A few months ago, just as John Kerry began to dominate the Democratic presidential primary races, John O'Neill lay in bed at Houston's Methodist Hospital, recovering from surgery he'd undergone to donate a kidney to his wife, Anne. It's rare that a husband can successfully donate organs to his wife, but the O'Neills were lucky, and he was eager to do it, even though it meant an operation that would leave him weak and sickly. Anne soon regained enough strength to be released from the hospital. O'Neill's convalescence wasn't so smooth.
"It took me a long time to get out of the hospital," O'Neill says. "About three or four weeks--at least three weeks and a long time to recover after that...My wife actually visited me two or three times in the hospital, even though she was the one getting the transplant."
There wasn't much to do then except lie there, maybe read a book or watch television. One day he flipped on the news, and there was Kerry smiling back at him. The Massachusetts senator had just won another primary and was on his way to earning his party's presidential nomination. It made O'Neill sick, or sicker than he had been.
"I looked up, and I saw Kerry on the television monitor in a brown leather [bomber's] jacket, with some caption below the deal," O'Neill recalls. "I thought it was the Iowa [caucus], but I was later told it was probably the Wisconsin primary. But I was shocked, to tell you the truth. Of course, none of us wore brown leather jackets in Vietnam, because it was 90 degrees. It was political theater. I had never anticipated that Kerry could actually be nominated by the Democratic Party."
The mutual dislike between O'Neill and Kerry took root more than 30 years ago. In 1971, O'Neill and Kerry were decorated war veterans in their mid-20s. Both had been lieutenants junior grade in the Navy and had commanded swift boats--small, fast patrol crafts that policed the muddy rivers of Vietnam. But that's where the similarities ended.
Kerry returned from Southeast Asia with a thick mop of hair and a determination to join the anti-war effort. Before long he had affiliated himself with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), one of the nation's most outspoken and politically active anti-war organizations. He was everything VVAW was looking for--young, handsome, bright and willing to speak out. He quickly became the face of the movement and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, famously posing the question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" During his testimony, Kerry also accused the U.S. military of war crimes through the use of free-fire zones, carpet bombing and search-and-destroy missions. He referenced the "winter soldier investigation" that the VVAW had commissioned earlier that year in Detroit, stating that veterans had told him stories of rape and torture "in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
O'Neill was Kerry's negative image. He was a Naval Academy graduate from San Antonio with a close-cropped haircut and a firm belief that Kerry was unfairly slandering Vietnam veterans. "I think there were good and sound reasons that you could argue either side of the war in Vietnam," O'Neill says. "My problem came with criminalizing the people who were there. I thought that was really wrong.
"Of course, there were war crimes in Vietnam. There are crimes right here in Houston. But I knew that wasn't the general pattern of what was happening. We'd see what the Vietcong would do, guys with their heads blown off, and to portray them as freedom fighters and us as criminals seemed to me to be a pretty amazing way to set the world upside down."
O'Neill hooked up with a rival group--Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace--and essentially became the anti-Kerry. He toured the country giving speeches that detailed why he thought Kerry's accusations were a compilation of overstatements and outright lies. He met with President Richard Nixon--Kerry's most powerful antagonist--and later spoke on Nixon's behalf at the 1972 Republican National Convention, even though, O'Neill notes, he told Nixon the first time they met that he voted for Hubert Humphrey in '68. Over that period, O'Neill continually challenged Kerry to debate. Though Kerry turned down offers to meet O'Neill on NBC and 60 Minutes, the pair finally faced off on The Dick Cavett Show. It was a momentous clash of different-minded intellectuals, full of vitriol from both parties. (Kerry went to Yale; O'Neill, after graduating from the Naval Academy, attended the University of Texas Law School, where he finished first in his class.)
That was the first and most notable time John O'Neill was cast opposite John Kerry. More debates would follow, and as Kerry popped into the public consciousness afterward, whether because of a speech or a political race, O'Neill was often contacted by someone asking him to speak in opposition.
"I never got involved. I wasn't interested in it," O'Neill says. "The first time I was ever called was 1984 and then again in 1990--I remember the calls distinctly. I thought a lot about it, and I just decided that it was better to let everything go and forget about it."
As the '70s faded, O'Neill receded from the public's view. He never ran for office. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist for a while, then returned to Texas to practice law. But now, some 30 years after the Cavett debate, O'Neill--a 58-year-old partner with the Houston firm Clements, O'Neill, Pierce, Wilson & Fulkerson--has re-emerged, this time as a spokesman for a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Their mission, quite unabashedly, is to question Kerry's war record and the medals he earned in Vietnam and to prevent him from being elected president. It's a position that has enraged Democrats who have labeled O'Neill and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth everything from liars to Republican operatives.
