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
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
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
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
"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."