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A combat veteran who testified to war crimes during the 1971 “Winter Soldier Investigation” has filed an affidavit claiming John Kerry and other leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War coerced him into making false claims.
Steve Pitkin during 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation (wintersoldier.com)
Steve Pitkin, who was 20 at the time, says he rode from Washington, D.C., to Detroit in January 1971 with Kerry and another leader, Scott Camil, who had persuaded him to join in the probe that formed the basis of the future presidential candidate’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later that year.
Pitkin’s renunciation of his participation in the Detroit event was reported by Scott Swett, the primary author of WinterSoldier.com, which documents Kerry’s role in VVAW. Swett also is the webmaster for the website of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group of 254 veterans who contend their fomer colleague, Kerry, is unfit to be commander in chief.
On the second day of the Detroit conference, Pitkin said, he was surrounded by a group of the event’s leaders, who said they needed more witnesses and wanted him to speak.
According to Swett, Pitkin protested he had nothing to say, prompting Kerry’s response, “Surely you had to have seen some of the atrocities.”
Pitkin insisted that he hadn’t, and the group’s mood turned menacing. One of the other leaders leaned in and whispered, “It’s a long walk back to Baltimore.” Pitkin finally agreed to “testify.” The Winter Soldier leaders told Pitkin exactly what they wanted – stories about rape, brutality, shooting prisoners and racism. Kerry assured him that “the American people will be grateful for what you have to say.”
On Feb. 1, 1971, Pitkin gave the following testimony:
My name is Steve Pitkin, age 20, from Baltimore. I served with the 9th Division from May of ’69 until I was airvaced in July of ’69. I’ll testify about the beating of civilians and enemy personnel, destruction of villages, indiscriminate use of artillery, the general racism and the attitude of the American GI toward the Vietnamese. I will also talk about some of the problems of the GIs toward one another and the hassle with officers.
But with his new affidavit, Pitkin now is on the record saying he never intended to speak at the Winter Soldier Investigation, agreeing to come, recounts Swett, “mostly to support his fellow veterans, but also to see David Crosby and Graham Nash perform and hopefully meet a few girls. He didn’t really have any place else to go.”
In his affidavit, he insists he never saw American soldiers commit war crimes.
“I was just going to show support for the guys who were already picked out to testify,” Pitkin said. “Fighting in the war was terrible enough – I shot people – but I never saw any atrocities against civilians. The Vietcong hung up tribal chiefs and disemboweled them in front of their own families – they did that to their own people. I never saw Americans do anything like that.”
At the Detroit event, Pitkin said he watched for a day or so while his fellow VVAW members told stories of crimes they claimed to have committed or witnessed.
Swett says Pitkin noticed “other people, civilians, going around to the VVAW members and ‘bombarding them, laying on the guilt,’ as they told the veterans they had committed unspeakable crimes, but could make amends by testifying against the war.”
Swett notes that unlike most members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Pitkin had seen combat in Vietnam.
He suffered wounds to both legs from a mortar attack that became infected, requiring him to be medevaced to an Army hospital in Okinawa. He left the Army with a Purple Heart, honorable discharge and a lifetime case of hepatitis C from the transfusions.
On his return to the U.S., at Travis Air Force Base in California, he was showered with feces thrown by anti-war protesters. Later, while in uniform waiting for a plane in San Francisco, people stopped to snarl obscenities and occasionally spit, Swett said. He received no hero’s welcome upon his return home to Baltimore.
“I was in bad shape,” Pitkin recalled. “My family was against the war, and so were all my old friends. I had things I wanted to say, but there was nobody to listen. I was angry at our government which should have known better than to let us die in a conflict it had no intention of winning, and I was furious at the American media for making us out to be baby-killers and telling lies about what they saw.”
While taking classes at Catonsville Community College outside of Baltimore, Pitkin said he met Camil, who invited him to join the “brotherhood” of Vietnam veterans with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Pitkin, according to Swett, said he “had no inkling” that VVAW leaders were meeting with North Vietnamese and Vietcong representatives or that the VVAW consistently supported their positions.
He thought the VVAW was just an alternative to older organizations such as the VFW, where so many Vietnam vets felt unwelcome.
Pitkin appears in the documentary film “Winter Soldier,” where, writes Swett, “he comes across as vague and somewhat stunned, especially while being questioned by John Kerry in a preliminary interview.”
But Pitkin says today that what the film actually shows are his efforts to avoid answering Kerry’s questions at all.
During the formal hearings, according to Swett, Pitkin started “to slam the press for misrepresenting what GIs really did in Vietnam, but a woman he believes was Jane Fonda shot him an astonished look and started to stand up. Steve could see other members of the group getting ready to cut him off, so he changed course and made up a few things he thought they would be willing to accept.”
Pitkin now states: “Everything I said about atrocities and racism was a lie. My unit never went out with the intention of doing anything but its job. And I never saw black soldiers treated differently, get picked out for the worst or most dangerous jobs, or anything like that. There were some guys, shirkers, who would intentionally injure themselves to get sent home, so I talked about that for a while. But the fact is I lied my ass off, and I’m not proud of it. I didn’t think it would ever amount to anything.”
In April 1971, Pitkin went to Washington to check out the VVAW’s weeklong “Dewey Canyon III” protest, where he “ran into a lot of guys who couldn’t answer questions about what unit they were in.”
Pitkin said he “confronted protesters who were wearing or carrying Vietcong flags.”
He was present for the “medal toss” Friday, in which Kerry and other veterans threw military decorations over a fence in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
Pitkin said he noticed most of the decorations were not for Vietnam combat veterans, and some, he remembered, were from the Korean War.
He claims he overheard remarks that the VVAW had cleaned out the local Army-Navy stores the day before.
“Disgusted,” writes Swett, Pitkin “grabbed a handful of ribbons and threw them, not at the Capitol, but at the throng of reporters crowding close to the microphone, and stalked away.”
After that event, Pitkin said he no longer was invited to VVAW meetings or events, which was fine with him, and he soon returned to the military, joining the Maryland National Guard in 1974 and graduating from paratrooper “jump school” with honors in 1976. He joined the Coast Guard in 1978 and served there until his retirement in May 1997.
Pitkin says he wants to apologize to Vietnam veterans for his actions and statements at the Winter Soldier Investigation.