Is John McCain a War Hero?

Craig Willbanks wants you to know that John McCain--former prisoner of war, current senator, White House aspirant--is a traitor, a liar and a wimp.

Willbanks and McCain have never met. The senator probably has never heard of this hunched-over, soft-spoken fellow who served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an Army combat engineer and now lives in a run-down apartment in Mesa.

Craig Willbanks is obsessed with John McCain, and he is not alone.

He is part of a small, nationwide movement hell-bent on convincing the rest of us that in spite of glowing accounts of McCain's valor as a POW, Arizona's senior senator betrayed his country by collaborating with the North Vietnamese, and has been trying to cover up that fact ever since.

Willbanks' mission: "Don't get him elected. Cannot have . . . a traitor in the top position, giving away secrets of the United States."

To that end, Willbanks spends virtually all his free time retyping any Arizona Republic articles that portray the senator in an unflattering light. He intends to post them on the Web, where they'll join a pile of documents that, Willbanks insists, proves McCain collaborated with the Communists during his five years as a POW.

Willbanks has a paying job, as a bus driver for the City of Mesa. But he was recently reassigned to drive an adult day-care van. He's excited about it; the older people will want to talk about war history, and he can give them packets of information he keeps on McCain. He's already given out 15 or so.

"I give them a packet, and they come back and say, 'Well, that goddamn traitor,'" he says.

The "documents" include an article McCain wrote for U.S. News & World Report in 1973, upon his release from prison camp. In the article, McCain admits that he--like many POWs--confessed to war crimes under physical and emotional duress. There's also a transcript of an interview POW McCain did for French television, a story about McCain that appeared in a Vietnamese newspaper, and an account of an interview of McCain by a Spanish psychiatrist.

Willbanks got these documents from retired Army Colonel Earl Hopper Sr. and his wife, Patty, who run a POW/MIA research organization from their home in Glendale. The Hoppers' goal is to force the U.S. government to produce a full accounting of the more than 2,000 men whose bodies have not been recovered from the Vietnam War. Among those men is Earl Hopper Jr., the colonel's eldest son.

Willbanks and the Hoppers believe that live American soldiers were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War, and that McCain is part of the conspiracy to cover it up. McCain has long contended that there is no proof that live Americans remain in Southeast Asia. The Hoppers have gathered a motley crew of local Vietnam veterans and POW/MIA family members to assist in their crusade against McCain, and have hooked up with like-minded vets and POW kin across the country.

One foot soldier for the cause is Roy Kerr, a veteran from Goodyear who researches McCain's business interests full-time. Around New Year's, Kerr hand-delivered anti-McCain packets to syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, U.S. Representative Henry Hyde and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who were in town for "The Weekend," a conservative confab at the Arizona Biltmore resort. Kerr packaged the documents in manila envelopes labeled "Veterans for McCain," figuring no one would open a package that said "Veterans Against McCain."

Kerr says he has driven to McCain's home at night to drop copies of anti-McCain literature and "Dump McCain" stickers over the senator's fence. And he's a frequent caller to radio talk shows when McCain is a guest. He proudly provides taped copies of these interviews, bragging that he made the senator stutter. (Barely, if at all.) He does all of this, he says, "to keep myself busy and appease my dislike for McCain."

And then there's Ted Sampley, who publishes a newspaper out of Kinston, North Carolina, called U.S. Veteran Dispatch. Sampley calls McCain the "Manchurian Candidate," maintaining that the Vietnamese brainwashed McCain, then sent him home to do their bidding--which, to Sampley's way of thinking, explains why McCain was instrumental in the nation's normalization of relations with Vietnam.

The POW/MIA zealots are a dwindling subculture. Mainstream society tends to dismiss the Willbankses, Hoppers and Kerrs as sad footnotes to an ugly chapter in American history.

Stanley Kutler, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin and editor of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, calls the behavior of these people "Sick. If it weren't so sick, it would be laughable. These are not nice people. They are the other side in an ongoing uncivil Civil War in America. They would refight Vietnam, criminalize abortion, make public school prayer mandatory, prove that Hillary bumped off Vince Foster, and indict Teddy Kennedy for Chappaquiddick. They are uncivil and intolerant of any views or information they do not share."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.