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My Debt to a Veteran By: Senator John McCain
MSNBC.com | Tuesday, November 11, 2003

(The following tribute by John McCain is an excerpt from author Peter Collier's and photographer Nick Del Calzo's new book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.”) 

Ennobled by Example

I owe not only respect and gratitude but my life to a Medal of Honor recipient. After I was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War and had spent some time in a hospital, where my condition did not particularly improve, I asked to be transferred to a prison camp where other Americans were being held. My North Vietnamese captors moved me to a camp called “the Plantation.”

To my great relief, I was placed in a cell in a building with two other prisoners, both Air Force majors, George “Bud” Day, who is profiled in this book, and Norris Overly. I could have asked for no better companions. There has never been a doubt in my mind that Bud Day and Norris Overly saved my life.

Bud and Norris later told me that their first impression of me, emaciated, bug-eyed, and bright with fever, was of a man at the threshold of death. They thought the Vietnamese expected me to die and had placed me in their care to escape the blame when I failed to recover.

Despite my condition, I was overjoyed to be in the company of Americans. I wouldn’t stop talking all through that first day with Bud and Norris. They accommodated me to the best of their ability, and were the souls of kindness as they eased my way to what they believed was my imminent death.

Bud himself had been seriously injured when he ejected from his aircraft. Like me, he had broken his right arm in three places and had torn the ligaments in his knee. After his capture, he had attempted an escape to the south, and had nearly reached an American airfield when he was recaptured. He was brutally tortured for his efforts, and for subsequently resisting his captors’ every entreaty for information.

First held in prison in Vinh before making the 150-mile trip north to Hanoi, Bud had experienced early the full measure of the mistreatment that would be his fate for nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His captors had looped rope around his shoulders, tightened it until his shoulders were nearly touching, and then hung him by the arms from the rafter of the torture room, tearing his shoulders apart. Left in this condition for hours, Bud never acceded to the Vietnamese demands for military information. They had to refracture his broken right arm and threaten to break the other before Bud gave them anything at all. 

Bud was a tough man, a fierce resister, whose example was an inspiration to every man who served with him. For his heroic escape attempt, he received the Medal of Honor.

Bud and I were roommates for about three months in prison. When the Vietnamese observed that I could get around on crutches, they moved Bud to another cell. I cannot adequately describe how sorry I was to part company with my friend and inspiration. Up until then, I don’t believe I had ever relied on any other person for emotional and physical support to the extent I had relied on Bud.

You will read about Bud in this book, and about Rear Admiral James Stockdale, our legendary senior ranking officer in North Vietnam’s prison camps. As a resistance leader, Jim had few peers. He was a constant inspiration to the men under his command. Many of his Vietnamese captors hated him for his fierce and unyielding spirit. One, whom we had nicknamed the Rabbit, hated him the most. 

One day, the Rabbit ordered Jim cleaned up so that he could be filmed for a propaganda movie in which he would play a visiting American businessman. He was given a razor to shave. Jim used it to hack off his hair, severely cutting his scalp in the process and spoiling his appearance, in the hope that this would render him unsuitable for his enemies’ purpose. 

But the Rabbit was not so easily dissuaded. He left to find a hat to place on Jim’s bleeding head. In the intervening moments, Jim picked up a wooden stool and repeatedly bashed his face with it. Disfigured, Jim succeeded in frustrating the Rabbit’s plans for him that evening.

On a later occasion, after being whipped and tied in ropes at the hands of a demented Vietnamese interrogator we called Bug, Jim was forced to confess that he had defied camp regulations restricting communication with fellow prisoners. But Bug was not through with him. He informed Jim that he would be back tomorrow to torture him for more information. Jim feared that he would be forced to give up the names of the men he had been communicating with. In an effort to impress his enemies with his determination not to betray his comrades, he broke a window and slashed his wrist with a shard of glass.

As his Medal of Honor citation reads, Rear Admiral Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country. 

In the eyes of those of us he commanded in the camps, Jim Stockdale earned his Medal of Honor citation a dozen times over.

