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Mishaps mark John McCain's record as naval aviator

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Three crashes early in his career led Navy officials to question or fault his judgment.

By Ralph Vartabedian and Richard A. Serrano

Los Angeles Times

October 6, 2008


John McCain was training in his AD-6 Skyraider on an overcast Texas morning in 1960 when he slammed into Corpus Christi Bay and sheared the skin off his plane's wings.

McCain recounted the accident decades later in his autobiography. "The engine quit while I was practicing landings," he wrote. But an investigation board at the Naval Aviation Safety Center found no evidence of engine failure.

The 23-year-old junior lieutenant wasn't paying attention and erred in using "a power setting too low to maintain level flight in a turn," investigators concluded.

The crash was one of three early in McCain's aviation career in which his flying skills and judgment were faulted or questioned by Navy officials.

In his most serious lapse, McCain was "clowning" around in a Skyraider over southern Spain about December 1961 and flew into electrical wires, causing a blackout, according to McCain's own account as well as those of naval officers and enlistees aboard the carrier Intrepid. In another incident, in 1965, McCain crashed a T-2 trainer jet in Virginia.

After McCain was sent to Vietnam, his plane was destroyed in an explosion on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 1967. Three months later, he was shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi and taken prisoner. He was not faulted in either of those cases and was later lauded for his heroism as a prisoner of war.

As a presidential candidate, McCain has cited his military service -- particularly his 5 1/2 years as a POW. But he has been less forthcoming about his mistakes in the cockpit.

The Times interviewed men who served with McCain and located once-confidential 1960s-era accident reports and formerly classified evaluations of his squadrons during the Vietnam War. This examination of his record revealed a pilot who early in his career was cocky, occasionally cavalier and prone to testing limits.

In today's military, a lapse in judgment that causes a crash can end a pilot's career. Though standards were looser and crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain's record stands out.

"Three mishaps are unusual," said Michael L. Barr, a former Air Force pilot with 137 combat missions in Vietnam and an internationally known aviation safety expert who teaches in USC's Aviation Safety and Security Program. "After the third accident, you would say: Is there a trend here in terms of his flying skills and his judgment?"

Jeremiah Pearson, a Navy officer who flew 400 missions over Vietnam without a mishap and later became the head of human spaceflight at NASA, said: "That's a lot. You don't want any. Maybe he was just unlucky."

Naval aviation experts say the three accidents before McCain's deployment to Vietnam probably triggered a review to determine whether he should be allowed to continue flying. The results of the review would have been confidential.

The Times asked McCain's campaign to release any military personnel records in the candidate's possession showing how the Navy handled the three incidents. The campaign said it would have no comment.

Navy veterans who flew with McCain called him a good pilot.

"John was what you called a push-the-envelope guy," said Sam H. Hawkins, who flew with McCain's VA-44 squadron in the 1960s and now teaches political science at Florida Atlantic University. "There are some naval aviators who are on the cautious side. They don't get out on the edges, but the edges are where you get the maximum out of yourself and out of your plane. That's where John operated. And when you are out there, you take risks."

The young McCain has often been described as undisciplined and fearless -- a characterization McCain himself fostered in his autobiography.

"In his military career, he was a risk-taker and a daredevil," said John Karaagac, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and the author of a book on McCain. "What was interesting was that he got into accidents, and it didn't rattle his nerves. He takes hits and still stands."

McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, had a privileged status in the Navy. He was invited to the captain's cabin for dinner on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise in 1962, a perk other aviators and sailors attributed to his famous name, recalled Gene Furr, an enlisted man who shared an office and went on carrier deployments with McCain over three years.

On another occasion, McCain was selected to make a commemorative landing on the Enterprise and had his picture taken in front of a cake in the officers' galley, Furr said.

McCain's commanders sarcastically dubbed him "Ace McCain" because of his string of pre-Vietnam accidents, recalled Maurice Rishel, who commanded McCain's VA-65 squadron in early 1961, when it was deployed in the Mediterranean. Still, Rishel said, "he did his job."

Here is a closer look at those three incidents:

Corpus Christi, Texas, March 12, 1960

McCain was practicing landings in his AD-6 Skyraider over Corpus Christi Bay when he lost several hundred feet of altitude "without realizing it" and struck the water, according to the Naval Aviation Safety Center accident report on file at the Naval Historical Center in Washington.

The plane, a single-engine propeller plane designed for ground attack, sank 10 feet to the bottom of the bay. McCain swam to the surface and was plucked from the water by a rescue helicopter.

While he has contended that the engine quit, investigators collected extensive evidence indicating otherwise. Cockpit instruments that froze on impact showed the engine was still producing power. When water quenched the exhaust stack, it preserved a bright blue color, showing that the engine was still hot. And an aviator behind McCain reported that the engine was producing the black smoke characteristic of Skyraiders.

