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A Hero and Patriot Remembered

Every American should visit the Vietnam Wall. It’s the most moving location in all of the National Mall.

 

John McCain

 

He is a hero and a patriot and fittingly, he is being buried as one.

John McCain, regardless of your politics, was a great American.

Whether you agreed with him or not, he would do anything for what he considered his country.

I didn’t always agree with him. I laughingly always said, “Sometimes, he seems to not even agree with himself.”

He was a maverick, and in the Pineywoods I come from, that’s a good word. You’re beholden to no one except your conscience.

He was a bulldog. If he believed in something, he’d stick to his guns. Another admirable trait where I come from.

Best of all, he was bi-partisan. He worked across the aisle as needed. As a registered Independent, I believe the future of our country depends on bi-partisan cooperation.

Standing In the darkness at the Hanoi Hilton

In 2001, I made a clandestine mission trip to Vietnam.

It was surreal due to the fact that I’m a child of the war our country fought there.

I did not serve in the Vietnam War. When I turned 18 in 1974, the war was shutting down. I had a draft lottery number, but it was in the mid 300’s.

But like my generation, I grew up in the shadow of America’s darkest war.  It divided our nation like no other and is considered the first war America ever lost.

So to step into the country of Vietnam in the second full year of the 20th century was an emotional and stirring event. We were smuggling Bibles (wrapped as Christmas presents). Amazingly, we were never stopped or questioned.

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now known, was a bustling beehive of bicycles, motorcycles, and small taxis. Crossing the street was a chore in itself.  Saigon didn’t feel communist. It had the residue of the French, Chinese, Americans stamped on it.

However, our northward journey to Hanoi, the nation’s capital was a stark contrast. Hanoi is a much smaller and quieter city. It is built around a series of beautiful lakes and doesn’t have the rushed feel of its southern cousin city.

But I felt like a foreigner there. They see fewer westerners and view us with more shyness and suspicion. I saw many older men wearing the omnipresent green pith helmet of the North Vietnamese Army. Some glared. Others smiled and nodded. None ignored me.

The most touching part of our Hanoi trip was visiting Hao Lo (“Hell’s Hole) Prison.  We Americans know it as the Hanoi Hilton. This is the location where U.S. pilots, shot down and captured, were imprisoned for the remainder of the war.

Ha Lao was built by the colonial French as a prison for the Viet Minh, who fought them in the 1950’s. There’s still a guillotine standing in the prison yard.

Due to the small stature of the Vietnamese, the prison is small and cramped. We were forced to kneel to enter some cell areas. As you’d expect, it was dark, musty, and still smelled of sweat and dampness.

This is where John McCain spent over five years as a prisoner of war.

He was one of dozens of Americans who occupied time at the Hanoi Hilton.

I felt as If I was standing on holy ground.

I was.

Visiting the prison reminded me that freedom is never free, and regardless of one’s feelings on the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War, brave Americans served faithfully.

I also visited West Lake, a large body of water in central Hanoi. It is where McCain parachuted into after he was shot down. Local men swam out to drag and beat him as they brought him ashore.

Two homeless Hanoi boys sleeping near West Lake on a cool night.

During this week of his death, we’ve relived the stories of the torture and abuse he endured.

I’m particularly moved by the story of the offer of his release due to his father’s high rank in the Navy. McCain refused, saying that it wasn’t his turn.

In the post-war years, I admired how John McCain bore no animosity toward the Vietnamese. That is the mark of a soldier and great man.

He was both.

May his service and sacrifice always be celebrated.

____________________________________________________________________

Tomorrow, I’ll share the remarkable story of another Vietnam hero. One who has nearly been forgotten. After you read my story, you’ll remember him for the rest of your life.

 

His name was Hugh Thompson.

Hugh Thompson

 

Hugh Thompson’s Grave in Lafayette, La

 

 

 

About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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