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The end of an era 

The death of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is a loss for all those who served and fought in our nation's wars. McCain, a self-described "maverick" in politics, evoked strong feelings across the political aisles of Washington and among the public. He seemed to revel in frustrating everyone with his apparent eccentricity and being predictably unpredictable. However, the one area he could be counted on was his stalwart defense of and advocacy for those who served in uniform, fighting for a strong national defense.

McCain the naval officer described his rebellious attitude toward authority as originating with being from a family with a long Navy tradition. He was the son and grandson of admirals. His grandfather was famous as a fighting admiral in the Pacific Theater of WWII against the Japanese. Tragically, the strain of command was so great that upon his return home he collapsed, dying one day after his return from the war.

Sen. McCain's naval heritage foreordained his naval career, but his rebellious streak manifested itself early. He often joked about graduating fifth from the bottom of his Academy class, earning more than his share of demerits as a naval cadet.

McCain was truly a member of a unique brotherhood, as the Naval Academy in the mid-1950s was the home of the best and brightest. Getting admitted, even as an admiral's son, required high intelligence, exceptional proficiency in math, science, and engineering. The Naval Academy was, academically, the most challenging of the service academies. McCain went on to qualify as a naval aviator, a carrier pilot and a combat fighter-pilot. We're talking about the top 1 percent of the top 5 percent of the officer corps. Navy fighter-pilots are the best in the world, and anyone who has landed on a pitching deck moving 30 miles per hour in the dead of night is not likely to disagree with that assessment. They're smart, they know they're smart, the best being almost arrogantly smart and supremely self-confident; they have to be to survive air-to-air combat at 600 miles per hour.

During the Vietnam War, McCain was the victim (along with many other combat pilots) of the infinite stupidity of the Harvard-mafia whiz kids running the Pentagon and the State Department during the Vietnam War, giving the worst advice that any president ever received on how to lose a war.

To ensure the North Vietnamese were not too offended by President Johnson's bombing campaign of their airfields and supply corridors supporting their war effort, Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, imposed strict rules of engagement on men like McCain. The North Vietnamese had installed surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the Russian-supplied SAM-2, to defend North Vietnamese airspace. The rules McCain and other combat pilots were forced to observe prohibited them from attacking SAM sites before they became operational. This dramatically increased the risk to American pilots by unnecessarily subjecting them to increased probability of being shot down by a SAM.

As McCain describes his experience on October 26, 1967, he "managed to drive his aircraft into an airborne SAM," thus beginning a 5 1/2 year ordeal in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison camp. The North Vietnamese did not observe the Geneva Convention and treated downed American pilots not as prisoners of war but as war criminals. Our pilots were routinely tortured, savagely beaten, and starved in near total isolation, the longest being held prisoner for more than seven years. McCain's injuries left him disabled for life.

McCain returned home in 1973 a changed man. He suffered what we now know to be severe post-traumatic stress syndrome, which was not yet recognized as a medical condition. Like many veterans returning from long combat service, McCain did not adjust well to civilian life. McCain's marriage to his first wife collapsed by 1980. She had campaigned tirelessly on behalf of POWs during the war, fighting an indifferent Pentagon bureaucracy that insisted POW wives maintain a low profile. Her efforts on his behalf must have been a bitter pill when her wartime loyalty did not dissuade him from infidelity and erratic behavior.

McCain's early political career was equally erratic, and his stint as a senator frequently put him on both sides of the political aisle; he marched to his own drummer, always. This posture frustrated conservatives as he could not be relied upon to stand firm on key ideological issues.

Nevertheless, McCain tirelessly advocated for military personnel to ensure they were adequately funded. He warned of the threats posed by an increasingly dangerous world and the need to be prepared when others spoke of "peace dividends" and slashed military appropriations to the bone. McCain knew how much damage was being done, remembering his grandfather's Navy, a force that put 1,500 ships and 500,000 men offshore to seize Okinawa in WWII, a naval force more than five times larger than the entire U.S. Navy today.

As a man, McCain was flawed, but so are we all. As an officer, he served gallantly and with great distinction and as an advocate and protector of the military he loved, he was second to none. His death marks the end of an era of true heroes; I doubt there's anyone to replace him. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at [email protected].

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