"And it's one, two, three,
   What are we fighting for?
   Don't ask me, I don't
   give a damn,
   Next stop is Vietnam;
   And its 5, 6, 7,
   Open up the pearly gates,
   Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
   Whoopee! We're all gonna die."
  
   -- Country Joe & The Fish, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die-Rag,"
   Vietnam-era protest song

  
Part I
  
Vietnam: Over but not forgotten

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   War is hell and there are atrocities on both sides.
   Last Tuesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch group called for an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" into recent disclosures by former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., that 13 civilians were killed "by mistake" after his Navy SEAL team was fired on and returned fire during a Feb. 25, 1969, nighttime raid to capture and kill Viet Cong officials believed meeting in Thanh Phong.
   Five members of Kerrey's SEAL team joined the senator in denying they wantonly killed civilians and accused The New York Times and CBS of "collaborating' in a propaganda campaign to discredit Americans who participated in the Vietnam War. Interviews with Kerrey and a seventh member of the senator's Delta team, Gerhard Klann, were published in The New York Times Magazine on April 29 and broadcast on CBS's "60 Minutes II" on May 1.
   Kerrey received the Bronze Star for leading the Thanh Phong raid and also received the nation's highest military commendation, the Medal of Honor, for an unrelated mission.
   Michael "Doc" Murphy, 54, of Watauga, was 20 when he first went to Vietnam. He was with the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or Lima 3/5, the most highly decorated Marine Corps unit in the history of the Vietnam War, which also suffered the most casualties.
   Murphy did two tours of Vietnam, the first from January 1967 through January 1968 as a corpsman.
   "A corpsman is a Navy medical personnel that trained with the Marines and served with them in combat. I was Navy and three years out of the corps I wore a Marine Corps uniform and served with the 1st Marine Division," he said.
   Murphy's second tour started in February 1968.
   "Two days into my tour I was in the '68 Tet Offensive, the Battle of Hue City," he said. "The Tet Offensive was when the Vietnamese attacked every major city and base in South Vietnam at the same time. It was their last strong push. All of the battles were decidedly won by our forces, but politically, in this country, it was perceived as a loss."
   In December 1968, Murphy was injured for the fourth time and medevaced out. He was awarded two Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts during his two tours of Vietnam.
   Capt. Robert Snowden of Florida was Murphy's commanding officer. Snowden was approximately 30 when he joined Lima 3/5 in the field on June 24, 1968. He was flown by chopper from Phu Bai to An Hoa, then from An Hoa to a landing zone. Snowden also received a Bronze Star during his tour of Vietnam.
   Both men feel that the Kerrey incident is being blown out of proportion by the media.
   "I spent two years of my life in a free-fire zone, like what Bob Kerrey was in at that time," Murphy said. "My question is, why did somebody wait 32 years to change their story?"
   Snowden said though he probably wouldn't vote for Kerrey for president because he doesn't agree with his philosophy on politics, "I know exactly where he's coming from. He had a mission. When they talk about how cruel, 'cut people's throats' -- listen, when you don't want people to know you're there, you don't shoot them. That's why they give you knives. That's why they train you how to kill somebody with a knife.
   "The mission of the military is to kill people and break things. It's as simple as that. And when you're out there like these guys were, in the middle of 'Indian Country,' if you want to call it that, you don't want to let them to know you're there unless you're supposed to let them know you're there and you've got a way out," he said.
   Snowden feels Kerrey is getting "a raw deal from the anti-war type people and media."
   "I watched the thing that night with Dan Rather. All Rather was trying to do was get him to admit that everything he did was wrong and that the military was bad, and Kerrey wouldn't fall for it.
   "Rather was over there, but he was never in any real big danger. He could have gotten hit, because we had reporters that were attached to us. Every once in a while they'd send a guy out for a few days, like the French reporters. Some of them got wounded. That's a tough break.
   "But Rather is just Rather. I don't know any other way to put it. I call him Dan 'Blather.' As far as I'm concerned, those guys have their agenda, and that is to make the military look bad. They were totally against the war, so they're still trying to prove their point."
   Snowden said he believes Kerrey had a good shot at the presidency and that that could be part of what has prompted the negative media attention.
   "I don't know that he would have made it on the Democratic ticket, but there were a lot of people that were afraid because, for one thing, he was an American hero as far as a lot of people were concerned. He lost a leg, he got a Medal of Honor -- there's not too many of those -- and he would have been a pretty good runner."
   He said he believes someone started digging on potential presidential candidates, perhaps media, perhaps somebody like Hillary Clinton, and said, " 'Let's start knocking these guys out of here.' She wants to be president. If she does, my God, I don't know what the hell would happen to this country. She's a dishonest person, very dishonest.
   "Kerrey started talking about this two or three years ago. He said there were women and children killed and he kind of regrets the fact of that. But one of the things that you've got to understand is they were in what we call a free-fire zone. These type areas are areas that people were supposed to get out of," Snowden said.
   "The South Vietnamese government at this time had started moving people out of these areas because they were very heavily Viet Cong. Like that lady they had (in the interview). This lady was a Viet Cong cadre leader. Her best recollection was that 'Oh, yes, she remembered this. She saw them do this.'
   "Hey, give me a break. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't.
   "As far as lining the people up and shooting them, Kerrey said, 'I don't remember doing that and I wouldn't have done that.' One guy said, 'Yes we did.' All of the other guys said, 'No we didn't.'
   "Maybe he has an ax to grind somewhere that he doesn't want to talk about, I don't know," Snowden said.
   Murphy said he watched the "60 Minutes II" segment on Kerrey and his hunch is the incident is not going to die out.
