August 29, 1936 — August 25, 2018
John Sidney McCain III is no longer with us.
Whether undisciplined rich boy, Naval Academy screw-up, brave fighter pilot, tortured prisoner of war, U.S. senator, elder statesman, or conscience of the Republican Senate when any conscious at all was a dim candle barely flickering among dark clouds, his voice will no longer be heard.
McCain passed after battling brain cancer, battling Donald Trump, battling his fellow Republicans, battling Democrats, and battling anyone else with whom he disagreed. Some thoughtful people in our nation will mourn his passing. Others will celebrate, mocking the broken man who lost much of his mobility from torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. Largely though, most folks won’t really give a crap, offering at most a shrug and “another politician bites the dust. Good riddance!”
That is what it has come to for our heroes.
It is too soon to say how history will judge McCain. He has been judged almost since he was born to privilege, the son of a standout American naval officer and grandson of another. Both were admirals, innovators who wisely commanded great killing machines in two of the largest conflicts of the 20th Century. One would win, the other would lose. Both McCain ancestors remain military icons, constant names in American naval history unless they are one day excised by revisionists.
All of that is fascinating. His life and the lives of his forebears are the stuff of great adventure, and most of it has little to do with this story. This story is about a compassionate man who responded to a plea for help, and came calling.
McCain was a senator from Arizona when he got my letter. In early 2006 he was gearing up for a presidential run and the press was gearing up to knock him down. I was very sick, the Vietnam War did it, and the Veterans Administration was supposed to fix it. So far it wasn’t working out that way.
I already knew McCain had survived many close calls bombing North Vietnam until he ran out of luck. At the time, I worked for the late Col. David H. “Hack” Hackworth, a Vietnam War hero and recipient of two Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars and eight Purple Hearts, among his galaxy of medals. He was tough on phony heroes. One notorious 1996 investigation he conducted led to the suicide of Admiral Mike Boorda — at the time Chief of Naval Operations — for wearing two unearned ribbons for valor in combat. Hack knew heroism the way mechanics know engines. He knows what makes them tick.
Hack was a best-selling author, publisher of critically acclaimed DefenseWatch magazine and website Soldiers For The Truth, where I worked, and was also a budding TV personality. Part of his fame came from telling the U.S. Army to kiss his ass while standing in line for general’s stars, quitting loudly over its alleged incompetence during the Vietnam War.
Hackworth launched his new career by writing “About Face,” a worldwide bestseller belittling military leadership that brought him millions of dollars and enough fame to get him next to Senator McCain. My assignment was finding out all I could about the Arizona sailor. Hack loved heroes and hated politicians and self-important generals, and he wanted to know which was which. There was much to learn.
The common thread throughout his life was McCain’s phenomenal luck. Most veterans love luck, they worship it because they believe it and nothing else kept them alive. McCain’s luck was good enough to make him my personal hero. And he had the most personable staff in D.C.’s usually arrogant Congress. Ask for something from McCain, and he got back to you either personally or through his staff, whether it was what you wanted to hear or not. My few conversations with him were respectful and perfunctory until I told him I was a fellow aviator. We talked at some length about it. He was an easy guy to like.
Who knows if his luck rubbed off on me. I didn’t run out of luck for 35 years after I returned from the ‘Nam, until the Agent Orange we sprayed from our helicopter onto the fringes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail began killing me. I had a fine life, two wonderful kids, great new job, and it was going down faster than McCain’s plane the day he got shot down over Hanoi.
Desperation comes into play in times like that, so I wrote McCain a letter detailing my woes. I had already been cast aside by my congressman and both U.S. senators from the state of Missouri. “Thank you for your service,” they all closed in their bum’s rush missives. I had no expectations Senator McCain would be any different. This was about me, senators are about themselves, and I was one of the least influential military reporters in a legion of oh-so-important scribes flocking around the Capitol with the hungry pigeons.
A month or so after I mailed my letter, one winter evening, sitting at home watching television, the telephone rang. My son answered, and mumbled in the way of many vacuous teenagers until I demanded to know who it was.
“Some guy for you,” he answered. “Senator McCain.”
I said what any red-blooded American would likely say when that happens, “No shit!”
I took the phone and heard, “This is John McCain.”
“John McCain, son, Senator John McCain. You wrote me a letter.”
His identity established, McCain told me what he could do for me. He never indicated that he remembered me from DefenseWatch, and I was too astounded to remind him. After a five minute conversation he told me I would soon hear from a member of his staff with some directions. He promised to call me again when something happened. He didn’t promise anything else, nor did he offer any discouragement. He closed with a friendly goodbye, adding, “Us aviators got to stick together.”
Senator McCain called two more times over the next months to ensure things were progressing, and indeed they were, at light speed compared to the five or six years I had been battling the Veterans Administration. Within a few months I received my first benefits, providing for me a way to quit work long enough to undergo some serious surgeries that allowed me to resume my life.
Rest in peace, John McCain.