The action that led to John Kerry's first Purple Heart occurred on December 2, 1968, during the month that he was undergoing training with Coastal Division 14 at Cam Ranh Bay. While waiting to receive his own Swift boat command, Kerry volunteered for a nighttime patrol mission on a small, foam-filled "skimmer" craft under the command of Lt. William Schachte. The two officers were accompanied by an enlisted man who operated the outboard motor. The purpose of the patrol, which Kerry later described as "a half-assed action that hardly qualified as combat," was to find Vietcong guerillas moving contraband around a peninsula north of the bay on sampans.
At the target location Kerry saw a group of sampans unloading something on the shore, and lit a flare to illuminate the area. The men from the sampans ran, and Kerry and his crew opened fire. At that point, according to Kerry, "My M-16 jammed, and as I bent down in the boat to grab another gun, a stinging piece of heat socked into my arm and just seemed to burn like hell." (page 147, "Tour of Duty") Kerry and his men strafed the beach, shot up the sampans and returned to Cam Ranh Bay.
As an officer in command (OIC) in training, Kerry reported during this mission to William Schachte, who eventually retired as a Rear Admiral. Schachte flatly contradicts Kerry's claim to have been wounded by enemy fire, saying that after his M-16 jammed, Kerry picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and fired a grenade that exploded too close to the boat, causing a small piece of shrapnel to stick in the skin of his arm. Kerry himself did not report receiving hostile fire that night, which would have been required, and there is no record of hostile fire for the mission.
Kerry succeeded in keeping the small piece of shrapnel in his arm until the following day, when he was treated by Dr. Louis Letson, whose version of the event matches William Schachte's account rather than Kerry's:
I have a very clear memory of an incident which occurred while I was the Medical Officer at Naval Support Facility, Cam Ranh Bay. John Kerry was a (jg), the OinC or skipper of a Swift boat, newly arrived in Vietnam. On the night of December 2, he was on patrol north of Cam Ranh, up near Nha Trang area. The next day he came to sick bay, the medical facility, for treatment of a wound that had occurred that night.
The story he told was different from what his crewmen had to say about that night. According to Kerry, they had been engaged in a fire fight, receiving small arms fire from on shore. He said that his injury resulted from this enemy action.
Some of his crew confided that they did not receive any fire from shore, but that Kerry had fired a mortar round at close range to some rocks on shore. The crewman thought that the injury was caused by a fragment ricocheting from that mortar round when it struck the rocks.
That seemed to fit the injury which I treated.
What I saw was a small piece of metal sticking very superficially in the skin of Kerry's arm. The metal fragment measured about 1 cm. in length and was about 2 or 3 mm in diameter. It certainly did not look like a round from a rifle.
I simply removed the piece of metal by lifting it out of the skin with forceps. I doubt that it penetrated more than 3 or 4 mm. It did not require probing to find it, did not require any anesthesia to remove it, and did not require any sutures to close the wound.
The wound was covered with a bandaid.
Not [sic] other injuries were reported and I do not recall that there was any reported damage to the boat.
The following morning, John Kerry arrived at the office of Coastal Division 14 Commander Grant Hibbard to apply for a Purple Heart. Having already been informed by Schachte that Kerry's injury was self-inflicted rather than the result of hostile fire, Commander Hibbard told him to "forget it." Hibbard recently said of Kerry's minor scratch, "Iíve seen worse injuries from a rose thorn."
Nevertheless, John Kerry managed to obtain his coveted Purple Heart for this incident nearly three months later after being transferred to Coastal Division 11. The circumstances remain obscure, as there are no written records of this award on file at the Naval Historical Center. Various other documents that might shed light on this award remain unavailable due to Senator Kerry's refusal to release his complete military records.
Military regulations state that to qualify for a Purple Heart, an injury must come "from an outside force or agent," and treatment for the wound must "have been made a matter of official record." While John Kerry managed to satisfy the second criterion by insisting that an amused Dr. Letson provide an official Band-Aid, nicking himself with a fragment from his own poorly-aimed grenade fails to meet the first qualification.