   "Walter Cronkite came out of retirement to make a statement and blasted those people, saying, 'Why are we taking a one-legged hero and making him accountable for what most people don't understand what happened in Vietnam?' " Murphy said.
   "Six men involved backed Bob Kerrey on the incident that happened there. It took place in the dark. It was known to be a Viet Cong stronghold. They were given orders, as SEALS, to go in and take these people out. They took the first few people out with a knife. One version is they drew fire and they took out the rest -- women and children found.
   "The supposed version of this person that's come forward and is now getting a lot of press is that they went into a hut and found an old man, an old woman, and three children and they took them all out, and then they herded all the women and children together in the next hootch and slaughtered them.
   "The information that I've found out is this woman told an entirely different story. She was supposedly hiding in the bushes and witnessed the event. She told an entirely different story. Then she was told the story that the man's been telling about Sen. Kerrey. She changed her story and it matched his exactly.
   "A little further research shows, and she has admitted, that she is a Viet Cong political cadre. A political cadre is a propaganda officer with Viet Cong. There were actually two Viet Congs: those who were organized and uniformed Viet Cong, and those that were just villagers by day and enemy by night. She was ordered, organized, and structured.
   "When they showed gravesites of the old man, old woman and three children, it looked to me like they were put in last week. I'm not there, I don't know," Murphy said.
   The children were buried under a concrete slab.
   "This is not the normal way that people are buried in Vietnam, unless it's changed an awful lot," he said.
   "What has irked a lot of people in the veterans community, is that incidents happened. War is not a glorious event. There were numerous atrocities on both sides. We all participated in incidents that happened in combat that can't be judged as right or wrong. They happened. I think all of us have regrets. Myself, I regret that we lost so many lives and that so many lives were destroyed of those that returned to this country," Murphy said.
   "A lot of these people are still like they just came home. They can tell you what happened on this day in the '60s, but they may not be able to tell you what they had for breakfast this morning," he said.
   "Also, the thing about women and children: I had two men die in my arms and four other people wounded. I was the medical officer with my unit, which was about 11 people.
   "There were 30 people that pinned us down in North Vietnamese uniforms. When we overran them, finally, after about four hours of fighting, the oldest one was about 15, the youngest one was maybe 12, and they were all female. But they all had AK assault rifles, which, I still have one of those bullets in my side.
   "You have to make a decision," Murphy said. "If someone points a rifle at you, regardless of their age or their gender, you have to decide: Do I want to live and do I want my foxhole buddy, who I value more than myself, to survive?
   "I may have been the medical personnel, but I carried an M-16, a .357 magnum, two belts of machine gun ammo, about 10 hand grenades and a couple of claymore mines," he said.
   As a medical officer in a free-fire zone, Murphy often would take children that had skin eruptions and treat them during the daytime and share food with them.
   "And that night when we'd get hand-grenaded, and we'd throw grenades back, when we went out at sunrise to see who it was, there they'd be, the same kids.
   "The thing about it is, when you've got a bullet coming your way, you don't go out and ask, 'What gender are you?' and 'How old are you?' " he said.
   According to Snowden, many members of the Viet Cong army were women, "And, yes, we killed them. They'd shoot at us; we'd shoot at them.
   "And kids. It was really not the kids' fault. They're told, 'You go out and kill Marines, those big old nasty Marines.'
   "What the hell difference does it make? That mine that that kid plants, or that booby trap that he set, or that shot he takes at you -- even though he's just a little kid, that bullet is just as deadly, that mine is just as deadly as if it was set by a 25-year-old Viet Cong hard-core."
   Snowden recalled an incident in an area called "Liberty Bridge" where one of their sister battalions operated from.
   "I think it was the 7th Regiment's headquarters. They had a road that led to Liberty Bridge, and they had to sweep it every morning for land mines and booby traps. They were always finding them. And they said, 'Let's find out who's doing it.'
   "They used to put out these 55 gallon oil drums so that Marines walking back and forth patroling could throw their trash in them, and then they could come by in a truck and pick it up. One day they put a fire team up on a little knoll somewhere and ran a wire to one of these cans. They filled it full of old corroded rockets and C4 explosives, and the truck went by like they forgot to pick it up.
   "They watched it that night. They had it wired. And bigger than hell, this group of about five or six came out there to mine the thing or booby trap so that when the Marines picked it up the next day, it would blow up and kill some of them, or injure them. Well, when they got all around it, they blew it off and just blew these people to smithereens," Snowden said. Afterward, they learned that three members of the group were kids.
   "So what they keep talking about, the people that got shot in this village that Kerrey was in, they weren't necessarily innocent, because anybody in a free-fire zone was either Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers," Snowden said.
   "In all reality, if you want to get down to it, the people that were killed -- notice there was no men except for the real old papa san, the grandfather. Where were all the men? They were out doing their Viet Cong thing. That's what it was all about.
   "The women and the children of the Viet Cong, they did everything in their power to kill as many American Marines, soldiers, anybody else there, as they possibly could," he said.
   According to Murphy, the Vietnamese were their own worst enemies.
   While American troops were called "baby killers" by their own people, "The Viet Cong went through many villages, they raped and killed all of the women, they mutilated and tortured and killed all of the children," Murphy said.
   "Because of their religious practice, the most humiliating death was to be beheaded. Sometimes we got good information from prisoners we took by threatening to behead them, where no other method would work.
   "We would go in and here would be the entire village children's heads in a pile or on sticks, stuck around as a warning to others. This isn't the kind of news that made it back. We saw atrocities of the worst kind," Murphy said.
  
   Next Sunday: Part II