In two years of combat service in Vietnam, I had ample opportunity to observe U.S. troops in action.
My first year in the Vietnam War ran from August 1967 to August 1968. Most of my time was spent as an artillery forward observer with an infantry rifle company. That tour included the 1968 Tet Offensive and its aftermath.
I returned to Vietnam in October 1971 as a Cobra attack helicopter pilot. I was there during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 spring offensive, and I was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
I came home in September 1972, having spent all of my time during both of my tours with American forces. I remain proud of my service.
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One of my most painful memories of the period came in April 1971, when John Kerry spoke to the U.S. Senate about the conduct of U.S. troops in the war. While I’ve talked with a number of people who served with Kerry in Vietnam, I cannot state that I know exactly what he saw.
In his remarks, Kerry told of “war crimes” committed in Southeast Asia, which he went on to describe as having been committed on a “day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He described a prevailing situation in which American soldiers indiscriminately tortured, maimed and killed Vietnamese civilians, and wantonly abused and destroyed property. He described American soldiers as uncontrolled, murderous savages on a rampage.
Those of his comrades with whom I have spoken present a quite different view. In my two years (substantially more than his six months) of combat, I did not witness conduct of U.S. troops that remotely resembled what Kerry described.
To be sure, the slaughter at My Lai continues to haunt those of us who served. My Lai, however, was an aberration. Indeed, it was ultimately exposed by U.S. troops. I found the greatest revulsion for that criminal act among my comrades with whom I served.
In his remarks, however, Kerry characterized abberations such as My Lai as characteristic of the conduct of the entire U.S. military in Vietnam. As Kerry’s address was purposefully generalized in a way to ascribe the conduct which he described as “normal” and “routine” behavior of U.S. forces, I felt – and continue to feel – personally hurt and slandered by his remarks.
I have also spoken with many of the Americans who were held as prisoners of war in Hanoi. They tell of North Vietnamese efforts to demoralize them by forcing them to listen to recordings of Kerry’s 1971 remarks. In 1991, while visiting the former South Vietnam with my family, I found Kerry’s picture, along with that of Jane Fonda and other notable personalities, displayed prominently and heroically in communist war museums in Saigon.
I feel that Kerry’s address, with its impact upon the public at the time, contributed directly to the hostile reception that greeted so many of us Vietnam veterans on our return.
President Barack Obama is reportedly considering the nomination of Kerry, now a U.S. senator, for secretary of defense. Such a nomination would be a travesty. Nomination of Kerry for any office that confers the respect and honor of the public would be an expression of contempt for Vietnam veterans.
I urge U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to use the power of their office to dissuade the president from this reported nomination.
If the nomination is made, I urge their vote in opposition to confirmation. I would regard a vote in support of confirmation as a further expression of contempt for the service and sacrifice of Vietnam veterans.
Mike Brown, a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran, lives in DuPont.