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

"I came in and was headed to the hearing room, and John and a couple of his aides were standing off to the side. And as I went by, I said, 'Hello John.'

"He didn't acknowledge that at all. He says, 'I don't like what you said about my wife.'

"I stopped. I'd never said anything about Cindy, I didn't know Cindy. I said, 'What do you mean? I never said anything about your wife.'

"'Well, I'm not going to get into it here.'

"I said, 'No, you brought it up, now let's finish it. I want to know what it is I was supposed to have said, because I've heard so many lies being told about me.'

"He says, 'Well, I'm just not going to talk about it.'

"I said, 'John, you're a goddamn liar, then. If you make a statement like that and you can't back it up, I want to tell you now, you're a liar.'

"Well, he turns red and he takes off. And his aide goes with him. And I guess that's the last time I've ever personally spoken with him."

McCain says the exchange took place not in Washington but at the Phoenix VA hospital, when both men were attending a POW/MIA-related event.

"We exchanged some words about something, I can't even remember what it was about now," McCain says. "I think that he had said something about a friend of mine or something like that, I don't remember. And I said, 'Look, I don't agree with your comments about that,' and that's the last time that I have seen or talked to Colonel Hopper, as I remember."

The most infamous McCain/family encounter took place in 1996 in the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, outside McCain's office.

Carol Hrdlicka was in Washington for a POW/MIA event. She and a group of other family members were gathering to try to meet with McCain. As Hrdlicka recalls it, she and two others were early. They bumped into McCain in the hallway as he walked down the hall to another office.

"Down the hall he comes, and I said, 'Senator McCain, are you coming back?'" Hrdlicka recalls. She hadn't seen him in years, since the Senate Select Committee hearings, and he obviously didn't recognize her.

"'Oh, yeah,' he says, 'I'll be back in a minute.'"

In the meantime, the group of more than a dozen family members gathered, including one woman who was wheelchair-bound--right outside the office McCain had stepped into. He emerged into the crowd.

"What's really funny is, when he thinks you're just a regular civilian, he's got all these smiles on his face," Hrdlicka says.

But the family members started talking and, Hrdlicka says, the smile faded. She says the senator shoved Jeanette Jenkins, who was pushing her aunt's wheelchair, against the wall, in his haste to escape. Hrdlicka took off after McCain. He stopped in front of an elevator.

"I stepped in front of him and I said, 'Senator McCain, David Hrdlicka is still sitting over there,' . . . and he says, 'You just don't understand.' And I said, 'I understand.' I said, 'I understand. David Hrdlicka is still sitting over there and you're here.' And at this point the elevator opens and he steps on and he says, 'Well, you just don't understand,' and I said, 'Yes I do, you're a traitor.' And at that point the doors shut."

Hrdlicka, Jenkins and Jane Duke Gaylor, the woman in the wheelchair, all complained to the Senate Ethics Committee. No action was ever taken.

Mark Salter calls Hrdlicka's account "an absolute lie. I was an eyewitness to that event. An absolute lie. He [McCain] didn't say one word to them, he said, 'Excuse me.' Didn't touch them, walked, got in the elevator and the both of us went down. An absolute lie."

McCain's recollection: "I walked by them as they were yelling 'traitor' and words like that, and all of the sudden I was accused of shoving a woman or someone in a wheelchair or something like that. I was astounded by that.

"But look, let me also say this to you. Someone like Carol Hrdlicka has spent literally all her adult life on this issue. It's very difficult and very emotional for them when literally their whole lives are consumed by this issue. As is to some degree the case of Earl Hopper. . . . I understand the emotion associated with this . . ."

Hi, Amy, Laird Gutterson. I wouldn't care to go on the record or off the record, on John McCain. We have sort of an unwritten rule that we don't talk about each other and what we did while we were there. I won't vote for him, and that's about the size of it.

--a phone message

Laird Gutterson, a Tucson resident who was a POW with John McCain in Vietnam, is one of many POWs who are unwilling to talk about their experiences in the camps.

Patty Hopper says many of these men--including Gutterson--have confided privately to her about McCain's behavior, and she's frustrated that they won't go public.

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