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Kerrey: Civilian killings in Vietnam a mistake

Kerrey said he felt anguish and guilt about the wartime incident  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Sen. Bob Kerrey says he feels "anguish and guilt" about the women and children accidentally killed during a nighttime mission he led in Vietnam, but he denies a report that the civilians were deliberately shot.

"I've never been able to justify what we did, either militarily or certainly not morally," Kerrey said on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports."

But Kerrey said those killings were a mistake, that his Navy SEAL team had been told only enemy personnel were in that particular village in the Mekong Delta on February 25, 1969. He said they were told Viet Cong were holding a district-level meeting at the site on a moonless night.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey discusses the killing of civilians when he was a Navy Seal in Vietnam (April 25)

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"We expected it to be a very difficult mission, and we met some people we believed were the outpost and we killed them," Kerrey explained to Blitzer on Wednesday.

"And then (we) went on and took fire where we expected this meeting to occur and we returned very lethal fire and when the firing was over, all we had was women and children that are dead," he said.

Kerrey's wartime heroics have been central to his political biography, but the former senator from Nebraska now says this incident that earned him a Bronze Star for "heroic achievement" was actually a tragic mistake that has haunted him for 32 years.

The citation for that medal reads: "The net result of his patrol was twenty-one Viet Cong killed, two hootches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured"

Kerrey decided to come forward when he learned that one of his SEAL squad members on that mission had given a different account during a joint interview with The New York Times and CBS News. Gerhard Klann said the squad, acting on Kerrey's orders, rounded up people and intentionally killed civilians.

Kerrey said that account, which the Times will publish Sunday in its magazine, is incorrect.

"I love Gerhard," Kerrey said. "We've talked to one another over the past 32 years. He's never expressed anything of the kind to me over that period of time."

"But that is not the way it happened. I organized this mission, I flew the area before. It was a free-fire zone, that much Gerhard and I agree on," he said. A free-fire zone allows attack without prior command authority.

"There were enemy operating in the area and even though there were civilian casualties, I had every reason to believe they were at least sympathetic to the Viet Cong and at the very worst, participating in lethal force against Americans."

According to Pentagon officials, there is currently no plan to investigate the incident.

Fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, Sen. John Kerry went to the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday to defend his longtime friend:

Kerrey has rarely talked about what he did to earn a Bronze Star  

"Bob Kerrey served with distinction," said Kerry. "He feels, obviously, anguish and pain about those events, but I don't believe they should diminish for one moment the full measure of what he has given to his country and of what he represents."

Although Kerrey and his political allies have long touted the Medal of Honor he was awarded for his actions in a different battle, he has rarely, if ever, talked about what he did to earn a Bronze Star as a 25-year-old Navy lieutenant. In fact, nowhere in Kerrey's official biography is the Bronze star even mentioned.

But Kerrey denies that his new admission about the incident is a political ploy aimed at heading off future attacks about his activities in Vietnam, should he make a run for the White House in 2004.

"I'm married now, I've got a baby due in the fall and I'm very happy with my life. But I do want to take what has been a difficult public memory and talk about it," he said.

In February, Kerrey married Sarah Paley, a former writer for "Saturday Night Live." He has two children from his first marriage.

"When I told my children what happened, they say they still love me," he said.

Kerrey served one term as governor of Nebraska before serving terms as a U.S. senator. He currently is president of the New School University in New York.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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