The word “hero” gets thrown around a lot in contemporary discourse, and is mostly attributed to people who are not, in fact, heroes.  Athletes, politicians, actors, and singers are all sources of inspiration for people. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that doesn’t make those people heroes.  But when John McCain passed away last Saturday, people from Capitol Hill and from around the country came together to remember a real hero.

A Line of Heroes

Senator McCain came from a family whose name is now among the most revered in the history of the United States Navy. His grandfather, John McCain Sr., was a naval aviator himself during World War II. Nicknamed “Slew,” he was a pioneer in carrier operations, and held several high commands during the Pacific War. Slew McCain died only four days after the formal Japanese surrender.

Slew’s son, John McCain Jr., otherwise known as Jack, also served in the Pacific as a submarine captain. Jack eventually became Commander in Chief in the Pacific (CINCPAC) during the Vietnam War. Together, Slew and Jack McCain would become the first father-son combination in US history to both become four star admirals. They were the namesakes behind the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain.

Senator John S. McCain III was added as a part of the vessel’s namesake during a re-dedication in July.

Heroism in Captivity

McCain would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and graduate from Annapolis in 1958.  Specifically he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and became a naval aviator.  After Annapolis, he served in Vietnam until late October 1967 where he took off from the flight deck of USS Oriskany and was shot down.

But in a war known for bumbling politicians, feuding service chiefs, and hostile public opinion, then-Lieutenant Commander McCain came to embody what an actual hero is. Upon finding out his father’s high rank, the North Vietnamese offered McCain his release. However, the offer would have given the North Vietnamese a propaganda win. It also would have demoralized fellow POWs, who saw that McCain got special treatment. Because of this, McCain refused to be released out of order.

As is well known, McCain was subjected to brutal torture while imprisoned. In addition to turning his hair white, his inability to fully move his arms and shoulders stayed with him as a result of the beatings at the Hanoi Hilton. Those beatings got worse after he refused to be released.

Remembering a Real Hero

John McCain will now be buried at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis where his career began. In being buried there, he will join a list of people that includes fellow naval heroes such as John Paul Jones, James Stockdale, and Isaac Kidd. Annapolis is where his father and grandfather also went to school, and where Barack Obama handed the senator’s son, John McCain IV, his college diploma in 2009. That was less than a year after the 2008 Presidential Election.

During his political career, John McCain served in the House from 1983-1987 and in the Senate from 1987-2018. McCain managed to drive just about everybody crazy for one reason or another. He was not a very good senator, a poor Presidential candidate, and would have been a mediocre President at best.

Yet on Saturday, John McCain reminded everyone–Republican, Democrat, conservative, and even democratic socialist–what a true hero looks like. Even the former head of the Hanoi Hilton mourned McCain’s passing and had a few nice words to say. For a brief moment in time, McCain reminded everyone that a person’s defining characteristics don’t have be tied to their politics.