accept the validity of medals whose legitimacy depends on disputed "soft" evidence. And, of course, even if his other medals turn out to be valid, we have learned something about Kerry's character.

UPDATE, 11:49 p.m., Sunday August 22. I've found more details, in a careful defense of Kerry's Third Purple Heart from Eriposte.Com. First, it refers us to a more detailed listing of the requirements for the Purple Heart at Excerpts from "AR 600-8-22, 25 February 1995 and Public Law 104-106 - Feb. 10, 1996":

(5) Examples of injuries or wounds which clearly do not qualify for award of the Purple Heart are as follows:...

(h) Self-inflicted wounds, except when in the heat of battle, and not involving gross negligence.


(b) Individuals wounded or killed as a result of "friendly fire" in the "heat of battle" will be awarded the Purple Heart as long as the "friendly" projectile or agent was released with the full intent of inflicting damage or destroying enemy troops or equipment.

Thus, friendly fire injuries *do* count for getting the Purple Heart, so long as they were not self-inflicted outside of heat of battle, self-inflicted in battle with gross negligence, and the friendly fire was intended to damage enemy troops or equipment.

How about Kerry's buttocks shrapnel from the grenade he threw at the rice? It still doesn't seem to qualify. It was self-inflicted, but not in the heat of battle. I'm not sure that blowing up rice counts as trying to damage enemy equipment. Even if it did, there still is no "heat of battle".

Here is what Eriposte has to say, with my thoughts on italics inside:

The grenade incident is actually supported by Kerry's own account, but the shrapnel wound was only part of the basis for Kerry's third purple heart according to official documents. The evidence here is contradictory.

I haven't found an official document which says exactly what the basis for the Purple Heart is-- just the record of the injuries. But in any case, the shrapnel must be the entire basis, not just part of the basis, for the Purple Heart if the bruised arm does not count because it did not require "treatment by a medical officer".

Kerry's account is in the book Tour of Duty by Douglas Brinkley, who based it largely on Kerry's own Vietnam diaries and 12 hours of interviews with Kerry. "I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice-bin explosions and then we started to move back to the boats," Kerry is quoted as saying on page 313. In that account, Kerry says his arm was hurt later, after the mine blast that disabled PCF-3, when a second explosion rocked his own boat. "The concussion threw me violently against the bulkhead on the door and I smashed my arm," Kerry says on page 314.

So the causes of the two injuries are confirmed by Kerry himself.

And according to a Navy casualty report released by the Kerry campaign, the third purple heart was received for "shrapnel wounds in left buttocks  and contusions on his right forearm when a mine detonated close aboard PCF-94," Kerry's boat. As a matter of strict grammar, the report doesn't state that both injuries were received as a result of the mine explosion, only the arm injury.

If I recall rightly, the casualty report was just a casualty report, and didn't say anything about Purple Hearts, either way. It would have been nice if it said, "This particular wound is severe enough to justify a Purple Heart," but all it says is that the arm wound was "minor".

The official citation for Kerry's Bronze Star refers only to his arm injury, not to the shrapnel wound to his rear. It says he performed the rescue "from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain."

The description of Kerry's arm "bleeding" isn't consistent with the description of a "contusion," or bruise.

I've wondered about this. It could be that "contusion" means "bruise or laceration" in military medicine. But the military and medical professions are known for their pedantic precision, so more likely "contusion" means bruise and "laceration" means laceration. One of the medical reports did say "abrasion" in connection with someone else's injury.

In any case, even a " friendly fire" injury can qualify for a purple heart "as long as the 'friendly' projectile or agent was released with the full intent of inflicting damage or destroying enemy troops or equipment," according to the  website of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. All agree that rice was being destroyed that day on the assumption that it otherwise might feed Viet Cong fighters.

This is a good point I hadn't known about-- that friendly fire injuries can count for a Purple Heart. But this paragraph omits a key requirement-- that the wound be received "in the heat of battle". The buttocks wound was not received while Kerry was under enemy fire.

(See my Kerry in Vietnam archives for more posts)

Posted by erasmuse at August 22, 2004 02:22 PM

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