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FALLS VET WITH KERRY BACKS HIM ALL THE WAY

BOSTON - Thirty-five years after serving aboard Swift boats in Vietnam with Sen. John F. Kerry, Steve Hatch of Niagara Falls stood on the podium of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday and acknowledged it might have been all worthwhile.

"When we came home, we got nothing," Hatch said Thursday just before his podium appearance with other Kerry crewmates. "Now you can't believe how many people are coming up to shake my hand and say thank-you. It makes me feel good."

Hatch and several other veterans of Kerry's river patrol boat in Vietnam have been with the Democratic presidential nominee for several days as he prepared for his acceptance speech Thursday night. And as the 58-year-old bus driver for Coach USA emphasizes, his presence is an expression of his devotion to the man who "brought me home in one piece."

"Now we're here to get him into office," he said. "I love the guy and want to see him in the White House."

Hatch said he has ducked most interview requests this week but decided Thursday he wanted to highlight the extraordinary devotion Kerry's crew members hold for their former commander. He acknowledged that he has never been much interested in politics, but responded to Kerry's request to join the campaign after seeing "too many pot shots" thrown his way.

"The guy just has an aura around him," he said. "I have a lot of respect for him."

Hatch calls his experience of the past few days "emotionally draining," especially while joining the senator for his entrance to the convention Thursday aboard ship. Surrounded by his old crew, Hatch said Kerry and the others hashed over old times and cracked jokes at the expense of Jim Rassmann, the crew member who credits Kerry with saving his life after pulling him from a river while under fire.

"He gave him a life vest and said "Here Jim, put this on and don't fall off again,' " Hatch said. "That's the kind of guy he is."

The Harrison Radiator retiree said he is looking forward to returning home today after several emotional days in Boston. But he said he remains committed to Kerry's cause and will report for duty again if called.

"He's a super guy; we knew that even back then," he said. "We just want to be there to back him."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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