Alle-Kiski veterans call McCain a hero despite Trump’s opinion

September 19, 2018

Dale Fatchet (left) and Dean Walker, both veterans of the Vietnam War, discuss the passing of Sen. John McCain on Monday at VFW Post 5758 in Tarentum.

It didn’t matter what party they belonged to, or whether they agreed with his positions, or what President Trump says about him -- to several of the Alle-Kiski Valley’s Vietnam-era veterans, Sen. John McCain was their brother and a hero of the nation he spent a lifetime serving.

A handful of veterans interviewed Monday were critical of Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death.

Bowing to pressure, Trump on Monday ordered American flags at federal buildings lowered to half-staff for McCain until his burial planned for Sunday.

Trump’s proclamation came just hours after the White House flag had been returned to full-staff, drawing complaints from right and left.

Trump, who had traded bitter criticism with McCain since before the 2016 election, declared his order “a mark of respect.” At the same time, he said it would be Vice President Mike Pence and other officials who would represent the administration at McCain’s funeral.

“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment,” Trump said in a statement.

The statement came two days after McCain died at 81 from brain cancer -- and after objections to Trump’s silence from lawmakers and others, including the American Legion, which demanded that he do more to honor the Vietnam War hero and six-term senator.

Trump initially tweeted condolences to McCain’s family but made no mention then of the Arizona Republican with whom he feuded for years.

Even as flags remained at half-staff Monday at the Capitol, the Washington Memorial and elsewhere, the White House flag was raised.

Five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp couldn’t lessen McCain’s spirit or his love of country, according to Dale Fatchet, an Army Ranger and three-time Purple Heart recipient from Brackenridge, nor did it change the fact that McCain was his very definition of a hero.

“I spent a year in an Army hospital after I was shot the third time and almost went out of my mind,” said Fatchet, who serves as a service officer with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “I can’t imagine five years in a prison camp.”

Trump in 2015 said McCain’s time as a prisoner of war was not enough to qualify him as a hero.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

The men who served in the Vietnam War that McCain did would beg to differ with the commander in chief.

“All of us who served in Vietnam consider him a brother,” Fatchet said. “I respected him highly. I might not have agreed with him politically, but that fact had nothing to do with his service to this country.”

Fatchet, 69, said he voted for Trump despite the fact that he can’t say he likes the man.

But news that the president refused to issue a formal statement on McCain’s passing and re-raised so quickly the American flag that had been lowered to half-staff in McCain’s honor caught Fatchet off guard. The flag at the White House was lowered for two days, which is appropriate under the U.S. Flag Code. But it’s the shortest time in several decades that it has been lowered to honor a dignitary. During recent presidencies, flags remained lowered until the person being honored was buried.

“That surprises me,” Fatchet said. “I’m upset about it.”

“That’s just disrespectful arrogance,” said Dean Walker, 67, of Harrison. Walker was a combat engineer when he went to Vietnam, somewhere he said McCain didn’t even have to be, let alone choose to stay as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese offered to release McCain when they learned of his military pedigree and lineage, but he refused.

“He came from a wealthy family; he didn’t have to serve, but he didn’t get any deferments,” Walker said. “Then, he was shot down, captured, and they were going to allow him to leave and he refused. He’s a hero.”

Greg Heinle was a door gunner during his service in Vietnam. Heinle, 67, said McCain always struck him as something of a novelty in Congress: a man of integrity.

“He took his job honestly,” said Heinle, of Harrison. “He didn’t play the political card. I couldn’t believe a president would say the things he has about McCain.”

Heinle minced no words regarding his feelings for Trump and the president’s initial response to McCain’s passing.

″‘Cadet Bone Spurs’ -- when he wouldn’t lower that flag, well this guy deserves all that,” Heinle said. “I don’t see why any of that was necessary. Something political, I guess. He just wants to make everything about himself, but this isn’t about Trump. This is about McCain.”

The president has been referred to as “Cadet Bone Spurs” by those critical of his deferments from service in the Vietnam War because of allegedly painful bone growths on his heel.

Steve “Spider” Willison, a Marine, said that his service could have been deferred as well. At 5-foot-6 and 115 pounds, he was too short and too skinny to join the Marine Corps, but he found a way to get in.

“I wanted to serve my country,” said Willison, of Tarentum. “But this president, five deferments, he attacked a Gold Star family, attacked John McCain’s service. ... There are lots of things McCain was that I didn’t like, but he was a hero.”

Willison wears a silver-and-black bracelet engraved with the names of Pennsylvanians who are still missing in action following the Vietnam War.

“There are still 90-some men still unaccounted for from Pennsylvania. This isn’t about their views. They are all heroes. It wasn’t about McCain’s views. This is about a POW coming home after he stayed back.

“Is John McCain a hero? Yes. Trump is wrong.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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