Investigators determined that McCain was watching instruments in his cockpit that indicated the position of his landing gear and had lost track of his altitude and speed.

The report concluded: "In the opinion of the board, the pilot's preoccupation in the cockpit . . . coupled with the use of a power setting too low to maintain level flight in a turn were the primary causes of this accident."

Southern Spain, around December 1961

McCain was on a training mission when he flew low and ran into electrical wires. He brought his crippled Skyraider back to the Intrepid, dragging 10 feet of wire, sailors and aviators recalled.

In his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain briefly recounts the incident, calling it the result of "daredevil clowning" and "flying too low." McCain did not elaborate on what happened, and The Times could find no military records of the accident.

When he struck the wires, McCain severed an oil line in his plane, said Carl Russ, a pilot in McCain's squadron. McCain's flight suit and the cockpit were soaked in oil, added Russ, who nonetheless said McCain was a good pilot.

The next day, McCain went to the flight deck with his superior officers and some of the crew to inspect the damage. A gaggle of sailors surrounded the plane.

Clark Sherwood, an enlistee responsible for hanging ordnance on the squadron's planes, recalled standing on the deck with McCain. "I said, 'You're lucky to be alive.' McCain said, 'You bet your ass I am,' " Sherwood said. "He almost bought the farm." Sherwood, now a real estate agent in New Jersey, said he considered McCain a hero.

Calvin Shoemaker, a retired test pilot for the Skyraider's manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft, said extended low-level flights are difficult in any aircraft and for that reason Skyraiders were seldom flown at altitudes below 500 feet.

After hearing a description of McCain's record, Shoemaker said the aviator appeared to be a "flat-hatter," an old aviation term for a showoff.

Cape Charles, Va., Nov. 28, 1965

Over the Eastern Shore of Virginia, McCain descended below 7,000 feet on a landing approach in a T-2 trainer jet, according to accident records. He said he heard an explosion in his engine and lost power. He said he tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine.

He spotted a local drag strip and considered trying to glide to a landing there but finally had to eject at 1,000 feet. The plane crashed in the woods. McCain escaped injury and was picked up by a farmer.

In his autobiography, McCain said he had flown on a Saturday to Philadelphia to watch the annual Army-Navy football game with his parents. The accident report does not mention Philadelphia but rather indicates that McCain departed from a now-closed Navy field in New York City on Sunday afternoon and was headed to Norfolk, Va.

In a report dated Jan. 18, 1966, the Naval Aviation Safety Center said it could not determine the cause of the accident or corroborate McCain's account of an explosion in the engine. A close examination of the engine found "no discrepancies which would have caused or contributed to engine failure or malfunction."

The report found that McCain, then assigned to squadron VT-7 in Meridian, Miss., had made several errors: He failed to switch the plane's power system to battery backup, which "seriously jeopardized his survival chances." His idea of landing on the drag strip was "viewed with concern and is indicative of questionable emergency procedure."

The report added, "It may be indeed fortunate that the pilot was not in a position to attempt such a landing."

McCain also ejected too late and too low, was not wearing proper flight equipment and positioned his body improperly before ejecting, the report said.

The official record includes comments from pilots in his own squadron who defended McCain's actions as "proper and timely."

About two weeks after issuing its report, the safety center revised its findings and said the accident resulted from the failure or malfunction of an "undetermined component of the engine."

Edward M. Morrison, a mechanic for VT-7 who is now retired and living in Washington state, said that the plane McCain checked out that day had just been refurbished and that he knew of no engine problems.

"McCain came to the flight line that day, carrying his dress whites, and said, 'Give me a pretty plane,' " Morrison said. "Nobody had ever asked me for a pretty plane before. I gave him this one because it was freshly painted. The next time I saw him, I said, 'Don't ever ask me for a pretty plane again.' I think he laughed."

In Vietnam

McCain was a pilot on the carrier Forrestal, off the coast of Vietnam, when one of the worst accidents in Navy history killed 134 crew members and damaged or destroyed various aircraft, including McCain's.

On July 29, 1967, he and other pilots were preparing for a bombing raid when a Zuni rocket from one of the planes misfired.

The rocket hit the plane next to McCain's, killing the pilot, igniting jet fuel and touching off a chain of explosions, according to the Navy investigation. McCain, who jumped from the nose of his jet and ran through the flames, suffered minor shrapnel wounds.

Three months later, McCain was on his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when a surface-to-air missile struck his A-4 attack jet. He was flying 3,000 feet above Hanoi.

A then-secret report issued in 1967 by McCain's squadron said the aviators had learned to stay at an altitude of 4,000 to 10,000 feet in heavy surface-to-air missile environments and look for approaching missiles.

"Once the SAM was visually acquired, it was relatively easy to outmaneuver it by a diving maneuver followed by a high-G pull-up. The critical problem comes during multiple SA-II attacks (6-12 missiles), when it is not possible to see or maneuver with each missile."

