Growing up in Lincoln, Neb., Joseph Kerrey — "Bob" since he was a kid — had an "all-American" childhood: He worked a newspaper route and helped out in his father's lumberyard, then attended the University of Nebraska with the intention of becoming a pharmacist. When he graduated in 1965, he decided to enlist in the Navy rather than waiting to be drafted. After Officer Candidate School, he volunteered for Underwater Demolition Training and was eventually selected for a SEAL platoon, where he learned to set up ambushes, abduct enemy personnel, and gather intelligence. He was assigned to SEAL Team One.
Lieutenant Kerrey arrived in Vietnam late in 1968. His SEAL squad, which called itself Kerrey's Raiders, included Kerrey, six enlisted men, and a Vietnamese frogman who served as interpreter. Early in 1969, the team was working in the Mekong Delta, trying to ambush Vietcong cadres and kidnap high-ranking officers. Kerrey sometimes went up in a plane to make his own aerial reconnaissance of the villages before these actions.
On March 14, naval intelligence briefed Kerrey and his men on information received from a deserter that a Vietcong sapper unit had infiltrated a village on an island in the area near Nha Trang Bay and was killing civilians. Kerrey led his men on a midnight mission to neutralize the enemy unit, arriving by water in Zodiac boats and scaling a 350-foot sheer cliff so that they could approach from high ground. At the top, Kerrey split his men into two teams and moved down to the enemy's camp. Suddenly, the area erupted in intense small arms fire. A grenade, exploding right next to Kerrey, knocked him down. Bleeding badly from a gaping wound that left his foot dangling from his calf, he called in the second team's fire support, which caught the Vietcong in a crossfire. After applying a tourniquet to his knee and giving himself a shot of morphine, he continued to organize his team's defense. His men, using a trail of tracer bullets to direct their fire in the darkness, routed the enemy and took several prisoners.
The helicopter sent to extract the SEALs and their captives couldn't land on the island, so Kerrey was placed in a sling and pulled up to the hovering craft. He was treated first in Japan, and then in Philadelphia. Doctors were unable to save his leg when gangrene set in, and it was amputated at the knee.
Wearing a prosthetic, Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 14, 1970, by President Richard Nixon. He later recalled trying — unsuccessfully — to flirt with the president's daughter Julie during the ceremony.