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

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.

"How many are willing to come up against John's nastiness?" she asks. "He is a scumbag. He is a piece of garbage. And he's vicious and he's nasty and he knows no bounds. So how many people want to subject themselves to John Sidney McCain's mouth?"

None. Even Ted Guy and Swede Larson have nothing negative to say about McCain's behavior--only that they don't have firsthand proof he was tortured. They do complain about McCain's politics since the war.

And as for McCain's alleged collaboration with the Communists, Larson says, "I don't think he told them anything they didn't already know."

A typical POW response, this to an e-mail Patty Hopper sent to Terry Uyeyama, an Air Force pilot shot down in May 1968:

Sorry, but I have nothing on McCain, while in prison. Otherwise, I would have gladly given you something several years ago. As I said in previous posting, I was never in the same camp, nor did I ever hear anything derogatory about him over there. If there was any serious breach of conduct, believe me, it probably would have become common knowledge before we all came home. . . .

The other typical POW response is pro-McCain. Larry Chesley, a former Republican state legislator from Mesa, who served in the Air Force and was a POW for seven years, says, "John McCain was considered one of the model prisoners of war by all of us that were there. The people who bad-mouth him are people who have never been with him in prison. Have you found one of us who ever served with him, who have said this about him?"

No. Most are more like Orson Swindle.

Swindle and McCain have remained close over the years. McCain was instrumental in getting Swindle his current job, as a Federal Communications Commission member. The two don't always agree on POW/MIA politics, Swindle says, but he considers McCain a hero, and doesn't think people like Earl and Patty Hopper--who were not POWs--can pass judgment.

"Some who were not there, I guess, would say, 'You guys are very intolerant of those people.' But unless you've been there in our shoes, it's probably very difficult to comprehend the code we were trying to uphold under very difficult circumstances. And our Code of Conduct is very clear about what we can and what we should and should not do. That's not to say that we didn't fail. God knows, we all were defeated by the physical and mental torture, and we gave the Communists things we all wish we had not."

If McCain is a traitor, Swindle says, then he's a traitor, too, because he--like many--signed war-crime confessions.

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