Aiming for John Kerry's Purple Heart

How low will the Swift Boat Veterans sink to defame the presidential candidate's Vietnam record?

Published July 17, 2004 12:18AM (EDT)

The hunting of John Kerry has now been contracted to a hired gun.

A private detective retained by "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" -- the Texas-based group seeking to discredit John Kerry's military record -- is contacting veterans who may have information about the incidents that led to Kerry's Vietnam decorations. According to a former Kerry crew member, several of the Massachusetts senator's old Navy comrades have refused to talk with the detective, a former FBI agent named Thomas Rupprath -- and some have complained that the detective tried to put damaging words in their mouths.

Rupprath's efforts are clearly intended to discredit Kerry's military record, which should surprise nobody familiar with the "Swift Boat" group. Its leaders are conservative Republicans embittered over Kerry's later antiwar activism and determined that he should never become the nation's commander in chief. Two months ago, their opening salvo against the Democratic presidential nominee fizzled -- in part because it was revealed that several of the same officers now criticizing Kerry had written strongly positive evaluations of him as a young lieutenant decades ago.

Registered as a "527" organization with the Internal Revenue Service, the "Swift Boat Veterans" group can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for campaign activities, but is prohibited from working directly with the Bush campaign or the Republican Party. Its spokesmen have repeatedly denied any GOP sponsorship, although several of the group's leaders have longstanding ties with the Republican Party.

So does its most significant financial backer. The largest donor by far is Houston home builder and religious right activist Bob Perry. According to the group's latest IRS filing, Perry gave $100,000 to the "Swift Boat Veterans" on June 30. His generosity accounted for nearly two-thirds of the group's total receipts, and no other single donor gave more than $25,000. In a profile published last November, the Houston Chronicle reported that Perry is the single largest Republican donor in Texas. He has close ties to White House political director Karl Rove and to Tom DeLay. Since 2000, Perry has donated nearly $800,000 to GOP political action committees associated with DeLay and other Republican congressional leaders.

Now Rupprath is pursuing the questions raised by the anti-Kerry veterans -- such as the nature of the wounds that led to the awarding of three Purple Hearts to the young lieutenant, and the circumstances under which he was decorated for valor. In a brief interview with the Dallas Morning News  which broke the news of his investigation on July 12 -- the detective said: "We're not making any accusations until I think we have them truly buttoned up and can be presented in as authentic and credible a manner as possible."

During the past two weeks, in fact, Rupprath has been inquiring about the now-famous firefight of Feb. 28, 1969, when Kerry ordered his crew to beach their boat on the shores of a Mekong Delta canal and then ran ashore to kill a guerrilla wielding a grenade launcher. The consensus among Kerry's former crew members is that his action saved all their lives, since otherwise the guerilla could have fired a round with enough explosive force to destroy their boat. His Navy superiors agreed, awarding him the Silver Star.

Kerry's critics have tried to suggest that he recklessly endangered his crew by leaving the boat -- or that the guerrilla was already mortally wounded before Kerry shot him. Presumably the "Swift Boat" group hired Rupprath to find proof of such allegations, but so far he may not be making much progress.

A pro-Kerry veteran who spoke with the detective said Rupprath explained that "he was just looking into the various incidents that led to Kerry's awards and he was interviewing people about them." The detective didn't learn anything derogatory about Kerry's conduct from him. Rupprath later sent him a typed version of their conversation that contained only a few minor mistakes. The veteran, who asked not to be identified, corrected those errors and returned the interview to the detective.

Another theme promoted by the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is that Kerry somehow exaggerated the injuries that led to his Purple Heart awards, or may even have inflicted them on himself. Kerry's first wound occurred on Dec. 2, 1968, which was the very first night he went on a swift boat patrol. Although several witnesses who were present that night remember that Kerry's arm was creased during a firefight with National Liberation Front guerrillas, a former commander who wasn't there has claimed that there was no report of enemy fire.

Among the witnesses who does recall the firefight is Pat Runyon, a former crew member on Kerry's boat. He too spoke with Rupprath when the detective contacted him recently -- and told Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater that he was stunned to find serious inaccuracies in a version of the interview that Rupprath later sent to him. The most damning mistake, Runyon said, was an insinuation that Kerry's injury had been caused by a flare rather than a bullet.

Runyon isn't alone in suspecting that Rupprath may misuse his words, according to Wade Sanders, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy who served with Kerry in Vietnam and is publicly supporting the Democrat. Sanders said he has heard lately from a pair of other Navy veterans interviewed by the detective. "They told me that he sent them transcripts [of their interviews] and that they told him that his version was a misrepresentation of what they said."

Reached in Dallas, Rupprath referred all questions to Merrie Spaeth, the public relations executive and Republican activist who put together the "Swift Boat Veterans" group. Asked about the charges of distortion by Runyon and Sanders, the detective replied: "I want to just state that I am making no statement."

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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2004 Elections John F. Kerry