I was sent to Vietnam in 1969. I served one year and came home. A few years later (1973), I knelt in front of my television and wept an ocean as just released American POW's got off a plane, stepped on the tarmac onto US soil, and into the arms of parents, wives and children. One of those POW's was John McCain.
Forty years later, in my capacity as president of a national trade association serving the business of senior living, I met Senator McCain. (Admittedly, I was awe-struck. It was an honor to be in his presence.) We shook hands and I expressed my gratitude for his sacrifice as a POW in Vietnam. I then mentioned that he was in Vietnam when I got there and he was still in Vietnam when I left. He shook my hand again, thanked me for my service...and we moved on to talk about business.
Later I realized how trite my little mention. McCain, I realized, had probably heard the exact same sentiment from every Vietnam veteran he had ever met since he stepped off that plane in 1973 until I met him. McCain was in Vietnam when they got there and he was still in Vietnam when they left.
That is because McCain was a prisoner of war for 5 of the 8 years that the U.S. had combat troops in Vietnam (1965-73.)* Thus, most everyone (who was fortunate to make it home alive) came and went in one year while he was starved, beaten and tortured for five years.
For his politics he was appreciated and respected (and loathed and despised by some.) But I have always been in awe of him for his extraordinary, almost-beyond-comprehension sacrifice and his lifetime of service to our nation. He will always be a hero to me and it was an honor to meet him and shake his hand. I am so sad that he is gone.
*There were a few thousand U.S. "advisors" in Vietnam before 1965 but President Johnson sent combat troops after the Gulf of Tonkin. By June of 1965 there were 82,000 combat troops in Vietnam and by 1967 over 500,000.