Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Missing Medal

From Newsweek/MSNBC (no, really):

Aug. 26 – A previously undisclosed Navy record obtained by NEWSWEEK supports John Kerry’s claim that he was under fire when he rescued a U.S. Green Beret who had pitched overboard from Kerry’s 50-foot Swift Boat during a short but intense engagement in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in March 1969.

Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions that day. But the organization Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a tax-exempt “527” advocacy group, has challenged Kerry’s Vietnam record—in particular that Kerry was under hostile fire when he pulled the Green Beret, Jim Rassmann, from the water.

Kerry’s was one of three Bronze Stars awarded for actions during this incident. Another went to the commander of a second Swift Boat, Larry Thurlow. Thurlow is now one of the core members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He has sworn an affidavit saying the Swift Boats were not under hostile fire during the rescue. Thurlow’s own Bronze Star citation contradicts this, but Thurlow insists the citation is false and has suggested that Kerry wrote it.

The third Bronze Star was won by one of Thurlow’s own launch crew, Robert Eugene Lambert, who was radarman and the senior noncom on Thurlow’s boat. NEWSWEEK obtained a copy of the citation for Lambert’s Bronze Star from the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis under a Freedom of Information Act filing. This citation, like the others, says that following a mine explosion that wrecked one of the Swift Boats, the flotilla of five boats “came under small-arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks.” Lambert won his Bronze Star for an action precisely paralleling Kerry’s: Lambert picked someone out of the river. In Lambert’s case, that someone was his skipper, Thurlow.

Thurlow had steered his Swift Boat to the aid of its companion damaged by the mine, personally leaping into the foundering craft to aid its badly wounded crew while Lambert “directed accurate suppressing fire at the enemy,” according to the citation. In the swirling confusion, Thurlow was then knocked overboard from the wrecked launch. Lambert “from an exposed position and with complete disregard for his personal safety” pulled Thurlow back on to his Swift Boat, the citation says. It concludes by commending Lambert’s “coolness, professionalism and courage under fire.”

Lambert’s surviving military records do not include the initial recommendation for this medal, so there is no way to know who filled the required role of witness to vouch for Lambert’s actions. But the citation contains such detail about the actions of both Thurlow and Lambert—actions that Kerry cannot have known since his launch was on the far side of the river—that it seems implausible Kerry could have written the recommendation. [Emphasis added.]

Lambert’s military record shows he retired from the U.S. Navy in 1978. Efforts to trace him have been unsuccessful. A spokesman for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth said Wednesday that Thurlow was traveling and out of contact.

Chickens, here’s your roost.