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

John McCain's flagging stock with POW/MIA activists dipped further with the "October Surprise"--a hastily arranged, 24-hour trip to Vietnam orchestrated by the Bush administration in 1992, just before both the president and McCain stood for reelection. Some criticized McCain for grandstanding on his status as a former POW, an issue he once swore he wouldn't exploit. Mark Salter says the McCain campaign was not enthusiastic about the trip--the purpose of which was purportedly to check out photographs of live American POW/MIAs--because it cut into the senator's flesh-pressing at home. "The entire campaign flipped about it," Salter says.

The photographs were fakes. In some, Salter claims, bullet holes were clearly visible in soldiers' foreheads.

McCain refused to mollify the POW/MIA activists. In 1993, he forged a compromise that, in the eyes of the activists, significantly watered down legislation designed to release classified U.S. government documents on POW/MIAs.

In 1994, he supported the Clinton administration's decision to lift the trade embargo on Vietnam.

And then McCain did something to earn the undying enmity of the POW/MIA community: He pushed to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In a meeting at the Oval Office on May 23, 1995, McCain told President Clinton, "It doesn't matter to me anymore, Mr. President, who was for the war and who was against the war. I'm tired of looking back in anger. What's important is that we move forward now."

Salter calls McCain the catalyst for normalization. He says McCain told Clinton, "I will stand with you as you do it. I will do whatever you want me to do. . . ."

When Clinton hesitated, Salter says, McCain told him, "'This is really about 100 people,'" referring to the POW/MIA activists. "'That's all it is. Most veterans are going to have no problems with it.'

"But Clinton, for reasons we all understand . . . was incredibly apprehensive about it. We had a hard time. We told him, 'Mr. President, Lafayette Park is not going to fill with fatigue-wearing angry veterans. Nobody's going to protest this. . . . There's some suspicion that you won't do the hard things, Mr. President. And people will look at it and say, "Here's an instance where Clinton took a political risk." And you're going to get praised for this.'

"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.

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