After returning to the United States, Kerry joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Then numbering about 20,000, VVAW was considered by some (including the administration of President Richard Nixon) to be an effective, if controversial, component of the antiwar movement. According to Nixon Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, “I didn’t approve of what he did, but I understood the protesters quite well”, and he declined two requests from the Navy to court martial Reserve Lieutenant Kerry over his antiwar activity.
On April 22, 1971, Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war, when he appeared before a Senate committee hearing on proposals relating to ending the war.
He was still a member of the United States Navy Reserve, holding the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade. Wearing green fatigues and service ribbons, he spoke for nearly two hours with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in what has been named the Fulbright Hearings, after the Chairman of the proceedings, Senator J. W. Fulbright. Kerry began with a prepared speech, in which he presented the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation, and then went on to address larger policy issues.
The day after this testimony, Kerry participated in a demonstration with thousands of other veterans in which he and other veterans threw their medals and ribbons over a fence erected at the front steps of the United States Capitol building to dramatize their opposition to the war. Jack Smith, a Marine, read a statement explaining why the veterans were returning their military awards to the government. For more than two hours, almost 1000 angry veterans tossed their medals, ribbons, hats, jackets, and military papers over the fence. Each veteran gave his or her name, hometown, branch of service and a statement. Kerry threw some of his decorations as well as some given to him by other veterans to throw. As Kerry threw his decorations over the fence, his statement was: “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. ” The documentary film Sir! No Sir! includes archival footage of Kerry at the demonstration: he is one of several young men seen throwing things over the fence.