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Wednesday, May 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

New claim about Kerry's war wound

By Stephen Braun
Los Angeles Times

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WASHINGTON — A former Navy doctor who says he treated Sen. John Kerry for the wound that led to his first Purple Heart in Vietnam said yesterday that several of Kerry's crewmates told him at the time that the injury did not occur in battle.

Dr. Louis Letson, a retired Alabama physician who served as medical officer at the Naval Support Facility at Cam Ranh Bay, said the crew's "confided" story contradicted Kerry's report in December 1968 that he was wounded during a river firefight between his swift boat and Vietcong gunmen.

The doctor's account surfaced as part of a barrage of criticism of Kerry by a group of former swift-boat officers who gathered in Washington to press the likely Democratic presidential nominee to authorize the release of his wartime records.

Kerry campaign officials angrily dismissed Letson's account and questioned why another medical official's signature appeared on the records of Kerry's treatment for the wound. The Kerry campaign also said it has already posted online a copy of all official documents Kerry received from the Navy.

"If these people have different recollections 35 years later of what they saw or signed, they ought to take it up with the U.S. Navy," campaign spokesman Michael Meehan said.

Several of Kerry's former swift-boat crewmates also appeared in Washington to defend the Massachusetts senator. Drew Whitlow, an Arkansas man who served as rear gunner on one of the swift boats Kerry commanded, said critics "are entitled to their opinions, but I served alongside of the man. I know exactly what he was like. And I know the integrity and compassion he had."

In an e-mailed account of his recollection of Kerry's treatment and in two phone interviews, Letson said Kerry, then a Navy lieutenant, appeared in the medical tent at Cam Ranh Bay on Dec. 3, 1968, with a slight wound "covered with a Band-Aid."

Letson described a "small piece of metal sticking very superficially in the skin of Kerry's arm. Letson said he "simply removed the piece of metal" with forceps.

Meehan questioned Letson's role, saying a J.C. Carreon signed Kerry's medical report of the wound. "This gentleman is not the man who is on the report," he said.

Letson said that Carreon, a lower-ranked "hospitalman," was "present at the time and he, in fact, made the entry into Lt. Kerry's medical record."

Kerry has said he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel as he and his crew engaged Vietcong fleeing on a beach. Kerry has said he was uncertain where the shrapnel came from.
 
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The U.S. military's regulations for issuance of a Purple Heart require that an injury must be received during "action against an enemy of the United States."

According to Letson, Kerry told him during his visit that his crew "had been engaged in a firefight, receiving small-arms fire from on shore. He said that his injury resulted from this enemy action."

Later, Letson said, several of Kerry's crew members told a different version to medical personnel: "They did not receive any fire from shore," he wrote, "but that Kerry had fired a mortar round at close range to some rocks on shore. The crewmen thought that the injury was caused by a fragment ricocheting from that mortar round when it struck the rocks."

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