"You have to consider the source," Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton says. "John Kerry led a swift boat through the Mekong Delta, a mission that had an extremely high casualty rate, and he's lucky to be alive. OK?
"These guys have a clear partisan agenda. John O'Neill did Nixon's dirty tricks, and now he's doing Bush's. We know who's behind them, we know who's funding them, and we know what they're trying to do, and it's not going to work.
"This is part of the Bush campaign playbook. When they run against a decorated war veteran, they try to smear him. They did it against John McCain in the Republican presidential primary in 2000. Now they're doing it to John Kerry."
O'Neill and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have repeatedly denied ties to the Republican Party. (The Bush/Cheney campaign also has denied any association.) It's not partisan politics that bind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth together, they say, but rather a healthy disdain for Kerry and a fear that he might ascend to the presidency.
"The only reason I got back into this deal--100 percent--is because he's running as a major party candidate for president of the United States," O'Neill counters. "And I think he would be a terrible president. There are many Democrats who I think would make wonderful presidents of the United States and wonderful commanders in chief.
"If we weren't talking about him running for president of the United States, I wouldn't be any more involved than I was in all the political campaigns he had. If I'm an opportunist, then I'm the Rip Van Winkle of opportunists."
Three decades after the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of American troops, the Vietnam War still divides the hearts and minds of those who served, and its specter continues to influence politics. But like almost everything else dipped in that quagmire, the truth--about Kerry's service, his postwar politics, the motives of both sides and the funding behind his opposition--is obscured by the residue of a dirty war.
Shortly after forming, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) hired a former FBI agent named Tom Rupprath, who is now a private investigator in Rockwall, to locate swift boat vets and to dig up whatever he could regarding Kerry's service record. (Rupprath did not return calls from the Dallas Observer.) In addition to criticizing Kerry for what he said about veterans and war crimes, SBVT has publicly levied some serious allegations about Kerry's recollection of his time in Vietnam and about how his medals (three Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat and a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for valor) were achieved.
In 1986, Kerry made a speech on the Senate floor urging then-President Ronald Reagan not to allow the United States to aid the Nicaraguan Contras, likening it to the slippery slope that daunted American forces in Vietnam. "Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia."
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth point to that speech as an example of what they allege became Kerry's pattern of behavior following the war--to distort and twist the facts to suit his purposes.
After getting out of the hospital, O'Neill linked up with Roy Hoffmann and a few others. Hoffmann, who retired as a rear admiral in 1978 and who now lives in Virginia, was a captain during the Vietnam War and served as the commander of the Coastal Surveillance Force, which included swift boats. Both O'Neill and Kerry served under him. Together, Hoffmann--who is recognized by SBVT as the group's founder--O'Neill and a few others resolved to put their version of the truth before the American public. They got help shaping their message from Spaeth Communications (a Dallas firm run by Merrie Spaeth, a political media consultant who served as director of media relations for Reagan).
Hoffmann says the reason the American government denied being in Cambodia was because the United States had no diplomatic relations with that country, and officially crossing the border would have resulted in serious political fallout. There was also the not-so-minor point that Congress hadn't sanctioned military action against Cambodia. Sending gunboats up its rivers or troops into its jungles would have been an act of war and would have spread the fighting in Southeast Asia. There were, of course, covert operations that the government has since acknowledged--operations that sent American soldiers to illegally infiltrate Cambodia and other neighboring countries. The problem, SBVT contends, is that Kerry wasn't part of any of them.
"I was on that boat with him that Christmas, and we were not anywhere near Cambodia," says Steven Gardner, who served as Kerry's gunner's mate on PCF-44 (patrol craft fast) and who is now a member of SBVT. PCF-44 was based in Cam Ranh Bay, a good distance from the Cambodian border. "He didn't have the balls to do that and break international law, let alone do what we were supposed to half the time.
"You have to put yourself in perspective with this. To have taken our boat and gone up into Cambodian waters would have been suicidal for Mr. Kerry because they would have put him in prison so fast for breaking international law that it was unreal, because there were no black ops, nothing like that with our boats. We'd take our guys and drop them into VC territory, of course, but nothing like what you hear these guys talking garbage about."
Jim Wasser disagrees. He was a radarman who was second in command under Kerry on PCF-44 and is now affiliated with his campaign as part of Veterans for Kerry. Wasser, who now lives in Illinois, says that it would be unusual for an enlisted gunner's mate to specifically know the boat's position at any given time.
