Sen. John McCain, a decorated veteran of the U.S. Navy who spent years as a prisoner of war after being shot down in Vietnam, returned home to become a distinguished United States Senator and once a contender for President of the United States, has died at 81 years old.
Sen. McCain faced more threats in one lifetime than many of this colleagues will ever know, having survived a number of plane crashes and multiple bouts with skin cancer, though he will also be known for facing them without fear, even holding fast to his ideals when’s fellow Republicans attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and President Trump criticized him publicly.
McCain left Capitol Hill for health reasons in December, after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Understanding he may not make it back, he spent his last days in Arizona, surrounded by family. He discontinued treatment for glioblastoma on Friday, August 24, and died at 4:28 p.m. on Saturday, August 25.
During his first few years in the military, McCain first made a name for himself as an insubordinate. As CNN reports, he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy.
“My superiors didn’t hold me in very high esteem in those days. Their disapproval was measured in the hundreds of miles of extra duty I marched in my time here,” the veteran told graduates at Annapolis in October 2017.
Throughout his career, McCain would earn a number of medals.
- Silver Star
- 2 Legions of Merits
- Distinguished Flying Cross
- 3 Bronze Star Medals
- 2 Purple Hearts
- 2 Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals
- Prisoner of War Medal
After being shot down over Hanoi, a badly injured McCain was taken prisoner by NVA forces, where he was tortured and held in solitary confinement for two years. He was subject to painful and demoralizing treatment, but refused to be let free earlier than his fellow prisoners.
McCain was released in 1973, and spent the following years recovering, though he would live with physical and psychological scars for the rest of his life.
While his mother urged him to stay with the Navy after returning home from Vietnam, McCain’s aspirations, as well as an understanding of his limitations, drew him into politics. He first worked as a Senate Liaison Office within the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs in 1977, becoming director of the office in 1979. Realizing he would never become a four-star admiral like his grandfather, McCain retired from the Navy in 1981.
With his efforts devoted to the political arena, McCain aligned with Reagan Republicans, and won two terms in the House of Representatives between 1983 and 1987, followed by six terms as a Senator from Arizona.
During the senator’s runs for president in the 2000s, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full force. McCain would criticize President Barack Obama for withdrawing troops from those arenas shortly after losing his bid for the presidency alongside running mate Sarah Palin, but later confessed that the war Iraq was a mistake, in which he was complicit.
“The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it,” he wrote in his memoir The Restless Wave.
In his last years as a senator, McCain was at odds with President Trump from the beginning of his term in 2016. He traveled the world assuring the leaders of other countries that the United States could still be counted on as a trusted ally. McCain’s family refused to allow Trump to attend services for the elder statesman, though former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were invited to give eulogies.
In 2017, McCain shared with CNN how he wanted the world, and fellow countrymen, to remember him.
“He served his country, and not always right — made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors — but served his country, and, I hope we could add, honorably,” McCain said.
Learn more about McCain’s life and service in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.