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Ex-senator tells of role in deaths

During the Vietnam War, Bob Kerrey's squad killed several civilians in a raid - and witnesses differ on what happened.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001

OMAHA, Neb. -- Former Nebraska Sen. and Gov. Bob Kerrey has acknowledged his previously undisclosed role in the killing of more than a dozen Vietnamese civilians, breaking a 32-year silence in an effort to pre-empt a more critical account scheduled for publication Sunday.

Kerrey, who has not ruled out a run for president in 2004, received a Bronze Star for the Feb. 25, 1969, raid in the Mekong Delta. The award citation says 21 Viet Cong were killed and enemy weapons were captured or destroyed.

"The citation is different than what we reported" to military superiors, he told the Omaha World-Herald in an interview published Wednesday.

"I lived with this privately for 32 years," he said. "I felt it best to keep this memory private. I can't keep it private any more. My conscience tells me some good should come from this."

Kerrey, 57, talked about the raid publicly for the first time last week in a little-noticed speech to ROTC students at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. He said he decided to give his account after hearing that another member of his squad was offering a different version.

An investigation of Kerrey's role in the incident is to be published in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday. It was posted on the newspaper's Web site ( Wednesday. The magazine investigation was carried out jointly with 60 Minutes II, the CBS News program. CBS will broadcast the full report Tuesday. Portions of the story were aired Wednesday night.

"I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die," Kerrey told the Wall Street Journal. "This is killing me. I'm tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside."

Kerrey's war experience has become an integral part of his political profile. On March 14, 1969, he led another mission and lost part of his right leg in a grenade explosion. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970.

Kerrey spent months in a military hospital, and after his recovery he returned to Nebraska and opened a successful string of health clubs and restaurants. In 1985 he was elected governor of Nebraska, and in 1988 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

He served two terms in the Senate before choosing not to run again last year. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and had contemplated running against Al Gore for the party's nomination for president in 2000.

He decided against it, citing his lack of appetite for a nasty uphill battle. The decision came a few weeks after Gregory L. Vistica, the writer of the New York Times Magazine article, first interviewed Kerrey and presented documents about the mission in Vietnam.

In January, Kerrey became the president of the New School University in New York.

The New York Times Magazine article gives this account of the incident:

Kerrey had been in Vietnam only a month before the Feb. 25, 1969, mission to capture a Viet Cong leader who was supposed to be having a meeting in the area that night.

On a moonless night, the squad was dropped off by boat. They moved in, and encountered a thatched hut. Kerrey said those inside were killed by his men, but he did not know who they were and did not participate. Two other members of his unit say at least some women were present, and one says there were children. Both say Kerrey helped kill one of the men.

The squad then moved on, and encountered another set of huts. Here, Kerrey said, they came under fire, and returned it -- then discovered that the dead were all women and children.

"The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," he told the magazine.

But Gerhard Klann, a senior commando in the unit, told the New York Times that the SEALs rounded up and killed the civilians on Kerrey's orders because they felt they could not otherwise safely retreat from the village.

Klann said a "baby was the last one alive."

"There were blood and guts splattering everywhere."

The CBS report includes an account from Pham Tri Lanh, a woman who said she saw the raid.

'It was very crowded, so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one," Lanh told CBS News.

"Two women came out and kneeled down," she said. "They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind."

Kerrey told CBS News that he and other team members have different memories of the night.

"Gerhard I will not contradict. I will not contradict the memory of any of the six people that were on the operation that night," he said. "So if that's his view, I don't contradict it; it's not my memory of it and as to the eyewitness is, at the very least, sympathetic to the Viet Cong."

In the New York Times article, Kerrey attacked Klann's credibility, saying Klann was angry that he hadn't helped him win a Medal of Honor.

Mike Ambrose of Houston, the top enlisted man in the squad, said Tuesday that he fully supported Kerrey's account. "We had a bad night," he said. "The result of the action was unfortunate."

Ambrose said his recollection was identical to Kerrey's. The intelligence was thought to be good, Ambrose said. In the dark, enemy fire was met with fire, he said.

In the flash of rounds, no one could see who was in the area, Ambrose said. He assumed later that the Viet Cong were firing from behind the women, children and older men and then escaped.

"Bob's account is absolutely accurate," Ambrose said. "Unfortunately, the results weren't something we were proud of."

The account of events that day is quite different in the official Bronze Star citation contained in Kerrey's official Navy biography obtained from the Naval Historical Center in Washington.

That citation, which Kerrey said he did not prepare, said Kerrey's squad returned fire, "killing 14 Viet Cong." Then, as the squad waited to be evacuated, it came under fire again and killed seven more Viet Cong.

Sen. John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran, defended Kerrey's wartime actions in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Kerrey "feels obviously anguish and pain about those events," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "But I don't believe they should diminish for one moment the full measure of what he has given to his country and of what he represents."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, told CNN: "My heart goes out to Bob Kerrey at this moment. All of us involved in wars do things we're proud of and things we're not so proud of."

- Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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