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Kerrey grew up the third of seven children in a quiet working-class community on the edge of Lincoln, Neb. At the University of Nebraska, he partied hard and nearly flunked ROTC. But he was good at his other studies and finished the five-year pharmacy program in four. Still, life behind the drug counter had started to look like drudgery. He once recalled how a farmer came in looking for a treatment for the "sniffles." Annoyed at the triviality of the man's complaint, Kerrey said, "Try this" and wiped his sleeve across his nose.
When his draft notice arrived in the fall of 1965, Kerrey jumped at the chance to enlist in Navy officer-training school, then signed up for something more exciting: underwater demolition. Kerrey relished the rigorous training and jumped again when he was selected for the secret counterinsurgent team called SEALs. He was eager to serve, he said, "with a knife in my teeth."
But his war ended after just three months, when that grenade hit his foot. He woke up in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where doctors sawed off half his right leg. He still calls the hospital, not Vietnam, "the most important and defining period of my life." In that old-fashioned 12-story building, he shared a room and nine months of recuperation with Jim Crotty, a Marine pilot badly burned in an accident. "What he saw when he arrived at the hospital was room after room of people maimed like you wouldn't believe," Crotty said. "He looked at the whole thing and said, 'Jesus Christ, what did we do, why did we do it, who's responsible?'"
When Kerrey took his first wobbly steps outside the hospital, he learned how the country was coming to view the war. The G.I. generation came home from World War II to a grateful, admiring nation. The boys of Vietnam were called baby killers. Kerrey heard it in Philadelphia, at a movie theater. "Somebody said something very ugly," he once said. "I don't remember the exact words, but very ugly and very hurtful."
Unsure what to do next, Kerrey headed to Stanford University, intending to get an M.B.A. He withdrew before class started and moved across the bay to Berkeley. Somewhere in his mind was the idea he might teach, but "the larger purpose was recovery," he said. There Kerrey learned to read, really read, not the science texts of his college years but the great literature of life. The love of literature has sustained him ever since. Before the Democratic debates in 1992, when the other candidates were deep in their briefing books, Kerrey spent time with moody poetry, especially the lines of Robert Frost:
Word I was in the house alone Somehow must have gotten abroad Word I was in my life alone, Word I had no one left but God.