Urged By Kerry, Soldiers Tell Their Stories

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's chairman, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, famously testified before Congress at the time of the Vietnam War. Now he invites soldiers from today's wars to tell their stories.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Thirty-eight years ago this week, a shaggy haired combat veteran dressed in green fatigues appeared before a packed hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That veteran was John Kerry and he angrily challenged lawmakers on Vietnam.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): (as young veteran) How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

SIEGEL: Today, Senator John Kerry chaired that very same committee, and before him where he had testified, sat four veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN: Today's hearing was as much about Vietnam as Afghanistan. There were references to Lyndon Johnson, to the North Vietnamese. But the veterans there today did not come to end the war as Kerry did when he spoke back in 1971.

Sen. KERRY: (as young veteran) But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission, to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war.

Staff Sergeant CHRISTOPHER MAGIRK(ph) (Retired, U.S. Army): Senator Kerry, to this very committee in 1971, you spoke of men who have returned with a sense of angry and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.

BOWMAN: That's retired Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Magirk. He wore his combat badges just as John Kerry did decades ago. Magirk spoke of the anger they shared. But unlike Kerry during Vietnam, Sergeant Magirk wants Americans to remain in Afghanistan to vindicate the sacrifices of those who fought and died there, like one young soldier in his platoon.

Staff Sgt. MAGIRK: My own anger and sense of betrayal comes from the possibility that we may not come to a resolution in Afghanistan, and that the blood that has been shed by the victims of 9/11, the Afghan people, and men like PFC O'Neal would be forgotten.

BOWMAN: Two other Afghan war veterans at the hearing also wanted America to do more.

Captain WESLEY MOORE (Retired, U.S. Army): We are underfunded and undermanned in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: That's retired Army Captain Wesley Moore.

Capt. MOORE: We have fought this war on the cheap. And I say that not only on the military side, but particularly on the civilian support side and the reconstruction side.

BOWMAN: That's what the Obama administration is planning to change. Twenty-one thousand more American troops with security, more civilians and money to rebuild. That makes sense to Captain Moore. He says many attacks on Americans haven't been conducted by Taliban true believers.

Capt. MOORE: They were conducted by people who simply had no economic options and felt the pull of a monetary reward for supporting insurgents. I personally dealt with insurgents who told me that they were not Taliban for cause, but essentially Taliban for hire.

BOWMAN: Senator Kerry didn't take sides today, saying only the hearing raised provocative questions. But one of the Afghanistan veterans did argue that America should leave Afghanistan. Former Marine Corporeal Rick Reyes says his comrades never new who the enemy was.

Corporal RICK REYES (Former United States Marine Corps): Almost 100 percent of the time, we would find that suspected terrorists turned out to be innocent civilians. I began to feel we were chasing ghosts, fighting an enemy that we could not see or didn't allow itself to be seen. How can you tell the difference between the Taliban and Afghan civilians? The answer is that you can't. It all stopped making sense.

BOWMAN: He says no more troops should be sent to a senseless war. That view was shared by Andrew Bacevich. He's a Boston University professor. He says the plans for Afghanistan remind him of Vietnam, the war he fought in.

Dr. ANDREW BACEVICH (Professor, Boston University): We possess neither the wisdom nor the means necessary to determine the fate of the greater Middle East. To persist in efforts to do so will simply replicate on an even greater scale mistakes and misjudgments, comparable to those that young John Kerry once rightly decried.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. KERRY: Please, folks, we will have no demonstrations of any kind be it for, against, in the middle, either way.

BOWMAN: Senator Kerry did make one exception, a protestor held up a sign that read: How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Tom bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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