By KATE ZERNIKE
Years ago, when William Miller talked about being in the Vietnam War – if he talked about being in the Vietnam War – he would tell people he served on a Swift boat.
At least now they have heard of it. But not in the way he would like.
“I was proud of what I did, and all the guys I was with,” Miller said. “Now somebody says ‘Swift boat’ and it’s a whole different meaning. They don’t associate it with the guys we lost. That’s a shame.”
“Swift boat” has become the synonym for the nastiest of campaign smears, a shadow that hangs over the presidential race as pundits wait to proclaim that the Swiftboating has begun and candidates declare that they will not be Swiftboated.
Swift boat veterans – especially those who had nothing to do with the group that attacked Sen. John Kerry’s military record in the 2004 election – want their good name back, and the good names of the men not lucky enough to come home alive.
“You would not hear the word ‘Swift boat’ and think of people that served their country and fought in Vietnam,” said Jim Newell, who spent a year as an officer in charge on one of the small Navy vessels in An Thoi and Qui Nhon. “You think about someone who was involved in a political attack on a member of a different party. It just comes across as negative. Everyone who is associated with a Swift boat is involved in political chicanery.” Sure, Watergate will never be just the office complex. And the name Willie Horton will always refer to more than just a criminal. But for Swift boat veterans, the name theft is more personal. When they talk about Swift boats, they recall friends and crewmates killed, countless moments of sheer terror in their young lives, the pain of coming home to a country that offered less than a hero’s welcome.
“It’s completely inappropriate,” said Michael Bernique, a highly regarded Swift boat driver who led missions up a canal that became known as Bernique’s Creek. “The word should connote service with honor, which is what was conducted. Anything that demeans that honor is shameful.”
In an April column in Proceedings magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, Harlan Ullman, a Swift boat driver in Vietnam and a Pentagon consultant known as a creator of the “shock and awe” concept, wrote: “It is time to ban a word that is at once offensive, demeaning and obscene both to and for anyone serving in the naval profession. That word is ‘Swiftboating.’ ”
This month, a group of veterans who served with Kerry took up the challenge by Boone Pickens, the billionaire Texas oilman who helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, that he would give a million dollars to anyone who could disprove anything in the group’s campaign against Kerry.
“One of the prime reasons we’ve done this is the way it’s taken on the connotation of political sport versus honoring those that sacrificed everything,” said Fred Short, who was in the gun tub of a Swift boat during one of the firefights that the veterans group said Kerry had exaggerated.
Before 2004, Swift boats – also known as Patrol Craft Fast, or PCFs – were 50-foot aluminum boats, just big enough for an officer, five enlisted men and a Vietnamese interpreter. There were about 110 of them, boats agile enough to patrol the shallow waters near shores where the North Vietnamese were sending small craft filled with munitions and supplies. They conducted some of the most harrowing missions of the war.
“The bad guys shot you on the way up the river, and they knew you had to come back down,” said John Scholl, who served as an officer in charge from May 1968 to May 1969.
There was no room for politics.
“What you cared about was the five guys on the boat,” Scholl said. “You didn’t get involved in what Johnson was doing, you all just wanted to make sure you succeeded in the operation. I always say, ‘I was 24, and I was much older than I am now.’ ”
The Swifties, as they call themselves, were a fairly loose fraternity until the mid-1990s, when they gathered at the dedication of a refurbished boat in Washington. Now, the Swift Boat Sailors Association holds a reunion every two years.
On Swiftboats.net, Larry Wasikowski tends to a crew list, a history of the boats and even archives of newsletters that various crews sent home to their families from 1966 to 1969. Wasikowski and the sailors’ association grant the designation of “Swiftie” meticulously, requiring extensive official documentation from anyone who claims the title.
By the association’s count, about 3,600 men served aboard Swift boats in Vietnam, 600 officers and 3,000 enlisted. About 200 signed the letter that became the basis of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign in 2004. In advertisements, a best-selling book and extensive news media appearances, they accused Kerry of fabricating exploits to win his military decorations and a discharge just four months into a yearlong tour.
Navy documents contradicted many of their accusations, but the claims undermined what Democrats had hoped would be Kerry’s strength. Instead, the senator’s failure to quickly rebut the attacks on his record became one of the reasons he lost his footing, political analysts say.
Regardless of what they thought of Kerry, many Swift boat veterans objected to the attacks.
“It was unconscionable,” said Stan Collier, who served as an officer in charge on a boat based in Qui Nhon. “I thought those boys struck a new low.”
Collier considers himself a conservative and did not agree with Kerry’s politics, but he voted for him to protest the Swift boat campaign. “We’ve all been attributed to the sleaziness that those guys assigned to Kerry,” he said. “I think we’ve all been demeaned.”
As Miller said, “People don’t know about us; they know about those few TV advertisements.”
Wasikowski, who signed the original letter, said some Swift boat veterans dropped out of the sailors’ association because they thought it was connected to the campaign against Kerry. And many former sailors watched with dismay as the noun became a verb.
“When someone’s Swiftboated, it’s like being waterboarded,” said Sandy Wilcox, who keeps a model of the Swift boat he skippered on the credenza in his office in Wisconsin.
The new meaning of Swift boat stings worst for the men who served with Kerry, who say that, by implication, the attacks cast blight on their military decorations. “I don’t have a lot in this world – my service means a whole lot to me,” Short said. “It’s been besmirched, I guess would be a good word. Whether they meant it or not.”
Pickens refused to pay on his challenge, and he suggested that the Swift boat colleagues who submitted records and other materials in defense of Kerry take up their disagreement with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
For their part, group members say they take nothing back. “We didn’t back down,” Wasikowski said.
Still, even some Swift boat veterans associated with the anti-Kerry group say they do not like what “Swift boat” has become.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Wasikowski said. “The problem is, it’s on the wrong side. We would like to be remembered as the one operation in Vietnam that succeeded, totally.”
The Swift Boat Sailors Association has attached a disclaimer to its Web site disavowing any “express or implied” political ties.
Signing the association’s online guestbook in October, “Carlo” expressed his appreciation: “I think it’s disgraceful that a handful of people have managed to turn ‘Swift boat’ into a synonym for ‘To smear somebody with lies,’ ” he wrote. “I hope you guys can take the term back to connote bravery, courage and sacrifice, like it always has.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.