Fellow POWs stand by McCain

ST. PAUL -- John McCain is accused of talking too much about his experience as a prisoner of war, but many of his fellow Vietnam POWs say the Republican presidential nominee can't talk about it enough.

In McCain's acceptance speech, scheduled for tonight, "we think he should play it up more," says Dave Wheat, a retired Navy pilot from Minnesota who was a POW for more than seven years. "People have always been interested in our experience, and they tout it more than we do. … To say he's milking it" — as former president Jimmy Carter did last week — "is a gross injustice."

Tom McNish, shot down and captured in 1966, says the senator "is telling his story now to allow the American people to understand who he is."

For the POWs, McCain's nomination is a reminder of what they endured in captivity and achieved after it.

Wherever they watch his speech — living room, corner bar, convention floor — they'll think of how far they've come and how much they and others like them have paid: suicides and divorces, lost promotions and missed opportunities, wounds and nightmares.

"We've gone from the bottom of the heap to the top of the heap," says Alan Brunstrom, an Air Force pilot captured in 1966. Adds Bill Baugh of Colorado Springs, shot down on his 25th combat mission, "John's the epitome of how we've hung in there."

McCain was a Navy pilot when he was downed over North Vietnam in October 1967. He suffered crippling, life-threatening injuries; received poor medical treatment; turned down an early release offered by the North Vietnamese after they learned his father was a top Naval commander; was isolated and tortured.

Like most of the other POWs, he was released in 1973.

Today, they're still tight. "If you've walked through a fire together like that, you've shared an experience very few people can relate to," says McNish, who was in a cell next to McCain's in the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Almost all of McCain's former fellow captives like and respect him, even when they disagree. "I know him as a man, and that's most important," says Bill Austin, a former fighter pilot downed a few weeks before McCain. "He is who he says he is."

A few are more liberal than McCain; many are more conservative. Leo Thorsness of Madison, Ala., who shared a cell with him, differs on immigration — "I told him, 'Fix our borders first' " — and Brunstrom did not vote for McCain in the Florida primary because he was "too close to the middle."

Although their fraternity transcends — and to some extent disdains — politics, it has become enmeshed in the presidential campaign.

About two dozen former POWs are at the convention as McCain surrogates. On Tuesday night, one former POW, Robert Certain, gave the invocation; while another, Virginia delegate Orson Swindle, took the stage to ask POWs in the hall to rise. They received a standing ovation.

At least one former POW says he won't vote for McCain. Phillip Butler, a former Navy pilot shot down in 1965 who now lives in Monterey, Calif., lived across the hall from McCain at the U.S. Naval Academy. "I like and respect John as a person, but even if he were my blood brother, I would not vote for him," he says. "On Election Day, fitness to be president trumps everything."

Butler faults McCain's temper, age and stand on issues such as Iraq. He also says that many other POWs besides McCain turned down a chance for early release, and accuses him of using his imprisonment for political advantage: "He was just one of the guys, nothing special until the media started making him the hero, and he played along."

McCain talked about his POW experience in his stump speech in 2000, and in recent weeks he or his aides have brought it into discussions of the candidates' national security credentials and McCain's uncertainty about how many residences his family owns.

Most POWs are puzzled why anyone would think they could understand McCain without understanding what he went through. "What came out of that is going to affect our lives forever," Austin says, "some for good, some for bad."

Paradoxically, his old comrades are among the few Americans not in awe of what McCain survived; many were held longer or tortured harder. They love McCain not because he's exceptional, but because he's one of the gang.

Those whose capture preceded his make a joke: "I didn't meet John McCain in prison. John McCain met me."

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