As some veterans oppose John Kerry, a Dunedin man who served with the senator has joined his campaign.
DUNEDIN - The black leather vest with the American eagle etched on the back, the one Del Sandusky picked up last year for $99 at Wilson's Leather store in Countryside Mall, is draped over a chair in the dining room.
He'll need it soon, but not now. He's home. The crowds, the cameras and the commotion surrounding the Democratic National Convention are gone. So are the questions about what he saw 35 years ago in the Mekong Delta.
He looked slightly out of place on stage with the other Vietnam veterans just before John Kerry's acceptance speech. The dozen or so men Kerry calls his band of brothers all wore navy blue swift boat polo shirts and khakis.
And then there was Del with his biker vest.
But no one asked him to remove it.
"It was my flak jacket," Sandusky said last week. "Like the one I wore in Vietnam.
"I wore it because I had to recall all the memories, and I was in front of millions of people. It was pretty intimidating, and I don't know ...
"I just needed that little edge."
Kerry has gotten about 12,000 of the nation's 26-million military veterans to volunteer for his campaign. Some are high-profile, such as Max Cleland, the former secretary of Veterans Affairs and U.S. senator from Georgia.
And some are less prominent, like Sandusky, a retiree from a Pinellas County mobile home park who was never involved in politics but served with Kerry in Vietnam.
"I see similarities between Iraq and Vietnam," said Sandusky, 60, who said he is a lifelong independent. "But mostly I'm doing this because I know John would be a great president."
Not all veterans share Sandusky's enthusiasm.
A CBS News poll of 170 veterans in June showed that 54 percent would vote for President Bush, while only 40 percent favored Kerry.
And one of Kerry's former superior officers, after remaining silent for more than three decades, now says he never approved the first Purple Heart that Kerry received.
That's another reason, Sandusky said, that he decided to come off the sidelines. "Someone," he said, "has to tell the other side."
If any single event helped shape Del Sandusky's life, it has to do with the word MOM he has tattooed on his left forearm.
"Hotel St., Honolulu, 1963," he said with a chuckle. "Seven dollars for seven colors. You can't get a deal like that anymore."
The tattoo has more than the obvious significance.
Sandusky grew up in north central Illinois. His father was a conductor and brakeman for the Santa Fe railroad, and his mother took care of the kids, only one of which, Del, was hers.
In 1958, she took in four Native American children ages 3 to 9. They were sisters from the same family. One of their parents was in jail, the other on drugs. The girls would live with the family for eight years.
"We were ostracized," Sandusky said. "The neighbors stopped talking to us. It bothered my mom because she had come from a large family and loved kids. She couldn't understand why the neighbors were so cold. And the girls were so sweet and kind.
"That taught me a lot about compassion."
His mother wasn't completely ignored. Before the children left her care, she was named Illinois Foster Mother of the Year.
Sandusky joined the Navy in 1961 and four years later volunteered for a newly formed group of sailors who would man so-called swift boats that would patrol the shoreline of South Vietnam, and later, the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta.
The 50-foot PCF (patrol craft fast) boats had five- or six-man crews and were heavily armed.
"But our main offense and defense was speed," Sandusky said. "The boats could do close to 30 knots, and the VC didn't know how to lead their target. They aimed at where we were, not where we were going to be."
There was one serious drawback. The roar of the boat's engine could be heard for more than a mile. "So when boats went up the river," Sandusky said, "the Viet Cong would set up an ambush and wait for the boats to come back."
In January 1969, Sandusky's boat, PCF-94, came under attack during one such ambush. Lt. Ted Peck, the officer in charge, and another crewman were seriously wounded. Sandusky had to take command.
The boat was sinking and on fire, but Sandusky steered it back to safety. They counted 155 bullet holes in the boat and found a live enemy rocket in the main cabin. It had come to rest in a sack of potatoes.
For his actions, Sandusky would receive the Bronze Star.
