PAYING MY RESPECTS TO JOHN McCAIN
Stephen G. Patten
In my favorite photo of John McCain he is dressed in his navy white uniform, standing on two crutches, and leaning forward purposely to make sure the person to whom he is speaking gets his point loud and clear. That person is President Richard Nixon who appears half amused by what this energetic and forceful young officer is saying to him but unsure enough to be cautiously leaning back from the verbal barrage coming his way courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
Perhaps Lieutenant Commander McCain is just thanking President Nixon, for the photo is from 1973 shortly after the Nixon Administration negotiated the Paris Peace Accords on the Vietnam War that led to the release of 591 Americans in Operation Homecoming who had been held prisoner by the Vietnamese communists. For John McCain that meant an end to 5 ½ years of torture and abuse in the infamous prison the Americans incarcerated there dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” and a return home to America.
Whatever McCain was saying to the president, it obviously was heartfelt and something this former prisoner-of-war wanted the man responsible for his liberation to understand.
A Military Hero in the Political Arena
The forward leaning, self-assured posture of John McCain in that photo foretold an extraordinary career that had already established him as a war hero and would take him, later a retired navy captain, to pinnacles of power as a two-term congressman, six-term senator, and presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2008. That he did not achieve the highest office in the land he lost to Barack Obama did not diminish his status. Revered for his physical courage in war and respected for his diligence and expertise in the halls of Congress, especially regarding national security issues, John McCain was a towering figure of authority and strength to millions of Americans.
No more so than to us Vietnam War Veterans. He stood tall in the face of adversity that is war, as all of us in the military hoped we could as well. He bitterly attacked the weakness of American political policies during the Vietnam War that led to the abandonment of our allies in Indochina – South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos - allowing the communists to prevail in all three countries. That abandonment was - and still is - a stain on the honor of America, a shame of betrayal of our friends in time of war he and so many others of us painfully felt.
From this came his commitment in his political life to a strong defense for America, an unwavering support for the U.S. military and its men and women, and faithfulness to our allies in the worldwide struggle against oppression and terrorism, particularly in his role as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, a job he relished. He carried this message for years on his indefatigable travels around the globe, from lonely military outposts on the front lines to the palaces and parliaments of world leaders in their capitals.
Honoring the Man
John McCain’s life of service weighed heavily on my mind as I flew from my home in Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to pay tribute to the man I and so many others admired. During the flight I walked up and down the aisles, as is my custom on airplane trips, and spotted a lady wearing a cap that read Sgt. Marine Badass. This 87-year-old named Lorry had served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and was on her way to a convention in Washington of women who had served in the military. We exchanged salutes and our Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi. John McCain would have loved her.
In Washington I waited in line with many other well-wishers at the Capitol to pay my respects to the Senator lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. During the few hours before we were allowed in I chatted with those around me. Among them were a career Coast Guard officer and his wife. And there was a tall, retired navy officer who she said had served for 21 years before retiring, a Hispanic lady from Orlando, and another lady with multiple bracelets on her wrists from upstate New York. All very nice people who just wanted like me to pay their respects to a patriot.
Before getting in line I had walked over across the street to the Russell Senate Office Building. I stopped by the office of John McCain’s fellow senator and close friend, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina. I left my card with the receptionist and asked her to thank the senator for his service, as a way of showing my appreciation for the steadfast and loving support he always lent to his now fallen comrade.
And then to John McCain’s office overlooking the Capitol grounds where I expressed my concern for his staff members there and signed the visitors’ book. The polite young men behind the desks in his office seemed grateful that I stopped by.
Lying in State
As we filed down into the Capitol grounds when they started to let us in I met seven gentlemen originally from Korea, all dressed in suits and American flag ties who had fought in Vietnam in South Korean units sent to Vietnam to support the American war effort there. I told them my battalion in Vietnam was stationed right next to a South Korean battalion. We all had our picture taken together and I exchanged business cards with one of them, who told me he was a tae kwon do martial arts master now living in New Jersey.
Nearing the Rotunda as our line moved forward, I talked with two recent graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in uniform. Both ladies told me they were now in medical school and I thought about the great navy doctors who looked after us Marines when I served in the U.S. and overseas.
Shortly thereafter I followed our procession into the Rotunda and the flag-draped coffin of the man we wished to honor. I said a prayer, saluted John McCain, and walked out the other side from where we had come in and onto a line to sign the condolence books set up to write a message to this family. There I reminisced with an army veteran, a retired lawyer from Indianapolis who had also served in Vietnam.
Outside the Capitol a Russian journalist interviewed me, asking why I was there. To honor the man, I responded. In professional courtesy to me as a fellow journalist, this gentleman, Dmitry, later sent me a copy of the article for his news agency, Sputnik, which he had written. It was very well done.
I spent the evening at the home of my dear friends, Dave Hatcher, and his lovely wife, Khun Vasana, along with their wonderful children, their son, Donnie, and their daughter, Vanessa, and her husband, Scott. Dave, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, and I had been CBS News reporters in Bangkok following the Vietnam War. My wife, Pattie, and I have been blessed with the friendship and love of the Hatcher family ever since.
The next day I went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and watched as Mrs. McCain laid a wreath. We all applauded as she slowly left the Memorial on her way with the hearse carrying her husband’s body to the Washington National Cathedral for the formal funeral ceremonies. I then paid tribute to the three comrades in arms of Pattie and me whose names are emblazoned on the Memorial Wall. A very courteous and solicitous volunteer, Steve, etched the three names on paper pressed against the Wall and gave them to me.
I had a flight back to Los Angeles that evening, so I returned to my hotel, checked out, and prepared to head for the Metro subway to take me to Dulles Airport. About ready to walk out of the hotel, I saw a stunning blonde lady who stopped me in my tracks. I finally realized it was Mrs. Mitt Romney and then saw her husband standing with her in a group of five or six people. I approached them, gently touched the governor’s arm and thanked him for his service and saluted him. He was very gracious, thanked me, and, as I was leaving, several in his group, seeing the Marine Corps cover (hat) I was wearing, thanked me for my service.
That was very kind, but I reflected later that while many of us have served, few of us can match the 60-year career of devotion to duty and country that John McCain, the man I and so many others came to honor, gave to America.
Thank you, John McCain. Godspeed. Go Navy!!!!
Steve is editor of Lee & Grant International that reports on national security issues and the War on Terror. He was a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. You can contact Steve at: firstname.lastname@example.org