For five-and-a-half long years the late Arizona Sen. John McCain endured horrid torture and fought for his life in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp after he was captured by the North Vietnamese. The former Navy pilot’s aircraft was shot down in 1967 during a bombing run.
The then-30-year-old man was among the American pilots who were brutally interrogated and tortured. McCain, in 1992 to People magazine, recounted the ordeal, recalling his lack of willingness to provide military information resulted in minimal medical treatment and little food, among other things.
“They left me on the floor of a cell for four days, during which time I lapsed in and out of consciousness,” McCain recalled. “Their policy was that they wouldn’t provide any medical treatment unless you gave them military information. I would only give them my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. And so, after about four days on the floor of the cell, they got nothing out of me because I kept passing out.”
He was spit on, yelled at, bayoneted in the foot and the crotch, beaten, dealt with broken bones and two years of solitary confinement, still, never gave the enemy anything. And when his captors offered to let him go after substantial torture, McCain said he made the tough choice to decline because of an American military code of conduct he refused to not follow: “You do not accept parole. Sick and injured prisoners must be released first and others are to be released only by order of capture,” McCain said.
Regardless of where you personally fall on the political spectrum, it’s easy to understand why McCain’s passing from brain cancer on Aug. 25 shook a large segment of America – it came only a day after he announced publicly he had stopped medical treatment. The photo of Cindy McCain weeping over her husband's flag-draped casket at his memorial that circulated was one of the most memorable pictures of recent memory. Why?
McCain was more than a husband, a father, friend and veteran; he was far more than a two-time Republican candidate for president of the United States and Arizona’s long-tenured senator. He was America’s senator; he embodied what it means to be a patriot.
You don’t have to agree with all of his political opinions to appreciate and respect his love for our country. Many of us talk about our love for America, however, McCain demonstrated his loyalty to it time and time again. Despite what President Trump has previously said, McCain was a war hero --but not because he was captured. He was a hero for putting our country’s safety ahead of his personal health and safety for more than half of a decade, for serving his country to begin with and then staying true to Uncle Sam once facing horrific circumstances once captured. Let’s be real, how many of us wouldn’t break psychologically, die or do what’s best for our individual selves under that kind of stress in a low-level prison?
Then, he came back and became a congressman, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. He served as a U.S. senator for three-plus decades.
But most admirable was his willingness to stand up for what he believed was right for the U.S. Throughout the years he involved himself in various important topics, such as co-sponsoring the Agent Orange Act in 1991 – legislation that affirmed certain diseases suffered by veterans could be the result of harmful chemical exposure related to their service. That recognition would make those veterans eligible for specific benefits. He sponsored the Veterans Hospice Benefit Act in 1991, served as the chairman on numerous committees over the years, took on campaign finance reform in 2002 and pushed for immigration reform.
More recently, in 2017, McCain returned to the Senate following his brain cancer diagnosis to give a crucial vote on Republicans’ efforts to end ‘Obamacare.’ The senator voted against doing so, noting Republicans and Democrats weren’t working together and hadn’t tried to do so.
We may not have always agreed with his views or decisions, but you damn well had to respect them. When McCain made a decision, it was always understood he made a choice based on what he felt was in the best interest of Americans, not himself.
McCain in every sense of the word was a maverick – a true independent thinker. He was authentic, unafraid to stand up and fight for what he believed in. So let’s put politics aside for the moment and remember this man was an American hero not because of his distinguished political and military careers, but because he always put his country ahead of a party. He epitomized what it means to be a patriot without having to repeatedly say he was one.