"I had to go on [Fox News show] Hannity & Colmes with him, and even though he's wrong, and I truly believe that, he's my brother, and veterans should never say anything about each other," Wasser says of Gardner. "[Swift Boat Veterans for Truth] say they're about the truth; that's a falsehood.
"On Christmas in 1968, we were close [to Cambodia]. I don't know exactly where we were. I didn't have the chart. It was easy to get turned around with all the rivers around there. But I'll say this: We were the farthest inland that night. I know that for sure."
That two veterans who served on the same boat with Kerry remember the events in question differently is the essence of the dispute and the confusion. Both sides have strong opinions on Kerry's service, and both have political ties that make their motives suspect. The back-and-forth battle parallels the Vietnam War itself--it's a large mess with political ramifications that could help shape America's future.
In terms of how and why SBVT is attacking Kerry, though, the Cambodia issue is minor in comparison with the furor concerning two of the three Purple Hearts he received during his tour of duty.
Kerry was awarded his first Purple Heart after receiving a shrapnel wound in the arm from what he says was enemy fire in late 1968. The second was for a leg wound from a rocket attack in February 1969, and the third was for injuries from a mine explosion that March.
It's the first and last of the medals SBVT questions, maintaining that Kerry lied about being injured in order to exploit a Navy regulation that ended a sailor's tour of duty once he received three Purple Hearts (Kerry served a little more than four months on a swift boat in Vietnam; the standard tour at the time was a minimum of one year).
"The next morning I was getting debriefed by some members of the crew and by Lieutenant [junior grade] Kerry," says Grant Hibbard, who was the commander of Coastal Division 14, in reference to the mission for which Kerry received his first Purple Heart. Hibbard, who lives in Florida, is also associated with SBVT and was Kerry's commanding officer while he was based in Cam Ranh Bay. "And the lieutenant found no reason to put in an after-action report. I was told that there was no enemy fire, and they basically briefed me on what went on.
"Afterward, Kerry said to me, 'I've got a wound here.' And as I can remember he held a little piece of shrapnel in his hand. It was about an inch long, about the size of an inch-long piece of lead out of a pencil. OK? It was silver in color. I didn't even have any info that he'd been to see the doctor. The wound was on his upper arm. I've described it as a fingernail scratch. Now, the seriousness of a wound is not the criteria for receiving a Purple Heart. But enemy fire is, and I was told that there wasn't any enemy fire. I can't remember my exact words, but I told him to just forget it."
Hibbard's theory is that the shrapnel in Kerry's arm came from a grenade he fired from a launcher that exploded off the shoreline and was directed back. In any case, the SBVT finds it suspicious that Kerry received a medal without a casualty report being filed. The Kerry campaign says that all of the documents from Kerry's service that were provided to them by the Navy have been posted on the campaign's Web site. The only personnel casualty report listed on the Web site is for February 20, 1969--the date that corresponds with Kerry's second Purple Heart. Hibbard says he never recommended Kerry for a Purple Heart and left Vietnam in early January 1969. In late February 1969, almost two months after Hibbard left the country, Kerry was issued his first Purple Heart. (All three of his Purple Hearts were approved by the commander of U.S. Naval Support Activities in Saigon.)
The third Purple Heart, along with the Bronze Star, were bestowed upon Kerry for a mission that occurred on March 13, 1969, on the Bay Hap River. Both medals are being questioned by SBVT. In Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War by Douglas Brinkley, Kerry says that a mine detonated near his boat, "and the concussion threw me violently against the bulkhead on the door, and I smashed my arm." Larry Thurlow, a lieutenant junior grade who was also on that mission and who had his own swift boat, remembers it differently.
"The mine that exploded almost destroyed [PCF-3]," says Thurlow, who lives in northwest Kansas and is now a member of SBVT. "John, for whatever reason, speeds up and cuts out of what we figured would have been the kill zone pretty rapidly and, in the process, loses one of his men over the side.
"The other boats that aren't damaged rally immediately to the aid of the 3-Boat. The 3-Boat is badly damaged, everybody on board is badly wounded, two of the three men on board are thrown off the boat because of the violence of the explosion.
"Here's where things get dramatically out of whack with [Kerry's] storytelling. He claims a mine also went off under his boat at the same time it went off under the 3-Boat--or nearly so. At or near the same time. This is a complete fabrication. He was on the opposite side of the river. He was maybe a football field away. Now, when he comes back, he says, the force of the blast threw him against the bulkhead, and he thought his arm was broken. Despite this, he says, he goes out and grabs someone out of the water with his good arm and, much like I assume Hercules might have done, pops him up on the boat."
