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 6 feet by 2 feet with no ventilation in it, and it was very, very hot. During the summer I suffered from heat prostration a couple or three times, and dysentery. I was very ill. Washing facilities were nonexistent. My food was cut down to about half rations. Sometimes I'd go for a day or so without eating.

All during this time I was taken out to interrogation and pressured to see the antiwar people. I refused.

By late December 1970, McCain was moved to a section of the Hanoi Hilton called "Camp Unity," where for the first time he was in a large cell with dozens of other prisoners.

In March 1971, it was back to solitary, this time at another camp called "Skid Row." November 1971, back to the Hanoi Hilton, and a room of about 40 POWs.

Aside from bad situations now and then, 1971 and 1972 was a sort of coasting period. The reason why you see our men in such good condition today is that the food and everything generally improved. For example, in late '69 I was down to 105, 110 pounds, boils all over me, suffering dysentery. We started getting packages with vitamins in them--about one package a year. We were able to exercise quite a bit in our rooms and managed to get back in a lot better health.

My health has improved radically. In fact, I think I'm in better physical shape than I was when I got shot down.

In January 1973, following intense U.S. bombing of Hanoi, as the end of the war neared, McCain was moved again to The Plantation. On March 15, he boarded a plane home, as part of Operation Homecoming.

He concluded his U.S. News piece:
I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life--along with a man's family--is to make some contribution to his country.

John McCain was free again, but his poorly mended bones required extensive surgery and ultimately grounded him to a desk job. Yet as one career ended, another began. In 1977, McCain was assigned to be the Navy's liaison to the U.S. Senate--a perfect gig for a guy intrigued by politics.

It was an easy transition for McCain, who had been raised amid dignitaries. His office quickly became the party spot on the Hill. But from the start, POW/MIA-niks took a dim view of McCain.

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.

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