Is John McCain a War Hero?

The senator's five years as a prisoner of war have been widely viewed as heroic. But as he prepares a White House bid, a small group of detractors is determined to expose him as a wartime traitor

"It was a one-day story. He was praised for it, and there was absolutely no outcry in the veterans community at all."

Mark Salter exaggerates. No, there was no deafening outcry, but the POW/MIA activists--who certainly number more than 100--were furious. Particularly when McCain stood on the dais for a photo opportunity with Clinton, then embraced him.

Says Ann Mills Griffiths, "So many people view that as John being a cardboard cutout for whatever reasons, to accomplish or to facilitate the Clinton administration's agenda on normalization."

When one totals McCain's 23 missions over North Vietnam, times the number of minutes he was actually over enemy territory (approximately 20 to 35 minutes per mission), McCain's total time over Vietnam before being shot down, was about 10 1/2 hours. For those 10 1/2 hours over Vietnam, McCain, the Admiral's son, was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Legion of Honor and three Purple Hearts averaging over one hero medal per hour.

--Ted Sampley,
U.S. Veteran Dispatch

Like John McCain, Ted Sampley is either a folk hero or a sleaze. It simply depends upon whom you ask. Just about everyone in the POW/MIA movement--and beyond that, in the broader veterans community--has an opinion.

Sampley is on the fringe of the radical wing of the movement, a member of the National Alliance of Families, which, unlike the National League of Families, still pushes the live POW issue. Hard. (The Alliance broke off from the League in the Eighties, in response to what many saw as Ann Mills Griffiths' kowtowing to Republican government officials.)

Sampley ranks at the top in the pantheon of McCain-haters.

One evening late last June, Sampley manned a table containing POW/MIA tee shirts for sale. It was situated just outside the Alliance's annual meeting, which takes place every summer in a Washington, D.C., hotel across the street from a hotel where the League meets. POW/MIA memorabilia has long been Sampley's bread and butter.

Ted's 6-year-old son, Owen Lane, nagged his dad to play with him. "Let me sell some tee shirts, and we can buy some serious toys," he told the boy, who wandered off.

From a credibility standpoint, Owen and his mother, Robin, are godsends for Sampley. Never mind that the couple is divorced. Sampley can say his son is a blood relative of an MIA--Robin's father, a Special Forces soldier, disappeared in Laos in May 1968.

Sampley first got interested in the POW/MIA movement because as a Green Beret he served two tours in Vietnam. The first was in 1965, making him one of the first conventional soldiers to be sent there. (Many early tours were assigned to "advisers.") Sampley knew next to nothing about the conflict when he went, and he knew little more about the POW issue until 1971, when he saw an Army training film about POWs.

He went home to North Carolina and founded a group called Americans Who Care, which handed out literature, sold POW bracelets and publicized the POW cause.

"In 1973, the prisoners of war came home," Sampley recalls. "I watched this, teary eyed, and I believed the government at that time that all our people had come home. I mean, I had no reason not to."

He went about his life, working as a potter and for newspapers and in television. "I just kind of withdrew back into myself, like a lot of vets did."

In 1982, Sampley went to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial, and heard many of his fellow veterans express doubts about the fates of comrades.

Sampley made two quick decisions: first, that the government was withholding information, and second, that he would be the one to get the answers. He didn't get many answers, but he certainly made a lot of noise.

"I took my training in guerrilla warfare and I turned it around on the U.S. government," Sampley says. "It was nonviolent civil disobedience."

He stood up at a meeting of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition and announced it was time to get President Reagan's attention.

"I said, 'We need to start doing things like they did in the Sixties.' I said, 'I will chain myself to the White House fence if some of you will go with me.'"

A handful did, and the national press reacted. Sampley was just getting warmed up.

"I started thinking of as many types of tricks as I could pull to disrupt the system," he says, chuckling, ". . . and through my leadership we became some of the biggest nuisances they've ever--I mean, we've done things I can't even admit to. The idea was not to get anybody hurt, but to disrupt the process, to cause the government to have to talk about the POW issue, to keep the POW issue in the light."

Because he thought Ann Mills Griffiths and the National League were in cahoots with the Reagan administration, Sampley and his cohorts took over the League's office in the American Legion building.

"No weapons," he says. "Just plain old outsmarting them."

Mills Griffiths doesn't have such fond memories of the stunt, recalling that Sampley "threatened to kill me" before he was hauled off in handcuffs.

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