I was sent to Vietnam in 1969, 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 onto the tarmac of US soil, and were welcomed into the arms of parents, wives and children. I recognized one--an instructor of mine in Ranger School. And one was John McCain.
Forty years later, in my capacity as president of a national trade association, I met Senator McCain in Washington, D.C. Unlike my brush from time-to-time with other well-known celebrities and government officials over the years, I was awe-struck. We shook hands and I expressed my gratitude for his service and sacrifice as a POW in Vietnam. I mentioned to him (trying to make it seem off-handed) that he was in Vietnam (as a POW) when I arrived in Vietnam and he was still in Vietnam when I left one year later! He smiled, nodded an affirmation, thanked me for my service...and we moved on to talk business.
Later I realized how trite my little mention! As I walked away from our meeting, it occurred to me (duh!) that McCain had probably heard the exact same sentiment from every Vietnam veteran he had ever encountered since he stepped off that plane in 1973! The fact is, McCain was a POW in Vietnam when just about every soldier, sailor or airman who served in Vietnam arrived and he was still a POW in Vietnam when they left. That would be as many as two million servicemen and women--and me.
McCain was a prisoner of war for 5 of the 8 years that the U.S. had combat troops in Vietnam (1965-73.) Thus, almost everyone who served in Vietnam had arrived and served one year (or more) and left Vietnam while McCain was still in prison--starved, beaten and tortured for five years.
I have always been in awe of John McCain for his extraordinary courage, integrity, beyond-comprehension sacrifice as a POW, 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.
John McCain passed away this week and I am saddened that he is gone when his service to our country is so much needed--again. He was a truly great American.