Coming To Terms With A Tragedy

Sen. Bob Kerrey, Vietnam War hero, Medal of Honor winner, often came across as a brooding figure. His friends attributed Kerrey's melancholy streak to his long suffering in a veterans' hospital after part of his leg was blown off by a Viet Cong grenade in 1969. But it turns out that Kerrey was dwelling as well on a darker story. He was haunted by the night of Feb. 25, 1969, when he and his squad of six Navy commandos, on a mission to ambush a Viet Cong chieftain, killed about a score of unarmed civilians, most of them women and children, in the South Vietnamese hamlet of Thanh Phong. From time to time, and with increasing urgency as the years passed, Kerrey contemplated going public with the story. But, he told NEWSWEEK last week, "I was never able to muster the courage to do it."

Kerrey finally told his agonizing tale last week, submitting to interviews by a number of national news organizations. He was, by his own admission, trying to get ahead of a damaging account in The New York Times Magazine and on "60 Minutes II" this week. In that story, by former NEWSWEEK reporter Gregory Vistica, Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey's squad mates, claims that Kerrey ordered the civilians rounded up and shot at point-blank range. Klann also described how Kerrey helped hold down an old man while Klann cut his throat. Kerrey denies Klann's version of events. He insists that while his team was sneaking up on the hamlet in the dark, "we took fire. Everyone in the squad except Klann remembers that..." The SEALs opened up with M-16s, a heavy machine gun, and phosphorus grenades. When they approached the burned-out hooch, they found no weapons among the bodies of the women and children.

Late last week the veterans of the squad, except Klann, issued a joint statement saying, "We will never know all the details of that night but we do know these for certain. At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected. At the village we received fire and we returned fire." The statement says that Klann's version "simply is not true... No order was given or received to execute innocent women, old men and children... Our actions were in response to a dangerous situation that we know for certain could have resulted in our deaths... We were young men then and did what we thought was right and necessary."

Under the wide-open rules of engagement of that time and place, Kerrey's actions--as he describes them--were almost certainly justifiable. Kerrey was operating in a "free fire zone," meaning that anyone living there was presumed to be Viet Cong. A report on the action filed by Kerrey's commander notes that "District Chief" (a local South Vietnamese official) "advised that area is total free fire zone. He said that if people weren't GVN [government of Vietnam] he didn't want them alive." Kerrey said that his men would not routinely fire on women and children, even if they were presumed to be the enemy. All Kerrey saw that night, he says, were tracer rounds coming out of the dark.

For years, Kerrey says, he bitterly relived his split-second decision, made on his first night of combat, to open fire. In the years afterward, he talked about the incident with his first wife, his parents and a few fellow vets. As his sense of guilt and shame welled up, he sometimes felt the need to make a public confession. His fellow veterans, he recalled, "told me I was going soft in the head, that what we did was militarily justified."

Kerrey's story, while grim, is hardly unique. Soldiers must do terrible things in battle and have for centuries. Kerrey had to fight a war in which civilians were often combatants. The Viet Cong included old women with grenades in their hats. The rules of war were murky and sometimes stretched by officers trying to protect their men.

When Kerrey arrived at the U.S. Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in January 1969, he was not really prepared for this kind of guerrilla warfare. He had grown up in Nebraska in the '50s imbued with what he calls a "kind of blind, knee-jerk patriotism." After talking to angry wounded veterans in the naval hospital in San Diego, where he was undergoing SEAL training, he had begun to harbor doubts about the Vietnam War. Still, like many young men going into combat for the first time, he possessed, he says, a "heroic" sense of himself.

Kerrey's mission, loosely defined, was to slip into Viet Cong-dominated territory with his six-man squad to gather intelligence. From time to time, Navy SEAL teams were also used to abduct village chieftains who were believed to be communist sympathizers. As a practical matter, "abduct" often meant kill. In his first month of duty, Kerrey received instructions from naval intelligence to attack a monastery where monks were believed to be helping the North Vietnamese make maps. Kerrey protested that killing monks seemed like a bad idea, and his commanding officer, a Navy captain, did not press.

