Those who dismiss critics of John Kerry's Vietnam service as just a bunch of right-wing Republicans out to advance George W. Bush's cause don't know what they are talking about. Okay, I may have once thought that about the critics, too. But after poring over the large volume of e-mail I received in response to a column I wrote last month, "What Matters About Kerry and Vietnam," I don't any longer.
I had taken to task the authors of the blistering anti-Kerry bestseller Unfit for Command for giving readers an unbalanced view of Kerry's service in Vietnam, and for not revealing their own connections with the Bush campaign. The column also criticized Unfit for Command for smearing Kerry, a decorated former naval officer, as disloyal because of his antiwar activities. Writing as a former Army officer, I concluded: "Speaking for myself, it is enough that he served."
A number of readers agreed with that. Many more, however, most of them angry veterans, did not. Most striking was the fact that those who identified themselves seemed to span the political spectrum.
Two weeks later, another e-mail arrived from a Howard University classmate, a friend of 47 years, former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Rodney Coleman. A Democrat, Coleman has local roots, having worked for the D.C. Council and later the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.
Bill Clinton appointed Coleman to the Pentagon post, in which he served from 1994 to 1998. Somehow, despite our running into each other over the years on various occasions, Vietnam was never a serious topic of conversation between us.
Coleman, who served in Vietnam for 13 months in 1971-72, wrote that he found disheartening the protracted mudslinging between Bush and Kerry and their respective camps about military records. But the favorable conclusion I drew about Kerry's service was, he stated, "with all due respect, not mine!"
"Some of those 58,000 who died (in Vietnam) were at DaNang with me, and some were under my command, in the 366th Air Force engineering squadron," Coleman wrote.
"I vividly recall Kerry's antiwar testimony in April 1971. I was a White House fellow at the time, on a leave of absence from active duty, as were five of the 17 fellows selected. Two of them had Vietnam experience with Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts awarded for their heroism. In early April 1971, I volunteered to go to Vietnam after my year as a White House fellow. I could have very easily taken steps to forgo a tour in 'Nam, but as an Air Force captain committed to the ideals of the oath of office I took, Vietnam was the only game in town."
The oath of office was a serious matter for products of Howard's ROTC programs. I know. I was commissioned in the Army; Coleman joined the Air Force. Unlike some college campuses, Howard's ROTC programs were a source of pride, having produced, according to the school, more African-American general officers than any other university in the country.
"When Kerry made those critical statements of the war," Coleman wrote, "my parents, God bless them, went ballistic about their son going in harm's way. My military colleagues in the fellows program who had been there and were shot up were incensed that a so-called military man would engage in such insubordinate actions. At the time Kerry made those unfortunate remarks, America had POWs and MIAs, among them my friend, Col. Fred Cherry, the longest-held black POW of the Vietnam War. How could a true American fighting man throw away his medals, while thousands he fought alongside of were in the midst of another example of man's inhumanity to man?"
I spoke with Coleman this week about citing his e-mail in a column. He agreed, adding that he was still wrestling with his Election Day decision. His final written words are worth remembering, especially by those in the Kerry high command.
"I served my 13 months in combat. Returned in 1972 with the Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Technical Services Honor Medal to a very anti-Vietnam America. (Harry) "Butch" Robinson, Denny (Dennis) Hightower, and many more that you know did the same. We endured the pain of separation from our loved ones, were frightened when the rockets came in to camp and lives were lost. But we were never unfit for command.
"Kerry still hasn't satisfied me and many others. . . . It's September and I'm still conflicted. Speaking for myself, it is NOT enough that he served!" Those aren't the thoughts of a Republican-funded, right-wing, over-the-top Swift boat veteran. Ignore them, Kerry camp, at your peril.
Colbert I. King is a Washington Post columnist.