Two newly declassified official reports concerning a raid on a Vietnamese village by Bob Kerrey's Navy SEAL team make no mention of civilian casualties that the former senator says he included in his initial after-action report on the incident.
In a 60 Minutes II interview to air next Tuesday, Kerrey admits that his unit killed women and children when they returned enemy fire at Thanh Phong village on Feb. 25, 1969. Kerrey, who has not ruled out a run for president in 2004, received a Bronze Star for the raid.
Kerrey disclosed the incident earlier this week. After stints as Nebraska's governor and U.S. senator, and a bid for the presidency in 1992, he is currently the president of the New School in New York City.
The reports, both dated Feb. 25, 1969 were released Friday by the Naval Historical Center in Washington.
They are not signed, but military address codings suggest they are a message from Kerrey's immediate superior officer to the commander of SEAL Task Force 115 and that officer's reply.
Both refer only to "21 VC KIA (BC)," meaning "21 Viet Cong killed in action (body count)."
The language is similar to that in a later citation awarding then-Lt. (jg) Kerrey, 25, the Bronze Star, the nation's fourth-highest award for valor.
At a news conference Thursday, Kerrey said that, "For more than three decades, I have carried this deeply personal memory with a sense of anguish."
Kerrey said he had not thought about returning the Bronze Star, stating that "the medal meant nothing to me," and insisting he "never asserted I was a hero in the war."
The incident took place in a communist controlled hamlet along the Mekong River. Kerrey was leading his unit on a search for Viet Cong leaders.
Kerry insisted that th area where the shooting took place was a free-fire zone and that reliable intelligence had indicated there was a Viet Cong political meeting taking place there with no civilians present. He insisted his unit was fired upon before it shot at the villagers.
The first teletype message, labeled a "spot report," says Kerrey's team "received fire from hooches (huts)" and returned fire. Then: "Observed several personnel running from hooches. Took under fire," it said.
Civilian casualties were mentioned two days later, Feb. 27, in a radio log obtained by The Associated Press.
A resident of the village where the killings took place and a member of Kerrey's SEAL team told 60 Minutes II Correspondent Dan Rather that the unit rounded the civilians up and then shot them. Kerrey denies that account.
"We did not go out on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people. I feel guilty because of what happened, not because of what we intended to do," Kerrey said.
The Vietnamese government offered conciliatory words for Kerrey on Thursday. "Mr. Kerrey has shown in his statements about what happened in the past in Vietnam that he was remorseful about his behavior," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said in Hanoi.
"We think the best way for Mr. Kerrey and other Americans who fought in Vietnam to achieve peace of mind is to contribute to healing the wounds from the war through concrete and realistic actions," she said.
Experts on military law say that while Kerrey's actions might have breached codes of conduct, he cannot be prosecuted now that he has left the military.
"If his account were taken as true, if it were proved to be true, it would indeed be a violation of war," said Gary Solis, a military law professor, but adds, "If one receives fire, one is not only entitled to but should return fire to protect one's own men and women."
Other Vietnam vets, including Sens. John McCain, R.-Ariz., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and John Kerry, D.Mass., have signaled support for Kerrey.
"Those of us who have served in combat recognize that there are some things you are proud of and some things that you are not so proud of," McCain said. "And that's why war is so terrible."
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