A fascinating piece in yesterday’s New York Sun reported on the crucial role of Viet Nam vet James Rassman in what would turn out to be a string of primary victories for John Kerry. Rassman, you probably know, is the vet who’s been recalling how Kerry saved his life in campaign ads.

Sun reporter Josh Gerstein reported that Rassman, a lifelong Republican, had lost contact with Kerry but that his memory was stirred when he stopped in an L.A. Barnes & Noble for a CD on violin music and began perusing the Douglas Brinkley biography of Kerry. The book recounted Kerry’s rescue of Rassman, then a 21-year-old Green Beret, that involved turning his Swift boat around and going into a hail of fire.

Rassman wanted to help the man who saved his life, and so he phoned the Kerry campaign, volunteering for what he thought would be a minor role. Instead, Rassman cut the campaign ad that has done so much to bolster Kerry with veterans. Gerstein noted that, if Kerry did well in the primaries, Rassman would be partly responsible. He did, and he is.

There’s no way you can take Kerry’s genuine heroism away from him (nor would one want to). He was a Yale man who didn’t much believe in the war but went anyway because, well, that’s what gentlemen did back then. But, of course, that’s not the end of the story.

Kerry has always had a veterans problem because of his activity on his return from Viet Nam. His involvement in the now horribly discredited Winter Soldier “investigations” that attributed horrific atrocities to U.S. soldiers based on faulty intelligence is also a salient feature of Kerry’s biography.

“Most of us who served there don’t have anything nice to say about him,” Dan Burkett, a Dallas stockbroker who has a Bronze Star for service as a lieutenant in the light infantry and who has written a book on Viet Nam, told Gerstein. Burkett’s book reportedly focuses on the Winter Soldier investigations that did so much to tarnish the image of the American military.

I don’t know anything about Rassman’s postwar feelings about Vietnam. But he did say that he wouldn’t buy anything anti-Viet Nam war activist Jane Fonda advertised or go to a movie featuring her.

“I don’t put John in that boat,” he is quoted saying. The task of the Republicans will be to put John in that boat. Gingerly.