John Kerry’s swiftboat crew during the Vietnam War, and a man he pulled from a river as bullets flew, are following up their Democratic convention reunion with campaign appearances in battleground states.
The former crew mates appeared just before the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech Thursday on the final night of the Democratic convention, designed to accentuate Kerry’s leadership in wartime.
With them was Jim Rassmann, a former Special Forces officer who credited Kerry with saving his life when Kerry pulled him from a muddy river in the Mekong Delta.
“I’ve seen John Kerry in action,” Rassmann said, flanked by a dozen crew mates who served under the young Navy lieutenant on a patrol boat in Vietnam in 1969. “I know his character. I’ve witnessed his bravery and leadership under fire. And I know he will be a great commander in chief.”
The crew from the 60-foot river boat remained on stage as the candidate approached the podium, shaking hands and embracing them as he went. They filed off during the speech — but won’t be gone from the campaign.
They will hit the road over the next three months, as their jobs allow, either with Kerry or vice presidential nominee John Edwards or to speak with veterans groups or at rallies.
“Our band of brothers doesn’t march together because of who we are as veterans, but because of what we learned as soldiers,” Kerry said in his acceptance speech. “We fought for this nation because we loved it and we came back with the deep belief that every day is extra.”
The campaign plans to assemble the swiftboat crew, or as many as can make it, for bus tours through the swing states where the election will be decided, said John Hurley, director of Veterans for Kerry.
Crew mate Fred Short, 56, from North Little Rock, Arkansas, said he is ready. “I’ll travel if I need to travel. I’ll burn the rest of my vacation on the campaign trail if I need to.”
Sometimes they will be joined by younger veterans from Iraq.
“We include the crew whenever we can,” Hurley said. “Their story is compelling, these guys are the perfect ones to validate his character to be president of the United States.”
Their story has loomed large over the convention this week, noted by speakers from Edwards on down, especially Rassmann’s brush with death in the Bay Hap River on March 13, 1969.
Rassmann, who was leading a group of Chinese mercenaries on special operations, was knocked from the deck of Kerry’s swiftboat during an ambush. He dived toward the river bottom to avoid the propellers, as bullets and rockets flew overhead.
When he came up for air, the boat was gone and Viet Cong on the river banks were sniping at him. Kerry, noticing the man alone in the water, turned the boat around and came back for Rassmann, who grabbed a rope net on the bow.
He was not able to climb onto the deck, but Kerry pulled him over, earning a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for being wounded that day.
Some veterans have criticized the attention focused on Kerry’s actions, saying they have been exaggerated for political gain. And Republicans have downplayed Kerry’s war years. “The theme of the Democratic convention is to play up Senator Kerry’s Vietnam heroics, to obscure his Senate record,” said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith from Oregon.