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Sunday, August 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Kerry's Cambodia account challenged by ex-commander
By Scott Canon
KANSAS CITY, Mo. John Kerry's repeated claim that he spent Christmas Eve of 1968 upriver in Cambodia against official United States policy has drawn harsh criticism from anti-Kerry veterans.
Roy Hoffmann, a retired admiral who was a Navy captain in command of Kerry's unit at the time, said the candidate's Cambodia statements can't be true.
"I think he just outright lied," said Hoffman, a founder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. "He never was there."
Over the years, Kerry has referred to spending Christmas or Christmas Eve 1968 in Cambodia and coming under fire. At the time, Cambodia was considered a neutral nation presumably off-limits to U.S. troops.
"I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia," Kerry said in 1986 at a Senate committee hearing during a debate on U.S. policy toward Central America. "I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared seared in me."
A few years earlier, the Massachusetts senator had talked with the Boston Herald about "the absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops."
Nixon had been elected by Christmas 1968 but didn't take office until the next month.
The Kerry campaign has since said that the presidential candidate's recollection was imprecise that his runs into Cambodia came in the early months of 1969. A June 2003 article in The Washington Post quotes Kerry talking about a mildewy and faded-green camouflage hat he carries in his black attaché.
"My good-luck hat," Kerry told the Post. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."
Yet the Kerry campaign said it was far from rare for American forces to pursue Viet Cong over the border.
"Swift Boat crews regularly operated along the Cambodian border from Ha Tien on the Gulf of Thailand to the rivers of the Mekong south and west of Saigon," Michael Meehan, a senior adviser in the Kerry campaign, said Friday. "Boats often received fire from enemy taking sanctuary across the border. Kerry's was not the only United States riverboat to respond, inadvertently or responsibly, across the border."
"Many times he was on or near the Cambodian border and on one occasion crossed into Cambodia at the request of members of a special operations group operating out of Ha Tien" on the Gulf of Thailand, Meehan said in his statement.
Hoffmann, the retired admiral, said he was leery of Kerry's claim to have ventured into Cambodia in early 1969 to deliver CIA operatives or special-forces soldiers.
"I was always properly informed. The whole time I was there, I don't recall" such a mission, Hoffmann said.
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