Joseph Robert (Bob) Kerrey was a U.S. Navy SEAL in Vietnam during the 1960s and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon in the White House in May of 1970 for actions he conducted where he lost the lower part of his leg in Vietnam during an action on March 14, 1969. His wounds would end his military service.
But Kerrey later entered politics and served as a U.S. Senator from Nebraska and as the 35th Governor of Nebraska. He ran unsuccessfully in 1992 as a Democratic nominee for President, losing to Bill Clinton.
He also briefly dated actress Debra Winger while she was in Omaha to film the motion picture, “Terms of Endearment”. Hounded by the press over the affair, Kerrey responded, “She swept me off my foot,” making light of his Vietnam injuries.
Military service: Kerrey entered Naval Special Warfare after completing Officer Candidate School in 1967. He went thru and successfully completed Basic Underwater Demolition/Sea, Air, Land (BUD/S) training with class 42 in 1968.
Kerrey volunteered to be assigned to SEAL Team One which was in the Republic of Vietnam. After pre-deployment training, he was assigned to Vietnam as an assistant platoon commander with Delta Platoon, SEAL Team ONE in January 1969.
On March 14, 1969, he was assigned to a mission to Hon Tre Island off of Nha Trang to capture a high-value target which was Viet Cong cadre. It was during this action that Kerrey and the SEALs would have to scale a 350-foot cliff to get to a position above the enemy village to achieve their mission.
While assaulting down the hill into the village under heavy fire, a Vietnamese grenade exploded right at his feet, severely injuring his lower body and hurling him backward. Despite his painful wounds, he directed his men, split into two teams into neutralizing the enemy’s fire. He then directed his men to secure and defend an extraction site despite being immobilized by his wounds which were severe.
The Viet Cong POWs captured were instrumental in the extraction of intelligence for the war effort. Eventually, he and the SEAL team were extracted back to their base. Kerrey’s wound resulted in the loss of the lower part of his leg.
On May 14, 1970, President Richard Nixon, awarded Kerrey the Medal of Honor at the White House.
Medal of Honor Citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 14 March 1969 while serving as a SEAL Team Leader during action against enemy aggressor (Viet Cong) forces in the Republic of Vietnam.
Acting in response to reliable intelligence, Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey led his SEAL Team on a mission to capture important members of the enemy’s area political cadre known to be located on an island in the bay of Nha Trang.
In order to surprise the enemy, he and his team scaled a 350-foot sheer cliff to place themselves above the ledge on which the enemy was located. Splitting his team into two elements and coordinating both, Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey led his men in the treacherous downward descent to the enemy’s camp.
Just as they neared the end of their descent, an intense enemy fire was directed at them, and Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey received massive injuries from a grenade which exploded at his feet and threw him backward onto the jagged rocks. Although bleeding profusely and suffering great pain, he displayed outstanding courage and presence of mind in immediately directing his element’s fire into the heart of the enemy camp. Utilizing his radioman, Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey called in the second element’s fire support which caught the confused Viet Cong in a devastating crossfire.
After successfully suppressing the enemy’s fire, and although immobilized by his multiple wounds, he continued to maintain calm, superlative control as he ordered his team to secure and defend an extraction site. Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey resolutely directed his men, despite his near-unconscious state, until he was eventually evacuated by helicopter. The havoc brought to the enemy by this very successful mission cannot be overestimated. The enemy who were captured provided critical intelligence to the allied effort.
Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey’s courageous and inspiring leadership, valiant fighting spirit, and tenacious devotion to duty in the face of almost overwhelming opposition sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
The incident at Thanh Phong:
The New York Times and 60 Minutes in 2001 ran a story about a SEAL raid in February 1969 about a month after Kerrey arrived in-country. On February 25, Kerrey led a raid on the village of Thanh Phong, Vietnam, targeting an HVT (high-value target) Viet Cong leader whom intelligence believed would be present.
During the raid, Kerrey’s team took fire from a house in the village, they returned fire and upon moving thru the objective area were surprised to find several villagers, civilians, women and children killed in the fire.
Kerrey, in 1998 interviews, recalls the horror of what they found. “The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don’t know, 14 or so, I don’t even know what the number was, women and children who were dead”, he said. “I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead, I found women and children.”
One member of Kerrey’s SEAL platoon, Gerhard Klann told a completely different tale, which was corroborated by a Vietnamese survivor that the SEALs rounded up the civilians and killed them for fear that they’d warn the Viet Cong.
When Kerrey was pushed to respond to Klann’s account of the raid, he stated that his recollections of it were different than his. Kerrey’s other former SEAL platoon members all stuck to his account of the events. Kerrey stated that Klann had very hard feelings against him because he wouldn’t support Klann’s possible Medal of Honor award during a later mission and was jealous of him.
Kerrey did express regret over the mission and the lives taken during it. He was subsequently awarded a Bronze Star for the raid. He said of killing in combat, “You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that’s the memory that haunts.”
In 2016, Kerrey was announced as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Fulbright University in Vietnam. Some Vietnamese civilians complained over this and Kerrey later resigned his post although he hasn’t been replaced.