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

Ann Mills Griffiths, whose brother disappeared in Vietnam, became director of the National League of Families in 1978. She recalls lobbying Congress with McCain and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Red McDaniel, another returned POW. Griffiths and her group wanted a clear accounting--dead or alive--of the Vietnam-era POW/MIAs.

"Clearly, I got the impression that both of them [McCain and McDaniel] would kind of go behind what I was saying and say, 'Look, this is really good that the families are trying to get answers and it's very patriotic and all, but it's unrealistic,'" Griffiths recalls.

"In other words, kind of, it can't be accomplished, and if anybody had been left there, we would have known it. . . . It was sort of condescending."

If that was McDaniel's attitude, he had a change of heart. He now runs the American Defense Institute, an organization devoted to the live POW/MIA issue. Susan Katz Keating, a Washington Times reporter who wrote a book in 1994 called Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, labels McDaniel a "Gray Flannel Rambo." (He declined to comment for this story when he heard it was about McCain, saying he wanted to "take the high road.")

McCain apparently never wavered from his skepticism. In fact, he didn't show much interest in the POW/MIA issue for many years--a point the POW/MIA activists claim proves his disloyalty.

McCain's first marriage ended in 1980, and he quickly remarried. He retired from the Navy in 1981, and McCain and his new bride, Cindy Hensley, relocated to her home state, Arizona, and prepared his first congressional bid. McCain was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982.

"He was trying to focus on his job as a congressman and trying to represent the people of Arizona," says Ann Mills Griffiths, who is more sympathetic to McCain than radical activists. "Just because he was a POW didn't mean that was all he could focus on. So I think there was probably disappointment by some people at that point that he wasn't taking a more active leadership role. At the same time, he was very quietly supporting a lot of [legislative] initiatives that we were doing in those days."

Earl Hopper Sr. sees it differently. He recalls a meeting at the new congressman's Mesa field office. Hopper brought along some refugee reports and other purported live-sighting materials, but says McCain wasn't interested.

"John was very much on the defensive at that time, and argumentative, defending the intelligence agencies and their methods of interrogating the refugees and so forth," Hopper recalls. "He didn't like what I was saying, I didn't like what he was saying, so we just parted.

"After that, I didn't have too much to do with John McCain."

But that was far from the end of John McCain's dealings with POW/MIA activists. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, and in 1991 Congress held hearings into the POW/MIA issue, examining World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Although the Vietnam POW/MIA activism is by far the most vibrant, there are still questions about the fate of prisoners and MIAs who fought in the other wars.

Many POW/MIA activists did not welcome the hearings. Ann Mills Griffiths, director of the National League of Families, believes the hearings were designed to bury the issue once and for all.

"What it did was tie up assets and resources for a very long time, cause great divisiveness, give a forum to irresponsibility as well as responsibility, and every time that happens the issue loses," she says. "It was a very well-orchestrated, concerted effort to pave the way for all of the steps that the Clinton administration would take. It was very well-done."

Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was chosen to chair the committee; Senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, was vice chair. Kerry and Smith, both Vietnam veterans, had differing opinions on the issue. Kerry made his skepticism clear early in the hearings, which went on for a year. Smith was more willing to believe that live POWs might remain abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia.

But it was Senator John McCain, the sole former POW on the committee, who attracted the spotlight during the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. McCain forged a relationship with Kerry, with whom he'd never been close (Kerry had become a war protester after returning from Vietnam) and made his skepticism about the live prisoner issue known during his questioning of witnesses.

During one memorable exchange, McCain reduced Dolores Alfond, the sister of a Vietnam POW/MIA, to tears with his harsh comments.

Carol Hrdlicka, who has obtained government documents indicating that her husband, David Hrdlicka, a Vietnam POW/MIA, was alive past 1973, flew to Washington, D.C., from Kansas for many of the hearing sessions.

Hrdlicka wears a laminated photo of her husband around her neck. Her concerns are typical.

"There's been no evidence to date that he ever died," Hrdlicka says of her husband. "If he's dead, where's his body, or where's the evidence? And there's no one from a government agency anyplace that has ever been able to answer that question."

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