WASHINGTON (CNN) — A man who served in the same Navy unit as Sen. John Kerry denounced on Tuesday charges the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee made as an antiwar protester that he and other U.S. troops committed atrocities in Vietnam.
“I saw some war heroes … John Kerry is not a war hero,” said John O’Neill, a Houston lawyer who joined the Navy’s Coastal Division 11 two months after the future senator left Vietnam. “He couldn’t tie the shoes of some of the people in Coastal Division 11.”
In a related development, the Kerry campaign said Tuesday it would post all of the Massachusetts senator’s Navy records on its Web site, after the Boston Globe reported that the campaign refused to provide access to some records, despite Kerry’s pledge on Sunday to let reporters see them.
In an interview Tuesday on CNN’s “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” O’Neill said allegations about atrocities made by Kerry after his return render him “unfit” to be president.
“His allegations that people committed war crimes in that unit, and throughout Vietnam, were lies. He knew they were lies when he said them, and they were very damaging lies,” said O’Neill, adding that other former sailors from the same unit also plan to come forward to take on Kerry, whose Vietnam service has figured prominently in his campaign for the White House.
This past weekend, Kerry said that his use of the word “atrocity” in a 1971 interview was “inappropriate,” and he added that he never intended to cast a negative light on the sailors with whom he served.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Kerry said Sunday, “The words were honest, but, on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top.”
Asked whether Kerry’s expressions of regret were sufficient, O’Neill pointed to the fact that Kerry on Sunday characterized his 1971 charges as “a little bit excessive.”
“It’s really not a matter of forgiveness. It’s a matter of fitness to be the commander-in-chief of all U.S. forces,” he told Blitzer. “The damaging lies that he told about war criminals have haunted people’s entire lives. So it’s just a little bit late, in the course of a presidential campaign, to say it’s a bit excessive.”
Responding to O’Neill’s comments, Michael Meehan, a senior Kerry campaign adviser, said “his characterization of John Kerry’s service is inaccurate.”
Meehan said Kerry has “apologized for some of his word choices.”
“He was a young man who came back, had seen a lot in Vietnam, wanted this country to end that war and came back worked very hard to bring that war to an end,” Meehan said.
“Mr. O’Neill has certainly earned his right, through his service, to speak whatever he wants and have his opinions,” Meehan said. “We would disagree with some of his characterizations. Sen. Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam. … [He] won a Silver Star for bravery, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts leading that division.”
After returning from Vietnam, Kerry became a leader in the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1971, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accusing President Nixon of prolonging the war and charging that fellow service members had committed war crimes.
Among the charges he lodged were that troops had committed rapes; cut off ears, limbs and heads; taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals; blown up bodies; and randomly fired at civilians.
An incensed Nixon encouraged O’Neill, who was awarded two Bronze Stars in Vietnam, to challenge Kerry, which he did in a debate on the “Dick Cavett Show.”
At one point during the heated exchange, O’Neill, an admiral’s son, demanded Kerry explain why, if he saw war crimes taking place, “you didn’t do something about them.”
Since then, O’Neill has largely remained out of the spotlight as Kerry’s political star rose in Massachusetts and then nationally, turning down what he said were more than 50 requests — many from Kerry’s political opponents — to come forward on television.
“I haven’t been on television in many, many years. I had very little political involvement,” said O’Neill, who described himself as a political Independent in a phone interview last month with the Houston Chronicle.
But O’Neill said Tuesday that he and the others who served with Kerry — who “would much rather have nothing to do with this” — feel they have “no choice” but to come forward, which he said would dispel the notion that Vietnam veterans as a group are supportive of Kerry’s candidacy.
“We were there, we know the truth, and we know that this guy’s unfit to be commander-in-chief,” said O’Neill, who took over command of Kerry’s boat after he left. “I think you’ll find that people are very, very angry at John Kerry. They remember his career in Vietnam as a short, controversial one, and they believe that only Hollywood could turn this guy into a war hero.”
On Sunday, Kerry was also asked by “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert whether he would release all of his military service records from Vietnam, following President Bush’s decision to make public all of his records from his years in the Texas National Guard. Kerry said reporters could come to his campaign headquarters to view the records but he did not plan to release them.
But Tuesday, the Boston Globe reported that when one of its reporters took the Kerry campaign up on that offer, the journalist was told that access would only be provided to records already released by the campaign, not the senator’s entire Navy file.
With Republicans poised to criticize Kerry for not releasing all of his military records, the campaign decided Tuesday afternoon to post the records on its Web site to diffuse the issue. They are expected to be available by Wednesday evening.
“John Kerry has a record in the military that he’s running on, not from,” Meehan said. “Everything the U.S. Navy sent to Sen. Kerry, we’ll post on the Web site.”