With their officer headed home, the crew of PCF-94 needed a leader. And Lt. j.g. John Kerry, whose crew on PCF-44 had rotated back home, needed men to lead.
"I was sure glad he came along," Sandusky said, "because to be honest, I didn't want to take command."
From Jan. 30 to March 13, 1969, Kerry and the crew of the PCF-94 would conduct 18 missions in the Mekong Delta river system. In that time, Kerry would earn a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and add two Purple Hearts to the one he received earlier.
"Mentally, some days we were a wreck," Sandusky said. "But John kept us together. He made sure all the guys knew where the hot zones and the safe zones were in the river, in case either he or I or both of us got hit. John made sure everyone knew the river and how to get out.
"Not all the officers did that.
"If John had not done what he did, we'd be names on the wall right now."
In late March, Sandusky's tour ended and he returned home. He remained in the Navy until 1976, got into the printing business and then became an electronics service technician. He retired in 2001 and moved last year to a mobile home park off Main Street in Dunedin where he lives with his wife, Ellen.
But there was always a connection to the man Sandusky still calls his skipper.
Sandusky and Kerry kept in touch for several years after the war; Kerry invited Sandusky to his wedding in 1970 to his first wife. The two men didn't cross paths again until 1996, when the crew of the 94 held a reunion in Boston.
When Kerry announced he was running for president, Sandusky asked to come aboard. He has since made appearances for Kerry at the Iowa primary and has been interviewed dozens of times.
"We get requests all the time for Del to come speak at local events, and he does a lot on his own," said Matt Miller, Kerry campaign spokesman. "People call him directly and he comes and speaks to their group. But it's strictly volunteer."
The Kerry campaign or the Democratic National Committee pays for his hotel rooms and airfare. But sometimes, when he's on the road, Sandusky stays with friends. He said he pays for his food and gas himself.
"And nobody tells me what to do or writes my speeches," he said. "I just go up on stage and tell the truth."
There are, however, different versions of what that is.
The group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth says the majority of swift boat officers who served in Kerry's unit say the candidate exaggerated his record and is unfit to serve as president.
Among the group is retired Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, Kerry's commanding officer at the time Kerry received his first Purple Heart. Hibbard, who lives in Gulf Breeze, has said Kerry's first Purple Heart was for an injury that "resembled a scrape from a fingernail."
The organization is also publishing a book, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, which questions details of another Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Kerry was awarded. A new anti-Kerry ad released by the group has been criticized by U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran who supports President Bush but said the group's tactics were "dishonest and dishonorable."
The group has about 250 officers and enlisted men who served in Vietnam who oppose Kerry, many of them angry that Kerry returned to the United States as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and charged that American officers were involved in wartime atrocities.
Kerry's campaign says 11 of the 12 enlisted men who served on the swift boats under his command support him. The 12th, Steve Gardner of Clovis, S.C., who served as a gunners mate under Kerry on PCF-44, said he doesn't think Kerry is fit to be president. "I watched John Kerry's movements. He was very erratic, very indecisive," Gardner told the Associated Press recently. "I'm totally against him."
"I don't know what this guy's agenda is," Sandusky said of Gardner. "The enlisted men on 94 and 44 were with John Kerry. We were on the boat with him. We know what he did. He deserved every one of his medals. Anybody else says any different, they're talking out of their tutu."
Most Vietnam veterans returned home unnoticed. The war was unpopular, and most of those who served left and came back not as part of a unit, but alone.
When Sandusky came back from Vietnam, he said he was told that if he talked about the war, about the death and suffering he saw, "They'd put me in the nut house. I had to keep it all inside."
As a result, Sandusky said he has battled alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. And as he was fighting back, his skipper showed up again.
Now Sandusky defends Kerry and speaks about the war to anyone who will listen. He also seeks out veterans at homeless shelters.
"Maybe I can help some guys from slowly or quickly committing suicide," he said. "So many already have."
And yes, he said, he still wears the vest for reassurance. But he's not afraid anymore.