In Mr. Harkin's case, the questions that have lingered longest concern his Navy record. Mr. Harkin did serve in the Navy during the Vietnam era, but exactly what he did, and for how long, remain a matter of some dispute.
"After I got out of college," he says in his standard stump speech, "I spent eight years, eight months and eight days as a Navy pilot." His military record, though, shows he served five years on active duty, from Nov. 21, 1962, until Nov. 30, 1967. The senator arrives at the eight-year figure by adding on three years in the ready reserve. Mr. Harkin's military record, acquired by The Wall Street Journal through a Freedom of Information request, shows he remained active in the reserves, ready or not, until Oct. 1, 1989, retiring with the rank of commander.
"I'm right," Mr. Harkin says. "I was a Navy flyer for eight years, eight months and eight days. I have a certificate to prove it."
What he did while on active duty is even more confusing. In 1979, Mr. Harkin, then a congressman, participated in a round-table discussion arranged by the Congressional Vietnam Veterans' Caucus. "I spent five years as a Navy pilot, starting in November of 1962," Mr. Harkin said at that meeting, in words that were later quoted in a book, Changing of the Guard, by Washington Post political writer David Broder. "One year was in Vietnam. I was flying F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance support missions. I did no bombing."
That clearly is not an accurate picture of his Navy service. Though Mr. Harkin stresses he is proud of his Navy record--"I put my ass on the line day after day"--he concedes now he never flew combat air patrols in Vietnam.
He was stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Atsugi, Japan. Damaged aircraft were flown into Atsugi for repairs or sometimes flown out of Atsugi to the Philippines for more substantial work. Mr. Harkin says he and three other Navy pilots flew these ferry flights. And, when the planes had been repaired, he and his fellow pilots took them up on test flights. "I had always wanted to be a test pilot," he says. "It was damned demanding work."
How much time did he actually spend in Vietnam? "I wouldn't really know," he says. He estimates that over a period of about 12 months he flew in and out of Vietnam "a dozen times, maybe 10 times."
But what about those combat air patrols and the photo-reconnaissance support missions? He says he did fly combat air patrols, in Cuba, in 1965 and 1966. He was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. base, "and we were on frigging alert for 18 months, the whole time I was there." He would take off whenever a U-2 American spy plane flew by, in case Cuban dictator Fidel Castro scrambled his fighters to intercept it. And he says he flew photo-reconnaissance missions too, out of Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C., while he was serving in the ready reserve.
In explaining his Vietnam experience at that congressional round-table in 1979, Sen. Harkin says that in retrospect "maybe I didn't say it right."
The round-table wasn't the only time he talked about extensive Vietnam service. In April of 1981, Mr. Harkin told Harold E. Roberts, publisher of the Creston, Iowa, News Advertiser, that in Japan he was assigned to a squadron where "we flew many missions to Vietnam and the Philippines." And in a short April 1, 1980, statement in the Congressional Record attacking the Veterans Administration for the way it was handling claims related to the herbicide Agent Orange, Mr. Harkin said that "as a Vietnam veteran in Congress, I feel particularly responsible for seeing that this issue continues to command our attention." Mr. Harkin says he always refers to himself as a "Vietnam-era veteran," and thinks the statement in the Congressional Record might be a misprint.
Mr. Harkin's Navy record shows his only decoration is the National Defense Service Medal, awarded to everyone on active service during those years. He did not receive either the Vietnam Service medal or the Vietnam Campaign medal, the decorations given to everyone who served in the Southeast Asia theater. "We didn't get them for what we did," Mr. Harkin says. "It's never bothered me."