Did Kerry's Swift Boat Hatchet Man Fake His Own Silver Star?By Scott Swett
Last August, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus revoked a Silver Star medal formerly held by retired Navy Captain Wade R. Sanders. In a short, vague memorandum to the Chief of Naval Personnel, Mabus cited "subsequently determined facts and evidence surrounding both the incident for which the award was made and the processing of the award itself" as the reason. Such an action by the Navy is virtually without precedent.
There was no press release and no announcement. Eleven months later, a bare-bones report was finally published by the Navy Times. American Thinker picked up the story from WinterSoldier.com, and after Matt Drudge followed suit, it propagated rapidly.
Kerry's most virulent supporter
Wade Sanders' name will be familiar to those who recall the political battles between John Kerry and the veterans who opposed him in 2004. A key member of Kerry's "Band of Brothers," Sanders helped introduce his long-time friend at the Democratic National Convention. The two men had trained together at Naval Base Coronado nearly 40 years earlier, before deploying to Vietnam to serve as Navy Swift boat officers. Like Kerry, Sanders found time to do extensive filming in Vietnam, accumulating footage later used in Kerry's campaign film "Going Upriver." Among Kerry's handful of highly-publicized veteran supporters, Sanders was probably the most visible -- and the most virulent.
Most of Sanders' efforts targeted the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group formed by Navy veterans who had known Kerry in Vietnam and doubted his fitness to serve as Commander-in-Chief. While the group was being organized, Sanders was already calling and firing off messages to hundreds of former sailors, pressuring them not to sign up.
In one email, Sanders slandered the anti-Kerry veterans as "bitter drunks." In another, he ridiculed disabled veteran Joe Ponder as a "whining baby." Ponder had become emotional at the initial Swift Vet press conference as he recalled his wife and daughters asking if he had participated in the "atrocities" described in Kerry's campaign biography.
During the months that followed, Sanders relentlessly denounced Kerry's opponents as liars and Bush shills, while reviling Swift Vet spokesman John O'Neill as a student of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. [My co-author and I would later receive the Goebbels treatment as well, when Sanders reviewed our book on the 2004 election.]
Sanders' fellow Navy veterans weren't the only targets of his venom. He repeatedly called President Bush and others "chicken hawks" -- a vicious term used to smear non-military supporters of a war by associating them with child molesters. He also offered the bizarre suggestion that if Kerry lost, it would mean the end of democracy in America.
After the election, Sanders continued his attacks. He threatened to sue the non-partisan Swift Boat Sailors Association because several of its leaders had joined the Swift Vets. In 2007, he called the latter group a "distasteful smear machine," adding, "Those of us who are real swift boaters know something about judgment and responsibility for our decisions." He also boasted to the Boston Herald, "Yes, I am a member of Kerry's ready reserve of Swift Boat vets and unlike those who served with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their ilk, I serve with honor, integrity and exercise sound judgment."
Honor, integrity and sound judgment
In 2009, Wade Sanders was convicted on felony charges of possessing child pornography and sentenced to 37 months in prison, considerably less than the 63-month term Federal prosecutors had requested. Sanders' military record and a letter of support from John Kerry may have been factors in the reduced sentence. A San Diego news editor also wrote a letter, but later told the court that the copy Sanders submitted had been modified.
Even before the trial ended, the Navy was looking into Sanders' much ballyhooed Silver Star, which first surfaced in the early 1990's, more than 20 years after he left Vietnam.
An interest in retroactive medals
Sanders was a regular columnist at Military.com for several years, though his articles have now been erased. In "Medals Not Awarded" (2004) he urged former Navy officers to revisit the actions of sailors who served under them and recommend new awards.
"So, I did a bit of research and discovered that there is no statute of limitations on awards. I found the office in the Pentagon that deals with awards, and I got the guidance I needed. The process is simple. An officer in charge of a unit is fully authorized to recommend any member of his "command" for a military decoration."
Retired Navy Captain George Elliott caused a stir in 2004 when the Swift Vets released his affidavit saying that he no longer believed the Silver Star he had authorized for John Kerry was justified. Elliott recalls being lobbied by Sanders in 2003 at a Swift boat reunion in Norfolk to "review my files to see if some deserving awards had been missed."
