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Robbins, Kerry: School Chums, Vietnam Peers

8/08/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

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As kids, Jim Robbins and John Kerry were pals.

“Kerry and I went to the same high school,” Robbins recalled last week. “Whenever we see each other, we talk about chasing each other around the hockey rink.”

Robbins was two years ahead of Kerry at St. Paul’s, a New Hampshire prep school whose mission is to train the leaders of tomorrow.

That was more than 40 years ago, representing a time when Robbins knew Kerry best.

“We are not close at all,” Robbins said of their current relations. “I knew him at school.”

Today, Robbins and Kerry are engaged in more serious matters, as their St. Paul’s teachers would expect.

Robbins is CEO of Cox Communications Inc., the fourth-largest U.S cable company, based in Atlanta. U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is the Democratic Party’s nominee, trying to capture the White House from President Bush.

A key feature of the Kerry campaign is to persuade the electorate that he would be a credible commander-in-chief, owing to his military service in Vietnam.

After graduating from Yale College in 1966, Kerry entered the Navy. During about four months in 1969 in Vietnam, he commanded a river boat and earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts, as Kerry campaign commercials routinely instruct. Kerry returned to lead a group of veterans against the war.

Like Kerry, Robbins knows a little about the Vietnam War.

Robbins joined the Navy right after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Reserve Officers Training Corps candidate.

He signed up in August 1961, the same month the Berlin Wall was built, a tense moment in the Cold War.

“I thought, well, you know, if this world is going to get little bit more shaky, maybe being in a reserve officer training program would make some sense. So I signed up for the Navy,” Robbins said, reeling off dates, ports of call and ship names with uncanny precision.

In June 1965, Robbins began service aboard the U.S.S. Harry E. Hubbard, a destroyer that cruised the South Vietnamese coast searching for U.S. sailors overboard and ejected pilots.

“We were doing coastal patrol, which was a little further off shore from the kind of duty John Kerry was doing in his Swift boat,” Robbins said.

Robbins returned to Long Beach, Calif., in April 1966, needing to decide whether to take a job or continue in the Navy.

“My choices were to go shine shoes at Black Rock — CBS in New York — or learn some practical experience in the Navy,” he said.

Robbins re-upped and became the deputy public affairs officer of Task Force 117, a joint Army-Navy flotilla that included more than 100 ships. His job was to guide journalists that accompanied river assault crews on their twice-weekly patrols.

“We were stationed in Dong Tam, anchored in the middle of the Mekong River. That’s where I spent the whole of 1967,” Robbins said.

He got home two days before Christmas after escaping serious injury. Robbins feels lucky for that, because his group suffered 80% casualties.

“I took a piece of shrapnel the size of a silver dollar in a tape recorder that was hanging over my shoulder right next to my heart. That was as close as I came, thank you, and that’s the closest I wanted to come.”

The Vietnam War, which cost the lives of 58,000 U.S. soldiers, has an ambiguous place in this nations history. Some view the war effort as a noble cause, others as an unmitigated disaster, and still other as something in between.

Like Kerry, Robbins’s views about the war changed.

“When I was in the service, I felt very good about our effort in Vietnam. The country was behind us and this was pre-Tet,” he said.

The Tet Offensive — which occurred in early 1968, when Robbins was back in the U.S. — was a coordinated Viet Cong assault on Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, that included a shootout at the U.S. Embassy.

While the Viet Cong was routed militarily, Tet was a demoralizing shock to a large number of Americans and drained public support for the war. Some think Tet triggered President Johnson’s announcement in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election.

“My attitude changed when I got back,” Robbins said. “I felt that this was more of a futile effort than it should have been and the sooner we got out, the better.”

Kerry’s opposition to the war was a public event. In 1971, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, stating, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Later, he tossed his medal ribbons toward the U.S. Capitol in symbolic protest. In his run for the White House, Kerry has surrounded himself with former Navy crewmates who have testified to his valor, in an effort to insulate Kerry from attacks on his patriotism.

Those attacks have been fierce. Kerry opponents who support Bush’s re-election have bought TV ads that accuse Kerry of lying about his military record, accepting Purple Hearts for flesh wounds, and betraying troops still fighting by opposing the war.

“When the chips were down, you couldn’t count on John Kerry,” one ad said, according to The New York Times.

Robbins said he found the attacks on Kerry’s war record “distasteful.”

“Anybody who puts his life in harm’s way in a war zone, to me, should be damn near above reproach,” he said.

Robbins declined to comment on whether Bush and others who served in the National Guard did so in order to avoid service in Vietnam.

“I am not going there. I made my point about standing up for people who went in harm’s way,” he said.

Kerry voted to wage war in Iraq but later voted against providing $87 billion in military funding, causing Bush supporters to call Kerry a flip-flopper on a vital national security matter.

Kerry, in turn, has accused Bush of misleading the country into war and failing to obtain the needed support of France and Germany to secure the goal of bringing peace and democracy to Iraq.

Unlike Kerry, Robbins isn’t ready to call Iraq a failure.

“I haven’t made that leap. I think the biggest issue in Iraq is that we haven’t put enough troops in there to do the job right from the beginning,” Robbins said.

The U.S. has 145,000 troops in Iraq.

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