Why Kerry threw his ribbons

The veterans who tossed their medals at the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1971 just wanted to wake up their country to the disastrous tragedy of Vietnam.

Published April 28, 2004 10:18PM (EDT)

Just days before Christmas in 2002, I interviewed Sen. John Kerry about his Vietnam combat experiences at his cluttered study high atop Boston's Beacon Hill. This is where Kerry keeps his Vietnam War archive, including artifacts from his swift boat days. At one juncture during our interview session, he pointed above his desk to a frayed American flag tattered with bullet holes. It was the one that had fluttered from PCF-94 over Kerry and his crew through the Viet Cong attacks they had survived together on the narrow waterways of South Vietnam in the first three months of 1969. We spoke about the harrowing day he saved the life of Jim Rassmann, a Green Beret who fell into a river amid a hail of mortar rounds.

"Do you still have the Silver Star," I asked Kerry. "Yeah," he said, "do you want to see it?" My answer was yes. He walked across his study to a secondary desk with clutter on top, mainly books, and opened the top right drawer. This is where he keeps all of his war medals.

"Nothing too fancy," he said as he pointed to the various boxes in which his medals were kept. "They don't bring back good memories." After glancing at them briefly we went back to our taped interview.

Out of all the stories that have hounded Kerry on the campaign trail, the issue of whether he threw away his ribbons or his medals is the most mendacious. Last week the media demanded to view Kerry's military records. The reason for the urgency was that Grant W. Hibbard, a lieutenant commander during Kerry's swift boat days in Vietnam, asserted that Kerry's first Purple Heart was undeserved. According to Hibbard, Kerry had a tiny scratch. The Boston Globe quoted him as saying, "I've had thorns from a rose that were worse." Over 35 years after the fact, Hibbard, a Republican, was trying to belittle, embarrass and malign Kerry.

But the release of Kerry's war record put an end to the flap. Stuck in the middle of released documents was an evaluation of Kerry by Hibbard, filled out two weeks after he supposedly told Kerry he didn't deserve a Purple Heart. Nowhere in Hibbard's evaluation did he mention any problem with Kerry over Kerry's winning a Purple Heart. In fact, Hibbard wrote that Kerry was one of the best sailors he knew in three categories -- initiative, cooperation and personal behavior. Why, if he thought Kerry was trying to finagle a Purple Heart, did he give him such high marks for personal behavior? As Katherine Q. Seelye reported in the New York Times once the document was released, Hibbard went underground, unwilling to grant interviews, hiding from the press in his retirement home in Florida. The story went away.

What we also learned from the release of his medical records is that Kerry still has shrapnel in his body from Vietnam. It often causes him discomfort.

The media showed little interest in that story. However, when ABC News showed an old clip of Kerry talking on a WRC-TV program called "Viewpoints" on Nov. 6, 1971, claiming he gave back medals during the famous Dewey Canyon III march in Washington in April of that year, they pounced. Why did he say on that show that he gave back medals when he was telling everybody else it was ribbons? Which Kerry was telling the truth?

Here is what happened on April 23, 1971, the day of the medal ceremony: First, Kerry had been in Washington for over a week organizing the Vietnam Veterans Against the War march on Washington. Before that he had been fundraising in New York City. His medals had been left back in Waltham, Mass. What he had brought with him, and often wore, were his ribbons. This made perfect sense. His medals were too clunky to wear on his Navy blues. When Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, for example, he wore his ribbons, not his medals. Throughout the week of Dewey Canyon III, the White House was worried sick about the medal-returning ceremony. Its main fear was that VVAW was going to abandon the Capitol and hurl them over the White House gate instead. President Nixon and his advisors considered having a U.S. military representative accept the medals in front of the White House -- such a gesture would ensure there was no violence or wild TV images. But historian Tom Wells, in "The War Within," explains that Gen. Don Hughes, Nixon's chief military aide, found the idea repulsive. Meanwhile, the word "throwaway" jarred veterans worldwide. Many were insulted by the prospect. "I did not admire the throwing of medals on the steps because I did not believe it was appropriate when so many brave men and women had sacrificed in order to get those same medals," former POW John McCain told me in 2003. "John [Kerry] and I later became great friends. But I never addressed this one issue with him directly."

While McCain's sentiment was held by many sailors, particularly careerists, others on active duty cheered VVAW onward. In "Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975," Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan detail how much internal sabotage was going on within the Navy. In 1971 alone, 488 cases were reported (191 sabotage, 135 arson, 162 wrongful destruction). Stories of "fragging" also became widespread. Angry GIs sought revenge on officers and men in their platoons or units. The Nixon administration feared widespread mutiny.

So, as its closing salvo, VVAW, in a carefully planned action, had 800 veterans congregate near the Capitol's front steps. Jack Smith of West Hartford, Conn., a Marine Corps veteran, read a statement explaining why men who earned Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars were now giving them back to the government. For over two hours, men hurled their medals and ribbons over the fence toward a statue of John Marshall, the first chief justice of the United States. Dramatically, veterans from all branches of the armed services broadcast their names, units and citations, and then rid themselves of their mementos in disgust.

