From Seal to Public Servant

Book cover
When I Was a Young Manby By Bob KerreyHarcourt, Inc. 273p $26.

In this disarmingly honest and haunting memoir, the former governor of Nebraska and United States senator Bob Kerrey tells the story of his rite of passage from a rather naïve and carefree childhood in the 1950’s Midwest to his transformation into a skeptical Vietnam veteran with the Congressional Medal of Honor and a heightened political commitment.

Bob Kerrey’s was a vintage boyhood in the American heartland: caddying at a country club, serving a predawn newspaper route, sleeping in bunk beds with his three brothers, worshiping on Sundays at Bethany Christian Church. At Lincoln Northeast High School, the asthmatic and undersized football lineman managed to earn a letter on the varsity team by teaching himself to snap for punts. At the University of Nebraska, Kerrey became president of his fraternity while taking an overload of science courses so he could earn his bachelor’s degree in pharmacology in just four years.


Told to report to Omaha for his induction physical in 1967, the young pharmacist realized he could get a medical disability because of his asthma; but he felt a duty to follow the lead of his father and uncle John, who had served their country in World War II. Rather than wait to be drafted, Kerrey joined the Navy and in 1967 enrolled in Officer Candidate School.

In “a turning point with more dire consequences than I imagined,” Ensign Kerrey chose to apply for underwater demolition training, to be a frogman, just because he heard the school was such an ordeal, with three-quarters of even the fittest men quitting the four-month course before its completion. And then, when that training was finished, he was one of 12 who were asked to volunteer to be a Navy Seal. The acronym is derived from their methods of insertion into combat areas: sea, air and land. That required further training at the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools and, finally, assignment to the war in South Vietnam in January 1969.

Kerrey had voted for Richard Nixon in the November presidential election, because he believed the Republican did indeed have “a secret plan” for ending the war, but Kerrey would later realize the futility of American involvement. “We became too closely allied with the former colonial power.... We did a terrible job of making it clear that the choice was freedom versus Communism.... Our military tactics on the ground—especially when I was in the delta—were appallingly counterproductive. In too many cases we applied too much force, not too little.”

Evidence of that occurred on one of his first missions when his squad happened upon a thatch house that was believed to harbor sentries. Worried that those inside would warn the villagers of the night mission, Kerrey allowed his squad to kill them. Women and children heard and hurried outside, and Kerrey knew he and his squad of six were in trouble. Shot at, “We returned a tremendous barrage of fire.... I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices as we made our retreat to the canal.”

Kerrey confesses, “The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night. After that night, I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I had become someone I did not recognize.”

Within a week, he and his Seal team were on another nighttime mission on an island near Nha Trang, where his right foot was shot off in an ambush. And yet “with difficulty I pulled myself upright so I could direct my men.” Tying off his bleeding leg with a tourniquet, he fought on for an hour and then was lifted out on a medevac helicopter.

He began the long process of healing in a Philadelphia hospital, which he had chosen because it was too far away for him to be visited by family or friends. His right leg was surgically amputated just below the knee; his damaged right hand was painfully repaired; and he tried to get used to a prosthesis that caused his stump to swell and bleed. But there was time, too, for contemplation. “I saw that my own death was more than an inevitability to be feared but a necessary part of life to be embraced. I saw that the fear of losing something that I valued—my property, popularity, my life—was what had enslaved me. Freedom would come when I could lose the fear of losing everything but my eternal soul.”

In December 1969 Kerrey retired from the Navy with a medical disability. He was working as a pharmacist in Lincoln when, shortly after the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State, he reluctantly traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Medal of Honor from President Nixon. He did not feel like a hero, but a naval petty officer had convinced him that, “You must accept this award for everyone who should have been recognized but was not.”

One of those soldiers may have been his Uncle John, a Signal Corps officer who mysteriously disappeared in the Philippines in World War II. When Kerrey was running for his second term in the Senate, his father’s dying wish was that his son find out what had happened to his brother. A book about the two men was the one that Kerrey intended to write, but he abandoned that project not only because he never found out enough about his uncle, but also because he wanted his children to hear his own story and to warn them about the tendency to “oppose remembering the bad along with the good when we Americans rev up our patriotic engines.”

The book he has given us amazes with its depth, humility, unprotected candor and wry humor. It is as much a public service as any of his time in politics. And if there are those who are shocked by his confession of crimes in Vietnam, he offers the counsel of Sister Helen Prejean that “[h]uman beings are a lot more than the worst thing they have done in their lives.”



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