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Rough waters 

Arkansans who served under John Kerry find their own service in question.

When Drew Whitlow of Huntsville and Fred Short of North Little Rock came home from Vietnam more than 30 years ago, they thought they had left behind what happened in the murky canals of the Mekong Delta. The waters Short and Whitlow once cruised in aluminum-hulled, 50-foot patrol boats were heavily mined, under constant threat of ambush from the densely wooded banks. It was a place of sudden death, one where - the admiral who sent them there later estimated in his memoirs - a sailor had only a 25 percent chance of getting through the typical year without taking a bullet. Lucky to make it out alive as young men, neither expected it was a war they'd have to fight again on the cusp of middle age. But both drew a wild card back then: a young skipper named John Kerry. Now the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, Kerry is drawing fire over his service, specifically from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who have questioned everything from how badly Kerry was wounded when he won his three Purple Hearts to whether Kerry somehow blew out of proportion the episode that won him the nation's third-highest award for valor in combat, the Silver Star. Though they never served together, Whitlow, a logistics clerk, and Short, a computer programmer, are united by something more than their days in the Navy. They say the attacks on Kerry's record are attacks on all men who served with him. If it weren't for John Kerry, they'll tell you, neither is sure they'd be here to talk about it. As men who both still support John Kerry, their hopes that Vietnam was behind them disappeared in spring 2003. That was when Mike Kranish, a reporter for the Boston Globe, called and began asking questions about things they hadn't spoken about in years. In Short's case - being that he was on hand the bloody day Kerry won his Silver Star (with, in fact, the best seat in the house: the "tub," an armored twin machine gun mounted at the bow of Kerry's boat) - it was a story he says he hadn't told completely in over 35 years. "That was something I had more or less put in a compartment in my mind and gone on with my life," Short said. "I just never thought that anyone would ever know about that, much less ask a question about it." The story Kranish would file in June of that year would be the spark that started the Swift Boat controversy. Gleaned from the recollections of swift boaters like Short and Whitlow (though mostly from sailors not on Kerry's own boat), the story raised questions about how badly Kerry had been and painted a picture of the future senator as a sometimes impulsive leader, who sought commendations by taking risks with lives of his crew. The centerpiece of that argument, ironically, was what the Navy saw as Kerry's greatest act of heroism: the incident for which Kerry won the Silver Star - beaching his boat, then running down and killing an enemy guerilla before the man could aim and fire a rocket propelled grenade. Drew Whitlow, who served as a boatswain's mate on Kerry's No. 44 swift boat, wasn't around for the action that won Kerry the Silver Star, but he says they were in "quite a few scrapes" together. The last few months have seen him making public appearances in support of Kerry. Whitlow admits that his former skipper's head-on style of confronting the enemy sometimes made him nervous, and remembers the day he asked Kerry about it. "He said, you know, we need to eliminate the problem now so that anybody who has to follow behind won't have to face the problem," Whitlow said. "He wouldn't look for ways around it, he wouldn't retreat [from] a problem. He'd always tackle it head on to eliminate it so it'd be rid of for the people behind us. That's the kind of leader you need." For his part, Whitlow calls the accusations against Kerry "garbage," something that wounds every man who served. "They're slandering Kerry, they're slandering the rest of the crew, they're slandering the rest of the veterans community in general." Given that he was in the middle of the action now contested by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, on boat 94, Fred Short has seen his version of events questioned more than perhaps any other Swift Boater other than Kerry himself. Though he said it's all been a little overwhelming, especially for someone who's "not accustomed to getting up and talking to folks," he's taking it very personally, and taking his message to the people. Last weekend found him speaking with Whitlow at the Arkansas Democratic Convention, and he'll tell his story to anyone who calls. Almost 40 years ago, Short said, he raised his hand and swore to defend the United States and the Constitution. Now he says that his dedication to that oath and what he did to uphold it is being called a lie. "I'm not running for anything, and I don't deserve this, and neither does John Kerry," Short said. "Neither do any of those men who were on the boat, especially the guys who paid the ultimate price." Short blames much of the controversy surrounding Kerry's record on the 24 hour news channels. He has never received a call from one of the all-news networks to ask if the charges are true. "You boil it down and look at the residue in the bottom of the pot, and all you'll see is greed," Short said. "That seems to be the corporate drug of choice these days." While Short said he can't say for sure the White House is backing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, he said that it's clear someone with "political knowledge" is calling the shots. Too, Short said, Bush could stop them if he wanted to. It is, he said, a case of condone or condemn. "If President Bush respected his father's service in my opinion, he would have immediately said, 'While I can't stop this, I'm asking you to stop.'" Short said. "Like some guy I read said - I think his name was Jefferson: A man is revealed not only by what he does or what he doesn't do. You can't ride the fence on this." Short sees the general attacks on Kerry's record as part of a long-running Republican strategy to "attack the strength" in a candidate, one used in 2002 to defeat U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Democratic senator from Georgia who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam. For all their deeply held feelings, neither Whitlow nor Short will go as far as saying that the Swift Boaters attacking John Kerry are lying. Both think that many of the Swift Boat Vets still hold a grudge about Kerry coming back from Vietnam and joining the war protest movement, and about some of the critical statements Kerry made in "Tour of Duty," historian Douglas Brinkley's book about his service in Vietnam. Beyond that, the best Short can do is chalk it up to something he calls "cognitive dissonance," a person's need for his side to be right, one so strong that it can alter memories and beliefs. Short said the Swift Boat Vets for Truth also are playing on how little the average American knows about military protocol, especially in their allegations that John Kerry somehow influenced the decision to award him the Silver Star. Short insists the Navy goes through a rigorous fact-checking procedure for such medals, including multiple debriefings of the crew, independent reports from the scene, and poring over damage to the boat. As for the Purple Hearts and whether or not Kerry was "wounded enough" to receive them, Short says the Purple Heart is about what a man risked. In combat, he said, a soldier doesn't get to specify where he is wounded. Though Short said he will go on defending Kerry and his war record, he wishes the issue would go away. It's taking the focus from the issues that matter, he said. Worse, he thinks it might signal a new climate in American politics and American life. Said Shorrt: "Lincoln said that if the United States is ever dissolved, it won't be from attacks from outside, it will be inside attacks. I hope that isn't the case. I hope this isn't the start of something, but it's just getting worse."
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