Conduct Unbecoming
By STEPHEN SHERMAN

 

January 26, 2004
Wall Street Journal Commentary (U.S.)

A turning point may have been reached in the Iowa caucuses when Special Forces Lt. James Rassmann came forward to thank John Kerry for saving his life in Vietnam. Although Mr. Rassmann, like most of my veteran friends, is a Republican, he said that he'd vote for Mr. Kerry. I don't know if the incident influenced the caucus results. But I took special interest in the story because Jim served in my unit.

Service in Vietnam is an important credential to me. Many felt that such service was beneath them, and removed themselves from the manpower pool. That Mr. Kerry served at all is a reason for a bond with fellow veterans; that his service earned him a Bronze Star for Valor ("for personal bravery") and a Silver Star ("for gallantry") is even more compelling. Unfortunately, Mr. Kerry came home to Massachusetts, the one state George McGovern carried in 1972. He joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and emceed the Winter Soldier Investigation (both financed by Jane Fonda). Many veterans believe these protests led to more American deaths, and to the enslavement of the people on whose behalf the protests were ostensibly being undertaken. But being a take-charge kind of guy, Mr. Kerry became a leader in the VVAW and even testified before Congress on the findings of the Investigation, which he accepted at face value.

In his book "Stolen Valor," B.G. Burkett points out that Mr. Kerry liberally used phony veterans to testify to atrocities they could not possibly have committed. Mr. Kerry later threw what he represented as his awards at the Capitol in protest. But as the war diminished as a political issue, he left the VVAW, which was a bit too radical for his political future, and was ultimately elected to the Senate. After his awards were seen framed on his office wall, he claimed to have thrown away someone else's medals -- so now he can reclaim his gallantry in Vietnam.

Mr. Kerry hasn't given me any reason to trust his judgment. As co-chairman of the Senate investigating committee, he quashed a revealing inquiry into the POW/MIA issue, and he supports trade initiatives with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam while blocking any legislation requiring Hanoi to adhere to basic human rights. I'm not surprised that there are veterans who support a VVAW activist, if only because there are so few fellow veterans in politics. Ideally, there'd be many more. If you are going to vote on military appropriations, it would be nice if you didn't disrespect the soldiers. Congress hasn't had the courage to declare war in more than 60 years, despite numerous instances in which we have sent our military in harm's way. Of all the "lessons of Vietnam," surely one is that America needs a leader capable of demonstrating in himself, and encouraging in others, the resolve to finish what they have collectively started.

But the bond between veterans has to be tempered in light of the individual's record. Just as Mr. Kerry threw away medals only to claim them back again, Sen. Kerry voted to take action against Iraq, but claims to take that vote back by voting against funding the result. So I can understand my former comrade-in-arms hugging the man who saved his life, but not the act of choosing him for president out of gratitude. And I would hate to see anyone giving Mr. Kerry a sympathy vote for president just because being a Vietnam veteran is "back in style."

Mr. Sherman was a first lieutenant with the U.S. Army Fifth Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Vietnam, 1967-68.

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