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SCOT LEHIGH

Kerry comrades have credibility on their side

YESTERDAY John Kerry decided to take the offensive over his Vietnam War record. It's about time. For the last week or so, one has hardly been able to turn on the television without encountering John O'Neill, the public face of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, pronouncing Kerry a fraud and flogging "Unfit for Command," the carpet-bombing book he has co-authored about the Democratic nominee.

Yesterday, as his campaign launched an ad defending his war record, Kerry accused the group, which is funded in part by a wealthy Texas Republican who has also given to George W. Bush, of being a front for the Republican campaign.

"The fact that the president won't denounce them tells you everything you need to know," Kerry said to a firefighters convention in Boston. "He wants them to do his dirty work." And what work it has been. Now, some Vietnam veterans remain livid at Kerry more than three decades after his graphic 1971 assertions that atrocities had been widespread in Vietnam.

But to see a prime example of the lengths O'Neill and his allies resort to in their effort to discredit Kerry, take the claims "Unfit for Command" makes about Kerry's first Purple Heart. Kerry received that decoration for a small shrapnel wound to the arm incurred on the night of Dec. 2, 1968, when he was patrolling in a skimmer -- a craft akin to a Boston Whaler -- in a free-fire zone, looking for Viet Cong guerrillas.

Yes, there have been questions about whether the wound Kerry suffered that night really merited a Purple Heart, though those decorations were handed out rather liberally. But rather than quoting the two men known to have accompanied Kerry on that mission, "Unfit for Command" asserts a third person was along. William Schachte, later a rear admiral, "was also on the skimmer," the book claims.

It offers this account: "After Kerry's M-16 jammed, Kerry picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and fired a grenade too close, causing a tiny piece of shrapnel . . . to barely stick in his arm. Schachte berated Kerry for almost putting someone's eye out." Schachte could not be reached for comment. But in a brief interview yesterday, O'Neill asserted that Schachte had told him, as well as other military men, that he had been on the skimmer.

"I spoke to Admiral Schachte," O'Neill said. "He places himself on the skimmer." O'Neill also hinted that Schachte will soon address the issue himself. So what do William Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon, the two men who were on the skimmer with Kerry at the time, say?

"Myself, Pat Runyon, and John Kerry," says Zaladonis, the engineman on Kerry's first swift boat, "we were the only ones in the skimmer."

"There definitely was not a fourth," says Runyon. Though the two assume they took hostile fire, both men acknowledge they aren't completely certain. But they also firmly reject the claim that Kerry somehow wounded himself by using an M-79 grenade launcher.

"I am reasonably sure we didn't have an M-79," Zaladonis said. "I didn't see one. I don't remember it."

Runyon says the only weapons the trio had were an M-60 machine gun, two M-16 combat rifles, and, possibly, a .45 caliber pistol. Is he 100 percent sure there wasn't an M-79 grenade launcher in the boat?

"I wouldn't say 100 percent, but I know 100 percent certain that we didn't shoot them," replies Runyon. He does remember Kerry having trouble with his M-16. "His gun jammed or he ran out of ammunition -- I don't know which -- but he bent down to pick up the other M-16," he says.

Zaladonis, who was manning the machine gun, recalls Kerry telling him to redirect his fire to another area. "If we got return fire, I am not sure," he said. But he adds that there's one thing he does know: "I know that John got hurt." And not by shrapnel from a grenade launcher.

This incident crystallizes the epistemological issue at play in the larger controversy: Whom does it make sense to believe, the men who served and fought in close company with Kerry and who back his Navy-certified record? Or the veterans who didn't actually serve under Kerry and who, admittedly angry over his subsequent antiwar activities, are now trying to discredit him? To ask that question is to answer it.

And in this case, until there is clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, any fair-minded person has to credit the account offered by Zaladonis and Runyon.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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