9.01.2004

A CONVERSATION WITH A SWIFT BOAT VET

I just had a conversation with Mike, a co-worker of mine who is a Navy veteran and served a tour in the RVN on a Swift Boat. We are both 54 years old and we both graduated from high school in 1968. Each of us ended up in Viet Nam, but we had vastly different assignments and got there by very different paths. Mike volunteered for the Navy right after high school and started out on submarines. By a series of random events, he ended up on a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta.
I, along with at least 8 of my high school friends and classmates, was drafted into the Army less than a year after our graduation. By a series of random events, I ended up behind a desk in Long Binh, the largest Army base in Viet Nam.
Mike told me a lot that I hadn’t previously known about swift boats. The term “swift boat” refers to any of 5 or 6 different small patrol craft; from River Patrol Boats (PBR’s) on the small end, to Assault Support Patrol Boats in the middle and Monitors on the large end. Every sailor who served aboard a swift boat was a volunteer.
Some swift boats never left the harbor. Their job was to guard ships. Other swift boats did patrols up the smaller tributaries and canals of “the Delta”. These swift boat units were referred to as “riverine” and were considered “special forces” by the Navy. Many missions of these riverine boats involved insertion/extraction of other special forces units including Army Rangers, Green Berets and Marine Recon. As the conflict wore on, their job often took them to remote up-river locations. Sometimes their destinations were well beyond the ill-defined border with Cambodia.
Eventually our conversation turned to the accusations against John Kerry made by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”. I was extremely curious to hear Mike’s take on the whole mess. Without hesitation he said that their accusations are “absolute bull shit”.
He shared some details that he is aware of though most were second hand (his tour was approximately 1 year after Kerry’s). We reflected on our feelings about Viet Nam, now 34 years after our time there. We are in complete agreement on these things:

1.) It makes us sick to hear Viet Nam veterans arguing among themselves and engaging in what another vet called “fratricide”. To us, all of our brothers who did time in the Nam deserve credit.
2.) We don’t begrudge the medals that any of our fellows received from the U.S. military. We know that some were more deserved than others and we know too that many medals were never awarded that should have been. (Mike never received a Purple Heart even though he suffered a concussion injury that had him pissing blood and confined to a hospital ship for two weeks. He was, however, awarded the Silver Star.)
3.) We feel that the differences of opinion between Kerry’s side and the SBVT are driven by politics and clouded by various fogs, not least of all the “fog of war”.
4.) This issue has nothing to do with anything that happened in Viet Nam. It has everything to do with what happened after at least two of the principals returned from Viet Nam. One of them, John Kerry, spoke out to try to bring an end to the war. Another of them, John O’Neil, went to work for Richard Nixon and declared war on John Kerry.

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