Who is Steve Gardner?; Swift Boat Vet “eyewitness” was not present for events leading to Kerry's medals or Purple Hearts

Stephen Gardner has been touted by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and by conservative hosts as a singularly authoritative critic with firsthand knowledge of Senator John Kerry's (D-MA) record in Vietnam because Gardner -- unlike all the other members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- actually served on a swift boat that Kerry commanded. Gardner has questioned Kerry's integrity; has claimed personal knowledge of the circumstances leading to Kerry's first Purple Heart; and has spoken with authority about the events leading to Kerry's Bronze Star. Fellow anti-Kerry Swift Boat Vets member Larry Thurlow has also cited Gardner as eyewitness support for his accusations against Kerry and against Kerry's first Purple Heart. Yet while Gardner did serve as a gunner under Kerry's command on PCF (Patrol Craft Fast) 44, he has admitted that he -- just like the rest of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claiming that Kerry is lying about his medals -- was not present for the incidents leading to Kerry's receipt of any medals or any of Kerry's three Purple Hearts.

Gardner admitted that “he was not on the boat with Kerry during the incidents for which Kerry got his medals,” reported The Columbus Dispatch on August 6. And as a guest on Michael Savage's radio show, Savage Nation, on August 2, Gardner said that of Kerry's three Purple Hearts, he could only attest to the first; Gardner later admitted to Savage that he was “not on the boat with him [Kerry]” when that injury occurred.

Yet in repeated media appearances, conservative hosts have presented Gardner as an eyewitness to key Kerry events. And in at least two interviews, Gardner has falsely claimed that he was present for the incidents leading to Kerry's receipt of awards. On Savage Nation on August 2, Savage introduced Gardner as an “expert coming on this show eventually to talk about the phony John Kerry and his swift boat.” On FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor on August 9, host Bill O'Reilly identified Gardner as “the only one who served directly under him of the 3,500 ... an eyewitness.” As a guest on the August 20 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, host and former U.S. Representative Joe Scarborough (R-FL) introduced Gardner as “a vet who actually served on John Kerry's swift boat” who would provide “a firsthand account of what really happened in Vietnam.” On that same edition of Scarborough Country, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan touted Gardner as the “first member who actually served aboard John Kerry's boat to speak since this controversy erupted,” before he asked Gardner, "[W]ho is telling the truth?"

In an apparent attempt to substantiate his status as an eyewitness to key Kerry events, Gardner claimed on Scarborough Country, "[T]hat boat never left the dock that I wasn't aboard it with John Kerry, never. I was with that boat everywhere we went." Gardner went on to make assertions regarding the events that occurred on March 13, 1969, involving Kerry's rescue of Jim Rassmann, for which Kerry received the Bronze Star. Gardner claimed to know that Kerry fled the scene on the river that day while the other three boats stayed and that Kerry then “turned around and came all the way back to pick up Mr. Rassmann that he had thrown off his boat when he took off, when he fled down the canal.” But later in the show, Gardner admitted to not being present that day. When Scarborough attempted to revisit the “March 13, 1969 incident,” Gardner said, “I'm not going to deal with that. Because I wasn't there.”

On the August 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Thurlow cited Gardner to substantiate his claim that Kerry's first Purple Heart “was fabricated and wasn't based on any factuality at all.” According to Thurlow, Gardner said “that he [Kerry] received an injury due to a mistake he made when he fired an M-79 close aboard and was hit by his own shrapnel” and that “Kerry applied for a Purple Heart that he did not merit.”

On the August 2 broadcast of Savage Nation, Gardner himself claimed that all of the wounds for which Kerry received Purple Hearts “were superficial wounds, and I mean very superficial, scratches. The very first one is the only one that I can actually attest to because I was there when that wound happened.” But Gardner was not there when Kerry sustained that wound; as noted above, Gardner went on to admit: “I was not on the boat with him but I -- in the next three days following that, I was with him on the boat going to take our new position up down there on the seaward operations.”

In addition, on the August 16 edition of the nationally syndicated radio show The Glenn Beck Program, Gardner falsely claimed that three of Kerry's other crewmates -- James Wasser, Drew Whitlow, and Steven Hatch -- “felt the same way that I felt about John Kerry” before they joined the Kerry campaign. As Media Matters for America previously reported, comments from Wasser in a March 9 article in TIME magazine written by Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley directly contradict Gardner's claim.