You will not read about Lance Sijan in this book. He won the Medal of Honor posthumously and is not included in this collection of tributes to the living Medal of Honor recipients. But all Americans should know his story.

Of all the many legends of heroic devotion to duty that I had come, in Vietnam’s prisoner of war camps, to know as real, and to seek strength and solace from, none was more inspiring than the story of Lance Sijan. I never knew him, but I wish I had. I wish I had one moment to tell him how much I admired him, how indebted I was to him for showing me, for showing all of us, our duty-for showing us how to be free.

He was gone before I heard of him. But my fellow prisoners Bob Craner and Guy Gruters had lived with Lance for a time, and Bob had told me his story very early in our friendship. Air Force Captain Lance Sijan was shot down near Vinh on November 9, 1967. 

For a day and a half, he lay semiconscious on the ground, grievously injured, with a compound fracture of his left leg, a brain concussion, and a fractured skull. He made radio contact with rescue aircraft, but they were unable to locate him in the dense jungle. On November 11, they abandoned the search.

Crawling on the jungle floor at night, Lance fell into a sinkhole, further injuring himself. For six weeks he evaded capture. On Christmas Day, starved, racked with pain, he passed out on a dirt road, where a few hours later the North Vietnamese found him. Thus began the most inspiring POW story of the war, a story of one man’s fearless fidelity to our Code of Conduct. To Lance Sijan, the Code was not an abstract ideal, but the supreme purpose of his life.

The Code is a straightforward document. Its simply worded assertions might strike cynics as posturing, a simplistic and chauvinistic relic of a time when Americans carried with them to war a conceit that they were stronger, better, and more virtuous than any enemy they would face. In truth, few prisoners could claim that they never came close to violating one or more of its principles. Many of us were terrorized into failure at one time or another.

But Captain Sijan wasn’t. He obeyed the Code to the letter.

A short time after he was captured, he overpowered an armed guard and managed to escape, taking the guard’s rifle with him. Recaptured several hours later, he was tortured as punishment for his escape attempt and for military information. He refused to provide his captors anything beyond what the Code allowed. By the time he reached Hanoi, he was close to death.

Over six feet tall, he weighed less than a hundred pounds when he was placed in a cell with Bob Craner and Guy Gruters. He lived there barely a month. In and out of consciousness, often delirious, he would push on the walls of his cell and scratch on the floor, searching vainly for a way out. When he was lucid and not consumed with pain, he would quiz his cellmates about the camp’s security and talk with them about escaping again.

Interrogated several times, he refused to say anything. He was savagely beaten for his silence, kicked repeatedly and struck with a bamboo club. Bob and Guy heard him scream profanities at his tormentors, and then, after he had endured hours of torture, they heard him say in a weak voice: “Don’t you understand? I’m not going to tell you anything. I can’t talk to you. It’s against the Code.”

Bob and Guy tried to comfort him during his last hours. Working in shifts timed to the tolling of a nearby church bell, they cradled his head in their laps, talked quietly to him of his courage and faith, told him to hang on. Occasionally he shook off his delirium to joke with his cellmates about his circumstances.

Near the end, the guards came for him. Lance knew they were taking him away to die. As they placed him on a stretcher, he said to his friends, “It’s over... it’s over.” He called to his father for help as the guards carried him away.

A few days later, a prison guard told Bob Craner what he already knew, that his friend was dead. And Bob, a good and wise man, resolved to share with any prisoner he could reach the legend of Lance Sijan so that all of us could draw strength from the example of a man who would not yield no matter how terrible the consequences. A few weeks later, when I was moved into the cell next to Bob’s, he told me the story of Lance Sijan: a free man from a free country, who kept his dignity to the last moment of his life.

As you read in these pages about Bud, Jim, and Lance, and Leo Thorsness and Jon Cavaiani, who were in prison with us, and about my friends Bob Kerrey and Dan Inouye, and all the other heroes whose extraordinary service to America is memorialized in this book, you will be awed, as I am, not only by their courage and character, but by the country that produced such men and that was ennobled by the example they set for the rest of us.

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