Words cannot properly describe the chilling effect the event had on the speakers and participants. Each soldier had his own horror story that had brought him to this precipice. As an antiwar action -- or a piece of street theater -- it was a powerful demonstration. But it was more than that. The bitterness and rage exhibited by these soldiers ripped at the nation's conscience. Anybody who heard, for instance, Paul F. Winters pray for forgiveness as he hurled his Silver Star, Distinguished Cross and Bronze Star over a fence and then watched him limp away was forever scarred by the memory.

Some men, however, were not quite so dramatic. They gave only their first name and a calm statement: "Robert, New York, and I symbolically return all Vietnam medals and other service medals given me by the power structure that has genocidal policies." Others vented their spleens, which were bursting with defiance: "Here's a bunch of bullshit," one veteran shouted as he hurled a handful of medals.

Over the years some have asked why Kerry chose to dispose of his ribbons, not his medals. Critics saw him as trying to have it both ways. It gave credence, they believed, to what A.J. Liebling of the New Yorker once claimed of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt: He was a "dilettante soldier but a first-class politician." Further confusing the issue was the fact that Kerry did lob the medals of two no-show veterans toward the Marshall statue at their request. "The point of the exercise was to symbolically give something up," Kerry recalled in his defense. "I chose my ribbons, which is what many of the veterans did." The medals he tossed had been given to him by two angry veterans who wouldn't make it to Washington; he was merely serving as their surrogate. Before Kerry discarded his ribbons, he declared: "I'm not doing this for any violent reason, but for peace and justice, and to try to make this country wake up once and for all."

Kerry spent much of his time that afternoon with two Gold Star moms, Ann Pine of Trenton, N.J., and Evelyn Carrasquillo of Miami. He stood by them as they hurled medals back at the government. As a World War II veteran played taps and about 500 people gathered around, the names of men who died in Vietnam were called out. Watching TV that evening was Rich McCann, who had traveled the Mekong Delta rivers with Kerry and was now a graduate student at George Washington University. "When he threw those medals over the fence, I was pretty upset," McCann recalled. "I was grappling with a lot of issues myself. It was hard to accept that I had given a year of my life for a lost cause. In retrospect, however, what he did was right."

Not all the men gave up medals or ribbons. Many chose to turn in hats, jackets and military documents. A photograph taken by George Butler of VVAW shows that the offerings included recruitment letters, induction papers and discharge forms. Historian Andrew E. Hunt, in his superb "The Turning: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War," explains the rationale of several veterans for returning personal possessions. Ron Ferrizzi, for example, a Philadelphia native, disowned his Silver Star and Purple Heart against the pleas of his family. "My parents told me that if I really did come down here and turn in my medals, they never wanted anything more to do with me. That's not an easy thing to take. I still love my parents. My wife doesn't understand what happened to me when I came home from Nam. She said she would divorce me if I came down here because she wanted my medals for our son to see when he grew up."

For a World War II veteran, the tossing away of medals must have been a painful sight. They didn't know whether these long-haired hippies were on drugs, or whether something had happened in Vietnam that they couldn't fully understand. As the memorabilia piled up and the media took it all in, it was clear that the antiwar movement had just turned a sharp corner. First Kerry's testimony before the Fulbright committee, now this.

Butler captured the emotions of the afternoon with his camera. Collectively, his photographs speak of personal liberation. For many of the veterans, the discarding of military paraphernalia set them psychologically free. It was as if the U.S. government had corrupted them, seized their moral compass with shiny pin-on honor. "You have no idea how healing the whole experience was," Bill Crandell recalled. "It was our hour of claiming ourselves back."

Julia Kerry, John's former wife, who was with her husband the entire week, came to the conclusion that the veterans had been in deep depression and denial. "There was so much buried pain," she recalled. "It was numbing to witness." On the last day the veterans also planted a tree, as a symbolic gesture for the preservation of life over death. "The truly impressive thing was that no acts of violence had been committed that entire week," Sen. Kerry recalled. "We had just promised to be nonviolent and we were."

Recent critics of Kerry assert that his Dewey County III ceremony is a metaphor for a lifetime of political flip-flopping. For Kerry, giving up his ribbons -- the objects he had with him in Washington that week -- made perfect sense. To his way of thinking, he was symbolically returning his medals to the U.S. government by tossing his ribbons. Even Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo., when preparing to cross-examine Kerry at the Fulbright committee meeting, asked him what the "medals" on his chest represented. They weren't medals, they were ribbons; it was -- and is -- a common mistake. From Kerry's vantage point, there is nothing contradictory about his statement to "Viewpoints" that he had given back "six, seven, eight, nine medals." To have said that he had given back ribbons but that his medals were at home would have simply confused the TV audience.

Still, the persistent resurrection of this issue means Kerry should have been more exact in his language back in 1971. Clarity is usually a virtue in politics. But we should also remember that he earned those medals/ribbons. The shrapnel in his thigh should remind us of that sacrifice. It is a tangible souvenir from Vietnam that is still with him every day.

By Douglas Brinkley

Douglas Brinkley is the director of the Eisenhower Center and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans; he is also the author of "The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House."

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