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Kerrey Team Takes Issue With Report
6 of 7 SEALs Meet On Vietnam Killings

 
Pham Thi Lanh Pham Thi Lanh, 62, describes American soldiers who raided Thanh Phong village in the Mekong Delta 32 years ago. (Richard Vogel - AP)


_____Kerrey Statement_____
• 'Defining and Tragic' Moment (The Washington Post, Apr 29, 2001)

_____Video_____
• Former Senator Bob Kerrey

_____Post Roundtable_____
• Video: washingtonpost.com's Charles Babington and Post media reporter Howard Kurtz discuss the Bob Kerrey story

_____From The Post_____
• Kerrey Team Takes Issue With Report (The Washington Post, Apr 29, 2001)
• Kerrey: Military Can Take Medal (The Washington Post, Apr 27, 2001)
• Newsweek Spiked Kerrey Story in '98 (The Washington Post, Apr 27, 2001)
• Vietnam Urges Kerrey to Aid in 'Healing' (The Washington Post, Apr 27, 2001)
• Veterans Recall Stress of Combat, Empathize With Kerrey (The Washington Post, Apr 27, 2001)
• Kerrey Tells of Role in Vietnam Civilian Deaths (The Washington Post, Apr 26, 2001)
• CNN's Very Secret Agent: CIA Says Man's Story Is Phony (The Washington Post, Apr 26, 2001)

_____Online Extra_____
• Media Notes: Newsweek Passed on Kerrey Story

_____Photo Gallery_____
• Kerrey's Tale

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2001; Page A01

 

Bracing for a newspaper account of a mission gone wrong during his service in Vietnam, former senator Bob Kerrey gathered six members of the Navy commando team he led during the war for an extraordinary five-hour meeting Friday night to discuss their actions during the 1969 raid.

Kerrey said in an interview yesterday that six of the seven members of his SEAL unit discussed in detail for the first time what they remember about the long-ago attack that left more than a dozen Vietnamese dead, mostly women and children.

The group issued a unanimous statement after the meeting, disputing key elements of a starkly different version of events given by Gerhard Klann, the seventh SEAL in the squad. Klann is quoted in an article in today's New York Times Magazine as saying that the unit "rounded up women and children" and, on Kerrey's order, machine-gunned them.

"At the village we received fire and we returned fire," the six men stated. "One of the men in our squad remembers that we rounded up women and children and shot them at point-blank range in order to cover our extraction. That simply is not true. We know there was an enemy meeting in this village. We know this meeting had been secured by armed forces. We took fire from these forces and we returned fire. Knowing our presence had been compromised and that our lives were endangered we withdrew while continuing to fire."

Their statement is the latest in a string of efforts by Kerrey aimed at blunting the impact of the article, a nearly 8,000-word Times magazine cover story written by Gregory L. Vistica that uses extensive interviews with Kerrey and Klann and military documents to portray the brutal decisions made in a guerrilla war by young soldiers. It focuses on two incidents on the night of Feb. 25, 1969, in which "Kerrey's Raiders," as they called themselves, killed Vietnamese civilians in the village of Thanh Phong. "It was a mission that didn't go as expected," Kerrey said.

Kerrey discussed the raid publicly for the first time in an April 18 speech at Virginia Military Institute and gave several interviews last week on his version of events. His response to the article's revelations culminated in the meeting Friday night with members of the SEAL unit.

"We stayed up until 2 o'clock in the morning and talked about something we hadn't done in 32 years, which is the events of the 25th of February, 1969," he said. "For each of us," Kerrey added, that mission "was a defining and tragic moment."

Another member of Kerrey's SEAL team, Gene Peterson, said in an interview yesterday that the group gathered at Kerrey's New York home because "we wanted to get it straight, so we sat down and talked it over." The group had held smaller reunions before, but had never met specifically to discuss the attack on Thanh Phong, he said.

Klann was not invited to the Friday night meeting. He did not return telephone calls after messages were left for him yesterday.

The Times article carries both Kerrey's and Klann's versions of what happened, as well as that of a Vietnamese woman in the village. It says: "None of the others on the team would speak in any detail about the incident." With yesterday's statement, Kerrey adds the weight of the other five members of the team to his account, which is that the unit was shot at and then opened fire from at least 100 yards away.

Klann is quoted in the Times article as saying the Kerrey commandos slaughtered the villagers so the SEAL team could escape. "Our chances would have been slim to none to get out alive," the Times quotes Klann as saying.

In the interview, Kerrey added, "No one else in the squad has that memory." He added, "We did not round up women and children and execute them."

Villagers in Thanh Phong said yesterday that they remembered Kerrey's team ordering villagers out of a shelter and then shooting them, Reuters and the Associated Press reported. Bui Thi Luom, who said she was 12 at the time of the raid, told AP, "They only killed civilians, women and children. No VC," or Viet Cong.

Asked about those reports, Kerrey said, "There's no response that I can give to this except to say that we took fire. There were people out in the open. There were casualties. This was a Viet Cong village. We took fire from people. There were people out in the open. They were not rounded up." In the Vietnam War, he continued, "gender and age distinctions were not always reliable indicators of who was a threat to your life."

The statement issued by the six SEAL team members touches on another part of the raid that also is in dispute. The Times Magazine article quotes Klann as saying that as the team neared the village, it encountered an isolated house in which Kerrey helped Klann kill an old man. "Kerrey put his knee on the man's chest, Klann says, as Klann drew his knife across his neck," according to the article.

Kerrey is quoted in the article as saying that he had no role in that death.

In the statement issued yesterday, Kerrey and the others state that, "At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected."

Kerrey elaborated on that incident in the interview. "There was an outpost at the hooch [hut]. The very strong opinion of my most experienced enlisted man, Mike Ambrose, was that this was an outpost." Asked if he played a role in killing the old man, Kerrey said twice, "That's not true."

Vistica noted in an interview yesterday that his article presented both sides of the story. "We say there are two versions," he said.

But Vistica went on to cast doubt on the statement issued on Kerrey's behalf yesterday. "His story has evolved and changed over the last couple of weeks quite significantly," he said. "He's now saying there was a firefight at that hooch. He originally said there was a single shot."

As a national security correspondent for Newsweek, Vistica began looking into Kerrey's military service more than two years ago, when the Nebraska senator was considering seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Vistica learned about Kerrey's unit being involved in the killing of Vietnamese civilians, but Newsweek shelved the story in December 1998 because Kerrey had decided against running. Vistica left the magazine but continued to work on the story, which the Times said was reported in coordination with CBS's "60 Minutes II."

"It's disgraceful," Kerrey said in an interview with AP. "The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort."

At Friday night's reunion of a majority of the SEAL team, Kerrey said earlier yesterday: "We talked . . . about how we would do it differently if we could do it over."

Even so, he said, "The unanimous view of the six is that we were young men, and we did what was right and necessary."

Kerrey said that the experience of the last few days has brought home one lesson about the persistence of the Vietnam War in American life. "One of the things that I didn't anticipate is that the war isn't over," he said.

Asked what he meant by that, he said simply, "The wounds are still deep."