The Kerry camp and the veterans associated with him say there are explanations for all of the accusations and that his medals--for being wounded and for gallantry--were well-deserved. "About the first thing, not having after-action or casualty reports, I know I was in combat situations where I didn't file after-action reports," says Skip Barker, a retired captain and former swift boat driver who is also part of Veterans for Kerry. "I can't say why--I just didn't. We were busy with other things. It happened."
Adds Wasser: "If you weren't on his boat, then you didn't serve with John Kerry. Maybe you were on the same mission, but you didn't serve with him. That's important. I never witnessed anything like what they're claiming. I only ever witnessed courage by our guys and by John Kerry."
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, naturally, aren't so sure. Where Veterans for Kerry see an American hero, O'Neill and his crew see someone who derided veterans and lied about his service in order to end his tour prematurely.
"There are a lot of medals that really wouldn't make any difference to me," says O'Neill, whose decorations in Vietnam included two Bronze Stars. "The Purple Heart is a medal that really makes a big difference because it's a medal that people associate with genuinely being wounded. Maybe it makes more difference to me. My uncle was killed in Korea, and one of my earliest memories was sitting at the Naval Academy cemetery, and I watched them give my aunt, who had five little kids, a Purple Heart for my uncle, whose body has never been recovered. The Purple Heart is a big deal.
"You get somebody who fakes a Purple Heart, you know, that's the bottom rung of human conduct. You get somebody who fakes a Purple Heart and uses it to go home early, you're even further down. You get somebody who fakes it, uses it to come home early and then calls everyone else a chicken hawk? Son, you've got a real problem on your hands."
It's no surprise that all of this finger-pointing and name-calling is happening during a presidential election year. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth count, among their number, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and they frequently point to that fact to rebut claims that they're politically motivated or somehow controlled by the GOP. Yet regardless of who's making the command decisions or the backgrounds of its members, SBVT's coffers have been fattened by Republican supporters.
According to a document SBVT filed with the IRS (Form 8872--Political Organization Report of Contributions and Expenditures), the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised $158,750 between April 23, when they were officially formed, and July 15. Over that period they spent $60,403 for research, Web design, a private investigator, political compliance and to pay Spaeth Communications. Of the contributions made to SBVT, the greatest number were small donations made by members of the organization. Only three exceeded $10,000. Two of those were for $25,000--one by O'Neill, the other by Harlan Crow. Crow, who lives in Dallas, owns Crow Realty Investors and is a major GOP benefactor who has contributed heavily to the Dallas County Republican Party and the Texas GOP. The largest amount given to SBVT by far, however, was a $100,000 check written by Bob Perry, a home builder from the Houston area.
During the 2002 election cycle, Perry contributed more than $4 million to various campaigns and political action committees (PACs). And while some of Perry's contributions have gone to a few select Democrats over the years, the vast majority have gone to Republicans. Perry recently donated $180,000 to a PAC affiliated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a powerful conservative voice and Bush ally. Between 2002 and 2003, Perry donated $935,000 to the Republican Party of Texas alone. Over that same period, he made no contributions to the Texas Democratic Party. Perry is also the single largest Texas contributor to the Republican Party, according to a profile published in the Houston Chronicle last November. (Perry, through his political consulting firm, declined comment.)
"Bob Perry is pretty much the go-to guy for Republicans in Texas--there's no one really in the same league he plays in," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a nonpartisan political Web site based in Austin. "He responds when solicited. It once again raises questions about how spontaneous this was. Only a handful of Republican contributors are in his league. I would be surprised if Merrie Spaeth called him. She's gotten a lot of flak for her involvement, but I'd be surprised if she could get $100,000 out of him. Maybe, but maybe not. Just to get through to him raises the bar. You'd have to be pretty high up on the food chain."
"This is a very small outfit," O'Neill counters. "The Defense Department or the Navy Department didn't pick Republicans or Democrats to be there--they're just people. We were involved with John Kerry in Vietnam. He came back and lied about all of our service there. We don't think that he'd be a very good president of the United States. And if he were running as a Republican, you'd have every one of these guys here in line."
Among those who have been most vocal about Kerry--Hoffmann, Gardner, O'Neill and Thurlow--only Thurlow was portrayed kindly in Tour of Duty. Gardner is described as a hothead, O'Neill was written off as a Nixon flack, and Hoffmann, who was most vilified of all, was likened to the colonel from Apocalypse Now--the one who loves "the smell of napalm in the morning." All of which, in turn, makes many suspicious of the group's motives. Are their intentions genuine? Do they truly believe the aspersions they're casting upon Kerry? Or are they driven by revenge and a political agenda?
