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$25m ad campaign showcases Kerry's career

Veterans group says he's unfit

WASHINGTON -- John F. Kerry yesterday announced a $25 million advertising campaign, the largest single buy of either presidential campaign this year and one that comes as some Democrats have expressed concern that many voters know Kerry only by President Bush's ads.

Two new spots to air this month in battleground states are designed to introduce Kerry to voters as a lifelong public servant in the military in Vietnam, a prosecutor and lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, and a member of Congress. The ad buy is aimed at countering more than $70 million in Bush ads that have aired on radio, TV, and cable since early March. Most of those ads portray the Massachusetts senator as an equivocator who would weaken the country's national defense if elevated to the White House.

That criticism is expected to find new voices tomorrow when a group of Vietnam veterans, including some who served as Kerry's commanding officers, plan to say at a news conference that they believe Kerry is unfit to be commander in chief. Three of the officers said their main contention was that Kerry declared after serving in Vietnam that he and other American personnel had committed atrocities -- a statement he has since said was too harsh.

"He earned his medals, he did what he was supposed to do in Vietnam," said retired Coast Guard Captain Adrian Lonsdale, who was in the chain of command above Kerry and oversaw various operations dealing with Navy swift boats of the type Kerry commanded. "But I was very disappointed in his statements after he got out of the Navy. He is fit to be a great senator. But by his unfounded accusations about the atrocities, I was just very disappointed," Lonsdale said. "It is the difference between being a senator and president of the United States."

One organizer of the news conference is John O'Neill, a Navy veteran who in 1971 held a series of debates about the atrocity issue with Kerry. In 1972, O'Neill, who had the enthusiastic support of President Nixon and his staff, spoke on Nixon's behalf at the Republican National Convention. O'Neill said that he has since become politically independent and was not now acting in concert with GOP officials.

Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan dismissed the veterans' news conference as politically motivated. "First O'Neill was part of the Nixon White House attacks, and 33 years later he resurfaced to be part of the Bush attack machine," Meehan said in an e-mail. "It failed 33 years ago, and it will fail in this political campaign year, too."

At the news conference where the Kerry campaign unveiled the new ads, two of Kerry's former crewmates offered testimonials. Of the approximately 15 men who served under his command on two swift boats and one Boston Whaler, only one, Steven Michael Gardner, has publicly criticized his leadership.

"I owe my life to John Kerry; he owes his life to me. We're brothers in arms because of the special bond that we had, all of us, on the boat crews," said former crewmember Del Sandusky, who speaks in one of the commercials. The other crew member, Drew Whitlow of Arkansas, countered the questions about Kerry's straightforwardness, saying: "After a briefing, you always knew what you were going to do. Unlike other officers, you knew where you were going to go, you knew what you always wanted to do. He never deceived you, you were never lied to, and he was always truthful."

A third veteran, James Rassmann of Oregon, an Army special forces member whom Kerry rescued in Vietnam, testifies to his leadership in one of the commercials: "When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine."

The two spots, at 60 seconds twice the length of a standard campaign commercial, make the point that the longtime Massachusetts resident was born in Denver, a fact that also dovetails with the campaign's hope of winning in Colorado. Each ad will not only air in 17 battleground states largely centered in the Midwest, but also Colorado and Louisiana, states Bush won handily in 2000.

One of the ads also says that Kerry "had a lot of privileges," such as attending Yale University, and wanted "to give something back" to the country. After college, Kerry volunteered for Vietnam, while Bush-- also a Yale graduate -- enrolled in the Texas Air National Guard and expressly requested not to be assigned overseas. The Kerry ads do not mention Bush's military record.

"This is John Kerry's story. In John Kerry's story, you go from Yale to enlisting and volunteering in Vietnam," Kerry media consultant Michael Donilon told reporters assembled for a preview of the ads, which will run on local TV and national cable stations through the end of the month.

The news conference scheduled today in opposition to Kerry is being organized by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Three of Kerry's former commanding officers who said they plan to attend the conference said in interviews yesterday that they were not directed by any Republican organization. Their displeasure with Kerry stems in part from statements that he made in 1971 as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. For example, Kerry said on NBC's "Meet The Press" that the men who designed a policy of free-fire zones, in which anyone violating a curfew could be killed, were "war criminals."

Some of the policies that Kerry complained about were the responsibility of Roy Hoffmann, who as a Navy captain oversaw swift boats in Vietnam and is the principal organizer of the group opposing Kerry. "Senator Kerry is not fit to be the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States," Hoffmann said, stating what he said would be the theme of the news conference.

Two commanding officers who stood by Kerry in 1996 when questions were raised about Kerry's Silver Star said they plan to attend the conference -- Lonsdale and George Elliott, who was a Navy lieutenant commander in Vietnam.

Elliott, who wrote up Kerry for the Silver Star, said he had no reason to question Kerry's actions in Vietnam, but he is still upset by the senator's antiwar actions. "I am going to stand by what I knew of John Kerry in 1969," Elliott said. "I have no reason to hedge that judgment whatsoever." But Elliott added, "I have no reason to hedge what I thought of him after, which was not very good -- he lashed out at a lot of people."

Separately, a former military doctor who says he is the one who treated the injury that led to Kerry's first Purple Heart said in a telephone interview that he did not think at the time that Kerry deserved the medal. "Not in my opinion," said the retired doctor, Louis Letson of Alabama.

Letson confirmed that he did take shrapnel from Kerry's arm on Dec. 3, 1968, the day after the event for which Kerry was given his first Purple Heart. Letson stressed that his view that Kerry did not deserve the Purple Heart has nothing to do with the minor nature of Kerry's wound, noting that regulations governing the award of the medal do not specify how severe the injuries must be. Letson said his judgment was based on the statements of other sailors that Kerry's wound did not come during enemy fire.

"Some of his crew confided that they did not receive any fire from shore but that Kerry had fired a mortar round at close range to some rocks on shore," Letson said in a written statement that he sent by e-mail. "The crewman thought that the injury was caused by a fragment ricocheting from that mortar round when it struck the rocks." Letson said, however, that he could not remember the names of the crew, and two crewmates who served with Kerry told the Globe earlier this year that they assumed Kerry was hit by enemy fire, although they could not see it amid the firing.

Meehan, the Kerry spokesman, dismissed Letson's comments, saying, "The Navy decided 35 years ago to award Kerry the Purple Heart." He described the attacks on Kerry from veterans as being orchestrated by Republicans who do not want to see the senator become president.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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