Lt. j.g. J. Robert Kerrey: Profile

Lt. j.g. J. Robert Kerrey (center). (Photo: National Archives)
Lt. j.g. J. Robert Kerrey (center). (Photo: National Archives)

After a Viet Cong ambush, Kerry led SEALs to safety.

On March 14, 1969, U.S. intelligence in Saigon learned of a communist cadre on an island in Nah Trang Bay. The Navy SEAL team assigned to capture the enemy was led by Lt. j.g. J. Robert Kerrey from Omaha, Neb.

The recent pharmacy graduate could have opted for a noncombat assignment, but chose to endure what fellow SEAL Gary Parrott calls the "absolute torture" of underwater commando training. On that March day, Kerrey's plan to corner the enemy was so ingenious "it was like a jewel heist," Parrott told Time magazine.

In the predawn hours, Kerrey led his team up a 350-foot cliff, splitting them into two groups for a coordinated attack on the Viet Cong camp. Instead of surprising the enemy, the SEALs were ambushed. Kerrey's leg was shattered by a grenade that threw him backwards. His Medal of Honor citation records what happened next: "Although bleeding profusely and suffering great pain, [Kerrey] displayed outstanding courage and presence of mind in immediately directing his element's fire into the enemy camp." Kerrey was barely conscious, but managed to maintain "calm, superlative" control as he directed the evacuation of all his men.

Kerrey spent the next eight months in a Philadelphia hospital bed, recovering from his injuries. He lost his right leg below the knee -- a fact known to few of his constituents who may have seen Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., complete marathons -- and endured more than a dozen operations. Fellow patients who became friends remember his stoicism in the face of surgery and rehabilitation, but Kerrey himself recalls a "weakened and bitter" young man.

Though ambivalence about his experiences colored many years that followed, Kerrey never lost his patriotism or his belief in military service as a character builder. Robert Novak of the National Review notes that, in 1997, the senator wore his Medal of Honor to an inauguration party. Kerrey, who originally had to be talked into accepting the honor, now says he wears it for the "many people who got nothing at all..."

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