In another Military.com article, "Attacks on John Kerry Discredited" (2006), Sanders defended Kerry's reissued Navy awards in terms that, in retrospect, appear revealing:
"I, myself, made such a request for duplicates when my citations were stolen several years after my Vietnam service, and received replacement documents bearing the signature of then Secretary of the Navy Lawrence Garrett [May 15, 1989 to June 26, 1992], who was not the signatory on my original citations."
Sanders justified the three citations for Kerry's Silver Star, which vary significantly in content, by comparing them to his own "duplicate" awards. He wrote, "In the case of my Garrett issued citations, I would not be surprised if they contained words and phrases not in the originals. Does that affect the underlying facts: the basis for the original award? Of course not." Sanders added that his awards, like Kerry's, "were also signed by autopen."
"...the incident for which the award was made"
A copy of Sanders' Silver Star citation provided by the Navy in response to a Freedom of Information request has no date of authorization, nor does it include the signature of Sanders' commander. The citation indicates that Sanders decided on his own to "probe the enemy presence" in a hot zone. However, young officers in charge of 6-man river patrol boats did not have that degree of autonomy. The citation's account of a heroic solo mission raised another red flag: Swift boats virtually always operated in groups.
On March 16, 1969, Wade Sanders was a junior-grade Navy lieutenant serving under Captain Roy Hoffmann, the senior commander for all Swift boat operations in Vietnam. In 2004, after retiring as a Rear Admiral, Hoffmann took the lead in forming the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. When questions arose about Sanders' Silver Star in 2009, the NCIS contacted Hoffmann, who agreed to review his records and provide a deposition.
Privately, Hoffmann had entertained doubts about the award for several years, since he first noticed a Silver Star on Sanders' jacket at Admiral Elmo Zumwalt's funeral in 2000. Hoffmann had no idea where the award had come from. He was certain that he would have known about any engagement that qualified for such a high-level decoration.
During the investigation that followed, the Navy was unable to substantiate the mission that Sanders' citation described -- there was no after-action report, no medical report, no official record of any kind. Hoffmann also discovered that the Swift boat Sanders claimed to have used was not available on the date of the purported engagement, having been temporarily assigned to a nearby Inshore Undersea Warfare Group (IUWG).
"...and the processing of the award itself"
The revocation of Sanders' Silver Star is an extremely rare event. Doug Sterner, curator of military awards for MilitaryTimes.com, told the Navy Times that he was not aware of any similar action by the Navy in more than 90 years. A number of well-connected Navy officers have collected dubious awards during that period, including Lyndon Johnson, who finagled a Silver Star during WWII for riding on an airplane as an observer.
In his revocation memorandum to the Chief of Naval Personnel, Secretary Mabus wrote that the Silver Star was "previously awarded to Wade R. Sanders... on 24 February 1992 by Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III." Mabus noted that if the evidence "surrounding both the incident for which the award was made and the processing of the award itself" had been known at the time, Sanders would not have received the medal.
The memo had an attachment titled "Award revocation recommendation package," no doubt a summary of the NCIS investigation. That information has not been made public.
Navy sources told reporters that Sanders was responsible for what they referred to as "administrative errors" in the creation of the award, and said that he "may have lied."
Other veterans familiar with the case question whether the Navy awarded a Silver Star to Sanders in the first place. They believe he fabricated the documentation while he was a high-ranking Pentagon official, in a position that would have offered ready access to his own personnel file. Sanders was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserves by President Clinton on July 22, 1993, and remained in the job until 1998.
Stolen Valor author B.G. Burkett, an expert on fraudulent military awards, considers such an event to be well within the realm of possibility. He notes that it is far more difficult to validate Navy awards than those issued by the other services. The Army, for example, numbers each general order sequentially and maintains a copy at the unit level, making it much easier to identify discrepancies. Attempts to research problematic Navy awards are also hindered by a longstanding institutional reluctance to publicly disgrace an officer.
The Navy's decision to suppress the NCIS investigation report is unfortunate. Have other well-connected officials also manipulated a flawed system to enhance their credentials? Wade Sanders held a significant office under the Secretary of the Navy and later played an important role in a Presidential campaign. The public deserves to know what the Navy found out about his Silver Star to take the extraordinary step of revoking it.
Scott Swett is the primary author of To Set The Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry. He is also webmaster for SwiftVets.com and WinterSoldier.com.
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