Did two of John Kerry's "Band of Brothers" change their story about the circumstances under which John Kerry won his first Purple Heart? If so, were they lying before, or are they lying now?
Or is it possible that Kate Zernike of the Times has simply fluffed her reporting because she failed to do her homework?
In a Sunday story about John Kerry's intention to re-fight his battles with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Ms. Zernike wrote this:
The group has sent a letter to Mr. Schachte calling for a meeting with him, Mr. Kerry and two former veterans who maintain — as they did publicly during the campaign — that they were the only other people on the skimmer with Mr. Kerry and that he was wounded in a hail of enemy fire.
Zaldonis and Runyon both said they were too busy to notice how Kerry was hit.
"I assume they fired back," Zaldonis said. "If you can picture me holding an M-60 machine gun and firing it -- what do I see? Nothing. If they were firing at us, it was hard for me to tell."
Runyon said he assumed the suspected Viet Cong fired back because Kerry was hit by a piece of shrapnel.
"I can't say for sure that we got return fire or how [Kerry] got nicked," Runyon told the Globe. "I know he did get nicked, a scrape on the arm."
Two years ago, it was "what do I see? Nothing" and "I can't say for sure that we got return fire"; now it is "a hail of enemy fire".
Well. If their story has changed this dramatically, one might almost wonder about their credibility.
But if we don't see a correction from the Times, it seems fair to imagine that the Paper of Record is standing behind this report. The clear implication would be that Zaladonis and Runyon are, or were, hmm, lying.
My prediction? Please - Ms. Zernike messed this up, Zaladonis and Runyon never changed their story, and we will never see a correction. But why should we all play along and indulge this kind of sloppy substitution of wishful thinking for actual reporting? If the Paper of Record does not admit their error, the inescapable implication will be that Zaladonis and Runyon have changed their story and are liars.
Now here is a possible source of the mistake - "Hail of enemy fire" was used in a 2004 story about Kerry's disputes with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, with Ms. Zernike sharing a byline. The only problem - the "hail of enemy fire" related to Kerry's Bronze Star incident, not his first Purple Heart. Oh, well - that "hail of enemy fire" was also controversial and possibly apocryphal, but that is a story for another day.
For the Times to actually correct this would be a baby step, but I expect it will be beyond them. However, if there is a true investigative reporter out there, I propose the following puzzle - were Zaladonis and Runyon actually on that skimmer with Kerry?
Let me tell you why I wonder. These three-man skimmer crews were assembled on an ad hoc basis, so there is no particular reason to think that the men who went out together would know each other or remember the circumstances years later. And in fact, Runyon never served with Kerry before of after that night.
But what about Zaladonis? He was on Kerry's PCF-44 and shipped out with Kerry in command on Dec 6, four days after their night in the skimmer.
And yet - Douglas Brinkley interviewed Zaladonis for his book. But Brinkley did not identify the two enlisted men with Kerry in the skimmer. Could it really be that Zaladonis never mentioned to Brinkley that he had met Kerry just before sailing with him, and had been with Kerry when he had his first combat and won his first Purple Heart? Both Kerry and Runyon said it was the scariest night of their lives in Vietnam - did Zaladonis sleep through it? Why wasn't it more of a bonding experience between Zaladonis and Kerry?
Well, let's ask the same question of Kerry, who did not remember the names of the men in the skimmer when he discussed it with either Brinkley or the Globe. Why didn't he remember the enlisted man who shared his first combat and scariest night, since he sailed with the guy for two months starting a few days later?
Kerry's diary for this incident has not been disclosed; Zaladonis and Runyon were only identified in April 2004 as the two men in the skimmer. And there has been an example of what seems to have been a "faux" Brother - David Alston claimed to have been a witness to Kerry's Silver Star incident, but records suggest he was not there.
So - what is the evidence that Zaladonis and Runyon were on that skimmer? Will Kerry release the relevant portions of his diary, or the witness statement that ought to have been a part of his Purple Heart application?
I am sure that Kate Zernike is on this. Any serious investigative journalist would be.