It is unclear what Kerrey told his superiors about the raid on Thanh Phong. (Kerrey says he cannot recall.) The after-action report filed by Kerrey's commander mentioned no civilian deaths. It listed "21 VC [Viet Cong] KIA [killed in action] (BC) [body count]." Headquarters cabled back, "The Kerrey Raiders not only surprised the enemy in his own sanctuary but struck him a severe and fatal blow." Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star. But over time, there were rumbles in the tightly knit SEAL community that something had gone wrong at Thanh Phong that night. Tipped off in late 1997, NEWSWEEK reporter Greg Vistica began investigating the story. He found official documents in declassified archives and interviewed Kerrey's squad mates. Only two, Klann and Mike Ambrose, spoke in real detail. Klann told a lurid story of Kerrey and his men, fearful that they had to kill everyone in order to escape, shooting babies in cold blood. Ambrose gave a less sensational version of events that essentially jibed with Kerrey's later account.

Approached about the incident by NEWSWEEK in December 1998, Kerrey was initially testy. "I've got a right to say to you it's none of your goddam business," Kerrey told Vistica and Evan Thomas (the author of this piece). He pointedly questioned whether World War II veterans would be subjected to such grilling. He said he did not share Klann's recollections, but he acknowledged that the raid had killed civilians. "The thing I remember, and will remember until the day I die," he said, "is walking into a village and finding, I don't know, 14 or so... women and children who were dead. [I was] expecting to find VC soldiers with weapons. That memory has blocked out almost everything else." Kerrey did not hide his remorse. His feelings, he said, "are worse than guilt or regret. It's shame, life-altering shame... I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."

Senator Kerrey also told the NEWSWEEK reporters that he expected to announce that weekend that he would not seek the presidency in 2000. He insisted that his Vietnam experience had no bearing on the decision. In part because Kerrey and Klann told such different versions and the truth about the incident remained extremely cloudy, NEWSWEEK decided to hold off on publishing a story. "It was clear from Vistica's reporting that this was a very murky story, and that the most sensational charges came from only one source," NEWSWEEK Editor Mark Whitaker said last week. "Although Kerrey had talked to us, it was also clear that the senator didn't have a clear recollection of exactly what had happened, and that we risked destroying his reputation without being able to present a full version of events." The magazine did reach an informal understanding with Kerrey that when and if he decided to go public, he would turn to NEWSWEEK. Assigned to stay in touch with Kerrey, Vistica spoke to the senator from time to time, but Kerrey remained unready to tell the full story.

Vistica left NEWSWEEK at the end of last year. The reporter asked Kerrey again to cooperate, this time for a joint New York Times Magazine- "60 Minutes II" venture. Kerrey, who was just leaving the Senate to become president of New School University in New York, decided the time had come to go public. He was writing about the incident in a chapter of his memoir, which will be published later this year. He finally told his children about the incident. "I cried, they cried," he recalled. "Then they told me they loved me." After an initial round of interviews with "60 Minutes II," the "tone changed" and the questioning became aggressively hostile, Kerrey related to NEWSWEEK last week. Some CBS producers had found a woman in Vietnam, a self-professed veteran of the Viet Cong, who claimed to have witnessed Kerrey and his men methodically massacring the villagers.

Realizing that he was about to face critical coverage in print and on the air, Kerrey decided to take a pre-emptive step. He first delivered a speech to a group of cadets at Virginia Military Institute, briefly outlining the incident. "Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night," he told the cadets. He mailed copies of the speech to a number of friends, including Wall Street Journal reporter Dennis Farney, who interviewed Kerrey last Tuesday night; the story also leaked to the Omaha World-Herald. By Thursday it was leading the network news shows.

At a news conference Friday, Kerrey was alternately anguished and defiant. He said he did not intend to return the Bronze Star he won. "The medal meant nothing to me," he said. Vietnam veterans in the Senate like John Kerry and John McCain have risen in Kerrey's defense, and Pentagon officials said they had no plans to investigate the incident. "They're certainly welcome to," an agitated Kerrey told NEWSWEEK. "I didn't write the citation [for the Bronze Star], and I didn't ask for it. I have never bragged about it." Though Kerrey won a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award, for losing his leg while leading a raid three weeks after the incident at Thanh Phong, he went on: "The only medal I'm certain I deserved is the Purple Heart," which is awarded to every soldier wounded in battle. Kerrey, 57, who recently married for the second time and whose wife is expecting a baby, dismissed rumors that he is again thinking of running for president. He says he is prepared to "tolerate" the uproar over the incident. It'll be confusing, shocking and difficult. But I think it'll heal wounds. It already has mine."