"These groups are playing politics, no question," Kerry spokesman Clanton says. "This group clearly has a political agenda. That is to tear down John Kerry. John Kerry volunteered to serve his country. He literally risked his life to save the lives of others. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star. He put his life on the line on the battlefield and earned the right to speak out. And it's interesting that these groups have direct ties to the Bush White House."
If not direct ties to the White House, then indirect ties to the Republican Party that stretch beyond financing. Spaeth's late husband, Tex Lezar, was a partner in O'Neill's law firm. In 1994 Lezar ran for lieutenant governor of Texas on the Republican ticket but was defeated--the same ticket on which George W. Bush ran for governor and won. And Spaeth spent time as an adviser to the Reagan administration, while O'Neill--who says he supported two Democrats for a mayoral race in Houston--met with Nixon and spoke at the Republican National Convention in '72. Solid links or not, they gave Kerry backers some of the ammo they needed to fire back. But does that necessarily discredit what SBVT is saying?
"Those people know zero about Republican politics in Texas," Spaeth says. "It comes with the territory. I understand that. But being director of media relations with Reagan is a long way from being part of the Bush team. Anyone who understands politics knows that. The Kerry people have jumped all over me as a Bush operative. I haven't been involved in this [Bush/Cheney] campaign, and I wasn't involved in 2000. The Swifties are asking people to be open-minded and look at the facts."
Shortly after forming, SBVT filed as a "527" with the IRS, a designation that officially makes them a nonprofit organization and allows them to raise and spend unlimited funds for political activity. The catch is that 527s aren't allowed to work directly with political parties (which is why the money they raise or spend is called soft money, because it isn't routed directly to a candidate or party). MoveOn.org is one of the most successful 527s, and it has long denied ties to the Democrats, even though the vast majority of its money comes from those sympathetic to Democratic causes and the group's ads often attack conservative issues in general and President Bush specifically.
O'Neill says the group filed as a 527 solely because it was the proper way to manage and accomplish the group's goals.
"I learned a little bit about all this, and I contacted some people in Washington and found out that having a 527 was the right way to do it, and we formed a 527," O'Neill says.
"I'm sure the Democrats think that it's a Republican deal the same way that the Republicans would think that it's a Democrat deal. We didn't have any choice. I don't think having a vehicle makes any difference one way or the other. Our object is to get the actual story on the guy out to the American people and let the chips fall where they may. If there's a better way to do it, if anyone has a better suggestion, come up with it and we'll do it."
SBVT, O'Neill says, will use whatever medium available to get their message to the public. What concerns the Kerry camp more, however, and what has the left screaming, is who will be funding those ads.
If the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are, in fact, a Republican front in the same way that Republicans claim that MoveOn.org or similar organizations are controlled through back channels by the Democrats, the question becomes whether it's a sound strategy on the part of the GOP. It's no secret that the Bush/Cheney campaign would like to avoid any light being cast or recast on Bush's service in the Air National Guard in Alabama during Vietnam. By bringing up Kerry's war record, either overtly or covertly, wouldn't the Republicans simply be setting Bush up for another fall? And more than that, does the message created by third parties and soft money have as big an impact as conspiracy theorists like to believe?
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"It has all the fingerprints of political operatives working through people who are probably well-intentioned but who are most likely being used for definite political gain, possibly without even realizing they're being manipulated," says Bill Miller, a political consultant with HillCo Partners in Austin. "They've become a weapon for the campaign. Whether they know it or not or want to admit it, they're being used for the good of the Republican Party.
"But me, personally, I wouldn't have chosen that plan of attack as a political consultant to the Republicans. For my money, that's not the way to go. But I understand what they're trying to do. If you wanted to argue the other side, let's assume the other side is accepting the hypothesis that Bush's war record is weak. You'd want to make it weak-to-weak so that it's comparative. You don't want to give an inch. If you take away an advantage, it's a net win for you--that's the way they look at it. Me, personally, it's not the way I'd go.
"But, soon enough, this kind of third-party activity will become irrelevant if it isn't already. We're fast approaching the homestretch of the campaign. The most important thing to voters right now will be what Bush and Kerry have to say, and then the vice presidential races. It's all about the candidates from here on out and not really about third parties."
Maybe. But if there's any common ground between the two groups, it's that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Veterans for Kerry strongly believe in what they're saying, and they plan to keep preaching right up until the election. Their ongoing battle, they hope, will bring voters around to their side and their version of the truth. And so Americans are left to wade through the post-Vietnam muck, left to determine who's lying and who's not before casting their ballots. It is an important task for the country, and a difficult one, too--on that, there can be no disagreement.