McCain and the Bracelet

Toward the end of almost every speech he gives or informal remarks he delivers at a town hall-style meeting, Sen. John McCain tells the same story.

If you watch him carefully, you can even tell when it's coming.

The Arizona senator will shoot his right arm forward in his suit sleeve, revealing a dark metallic band low on his wrist. It's probably an unconscious gesture. He doesn't hold up the bracelet. He doesn't look at it. But very soon he will tell the story. He has told it hundreds of times.

"Every once in a while," he invariably begins, "you have an experience, an event in our lives, that puts everything into the right priority and into the right importance in your life. That happened to me last August in Wolfeboro, N.H. A woman stood up at the town hall meeting and said: 'Sen. McCain, would you wear a bracelet with my son's name on it?'"

"Matthew Stanley. Matthew was 22 years old. He was killed in combat outside of Baghdad just before Christmas [2006],'" McCain explains. " I said 'I would be honored to wear this bracelet.' And then she said: 'Sen. McCain, I just want you to promise me one thing. I want you to promise me that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain.' I promised her then that I would. And I will keep that promise, not only to her, but to thousands and thousands of other family members of brave young Americans who have served and sacrificed."

The bracelet is black or cobalt blue and has a dull sheen. It bears a small picture of Stanley and is engraved with his name along with his rank -- Army specialist -- to which he was posthumously promoted. It also has the date of his death. Dec. 16th, 2006. McCain put it on and hasn't taken it off since.

Lynne Savage is Stanley's mother. At 54, she is a special education assistant at Kingswood Regional Middle School in Wolfeboro, N.H.

It was just by chance that she met with McCain. Her husband, James Savage, Stanley's stepfather, is an ardent McCain supporter, so when the candidate came to town in August, he wanted her to go with him. Unlike her husband, Savage is a Democrat.

She agree to go mostly out of curiosity.

"I had an idea what he was like from the first time he had run for president [in 2000]," she said. "My husband was talking about him quite a bit at that time. He seemed like a nice guy, but that's as far as it went at that time. I really wasn't all that interested. I was a Democrat for gosh sakes. But, this time, when I went I listened more carefully to what he had to say. After having lost my son in a war, I wanted to know what they all had to say, so I said I will go and I will listen and I did."

She listened to McCain explain his support for war in Iraq and the U.S. troop surge there. When he took questions from the audience,  Savage raised her hand, surprising herself at her uncharacteristic audacity.  

"I had my son's bracelet on and for some reason, I began to think about the Vietnam War," she said. " I raised my hand and I said to him, 'You know, during that war, I kept the memory of somebody and now I have to wear my son's bracelet.' And I asked him if he wouldn't mind wearing it so he could remember why he was running for president … so that my son doesn't die in vain."

McCain approached until he was standing just a few feet away, she said.

"He was overwhelmed," she said. "He said 'I'll wear it. I'll wear it every day.' It was a very touching moment."

That night, on the couple's return home, she said to her husband, "I wonder if he'll really wear it.' I think I said I was shocked that I did that in front of that crowd. But I felt glad that I did."

When Stanley graduated from Kingswood Regional High School in 2002, he had no idea what he wanted to do next. He moved to Revere, Mass., to live his father, Richard Stanley. At first, he enrolled in a community college to see whether anything in particular seemed like a good fit. Nothing did, so he left school.

He then worked at a variety of jobs, including his family's seafood business. Still, none of them was right. In the fall of 2003 -- six months after the war with Iraq had begun -- Stanley announced to his family that he wanted to join the Army. He was 19 years old.

"He said, 'You know what, Mom? There isn't anything that I can see myself doing, I am going to go to the military. I am going to do what I think I should do and I'm sure when I come out, I'm sure I'll have a better grasp on what I want,'" Stanley said. "I said, 'Can't you wait until the war is over?' He said, 'No, that's why I want to go.' He thought that he could do something good for this country. He was proud to be an American."

As a mounted cavalry scout, the private did one tour of duty in Iraq, about 10 months, then he and his unit were sent back to their home base in Fort Hood, Texas. While he was there, he married Amy, a young woman he had met in Massachusetts.

He spoke often with his mother, but she said he rarely talked about Iraq.  

"He didn't tell me anything," she said. "He didn't want to talk about anything. I got the impression it was his job, maybe some of it he knew mom might be a little too worried. He was just a really good boy. He wouldn't have done anything to worry me in that respect, knowing that he would be going back some day. I think he just tried to keep it under wraps and say 'It's just my job, just my job, Ma. I just do what I have to do.'"

But on one occasion, he volunteered a little more than usual.  

"He actually said to me that [he] had heard from other soldiers that have come back that's not as bad as before," she said. "[He said] 'I'll be in a Bradley [Fighting Vehicle] and I'll be a lot safer.' [I said] 'OK, Matt, you know, I hope that's true. Be careful. We're praying for you.' Come to find out it wasn't as safe as he thought it was."

Two months into his second tour of duty, Stanley was riding in a Humvee -- not a heavily-armored Bradley -- in the city of Taji with two soldiers. A roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle, killing all three soldiers.

As his mother was growing up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, the Vietnam War raged.

Savage recalls being against the war yet when she heard that a local group was selling silver wristbands with the names of POWs and MIAs etched in them, she bought one.

She wore it for years before leaving it with her mother when she moved out to live on her own. The silver bracelet was lost over the years.

Many years later, as the United States prepared to attack Iraq over Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction, the mother of three adult children had doubts about the imminent new war.

"I don't think I was in favor of it," she said "I kind of thought that it probably should have been thought out a little bit longer before we kinda went. I wasn't thrilled when my son said he was going to join the military so he could go to war."

She hasn't changed her mind about whether going to war was right. To her, that really doesn't matter now. It's done. It happened.

"I just don't think that pulling everybody out is the right thing to do," she said. "I think it would be a sign of defeat, failure. For whatever reason they got in. I may not necessarily agree with the reason of how we got there or how it was handled or whatever, but I do think we need to finish what we start."

A few weeks after Savage gave her bracelet to McCain, she and her husband were invited to hear him give a speech. Later, she rode in with the candidate and his staff in the Straight Talk Express, the campaign bus, when he launched his No Surrender tour in September.

"It was quite an experience, one I'll never forget" she said.

The Savages were invited to other events that fall, but she was ill and they declined. She spoke once to McCain on the phone, but otherwise they lost touch with him.

Then, Dec. 16, the anniversary of their son's death, their home phone rang. It was McCain.

  "I thought that was just incredible," she said. "He took time out of his busy life just to call, just to see how I was doing. He wanted to make sure I was OK is what he said."

Many weeks later, a friend called to say that she had seen McCain on C-Span at a campaign event and that he had mentioned Matthew and the bracelet she had given him.

Savage said until that moment she had no idea McCain spoke about it -- about Matthew, about her -- at almost every stop.   

"It kind of makes me feel good," she said. "I promised to myself that I would not keep [just] my son's memory alive, but all the soldiers who have passed. I think by doing that he's fulfilling my dream of keeping the memories alive."

"I think it's absolutely wonderful. I don't think we can have a finer president."

Her husband has since bought her another bracelet like the one she gave to McCain. She wears that one now.

"I have my days," she said with a sigh. "I lost my son. What do you say? I lost the baby of my family. He's missed, terribly."