The American aircraft had instruments that warned pilots with a certain tone when North Vietnamese radar tracked them and another tone when a missile locked on them.

In his autobiography, McCain said 22 missiles were fired at his squadron that day. "I knew I should roll out and fly evasive maneuvers, 'jinking,' in fliers' parlance, when I heard the tone," he wrote. But, he said, he continued on and released his bombs. Then a missile blew off his right wing.

Vietnam veterans said McCain did exactly what they did on almost every mission.

Frank Tullo, an Air Force pilot who flew 100 missions over North Vietnam, said his missile warning receiverconstantly sounded in his cockpit.

"Nobody broke off on a bombing run," said Tullo, later a commercial pilot and now an accident investigation instructor at USC. "It was a matter of manhood."

ralph.vartabedian@ latimes.com


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Rolling Stone has an article this week that details a number of crashes before the devistating Forrestal "accident."

It was McCain's plane that was getting ready to take off when an "errant" missile was fired into his fuel tank. While McCain escaped unscathed, the resulting fire almost sank the ship and killed many men.

I now wonder, knowing that it was McCain's plane, being the spoiled brat son of the commanding admiral, if he was targeted and the victim of someone who was trying to kill him.


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I seriously doubt it. The FORRESTAL fire was another incident which had a chain of events. I'm going by memory here, so am quite open to correction.

The first event was was a safety device on the Zuni pod of the F-4. It was meant to prevent inadvertent firing, but could be improperly placed. IIRC, the aircraft was also spotted in a location on the aft section of the flight deck which made it more difficult to properly inspect.

The next event was the switching of the F-4 power from external cart to internal power. This caused a small electrical transient which led to the Zuni pod being triggered.

The rockets then flew across the flight deck and hit a loaded A-4. The rocket caused a drop tank of jet fuel on the A-4 to rupture and ignite. The ensuing fire and the bomb loads on the A-4s were the next event. The bombs on the A-4s (500 pounders IIRC) were old WWII vintage munitions which were being used from war stocks. The age of the weapons meant they were more unstable, and had a much shorter "cookoff" time than expected.

The last event was improper firefighting technique. Instead of dowsing the fire, the efforts actually helped spread it about the flight deck.

I believe the FORRESTAL fire led to a major review of weapons safety procedures, and firefighting techniques.

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I seriously doubt it. The FORRESTAL fire was another incident which had a chain of events. I'm going by memory here, so am quite open to correction.

The first event was was a safety device on the Zuni pod of the F-4. It was meant to prevent inadvertent firing, but could be improperly placed. IIRC, the aircraft was also spotted in a location on the aft section of the flight deck which made it more difficult to properly inspect.

The next event was the switching of the F-4 power from external cart to internal power. This caused a small electrical transient which led to the Zuni pod being triggered.

The rockets then flew across the flight deck and hit a loaded A-4. The rocket caused a drop tank of jet fuel on the A-4 to rupture and ignite. The ensuing fire and the bomb loads on the A-4s were the next event. The bombs on the A-4s (500 pounders IIRC) were old WWII vintage munitions which were being used from war stocks. The age of the weapons meant they were more unstable, and had a much shorter "cookoff" time than expected.

The last event was improper firefighting technique. Instead of dowsing the fire, the efforts actually helped spread it about the flight deck.

I believe the FORRESTAL fire led to a major review of weapons safety procedures, and firefighting techniques.


But would you find it remarkable that McCain's plane was right in the thick of your so-called "chain of events" ?

I do.




John Sidney McCain III has spent most of his life trying to escape the shadow of greater men. His grandfather Adm. John Sidney "Slew" McCain earned his four stars commanding a U.S. carrier force in World War II. His deeply ambitious father, Adm. "Junior" McCain, reached the same rank, commanding America's forces in the Pacific during Vietnam.

The youngest McCain was not cut from the same cloth. Even as a toddler, McCain recalls in Faith of My Fathers, his volcanic temper was on display. "At the smallest provocation," he would hold his breath until he passed out: "I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious." His parents cured him of this habit in a way only a CIA interrogator could appreciate: by dropping their blue-faced boy in a bathtub of ice-cold water.

Trailing his hard-charging, hard-drinking father from post to post, McCain didn't play well with others. Indeed, he concedes, his runty physique inspired a Napoleon complex: "My small stature motivated me to . . . fight the first kid who provoked me."

McCain spent his formative years among the Washington elite. His father — himself deep in the throes of a daddy complex — had secured a political post as the Navy's chief liaison to the Senate, a job his son would later hold, and the McCain home on Southeast 1st Street was a high-powered pit stop in the Washington cocktail circuit. Growing up, McCain attended Episcopal High School, an all-white, all-boys boarding school across the Potomac in Virginia, where tuition today tops $40,000 a year. There, McCain behaved with all the petulance his privilege allowed, earning the nicknames "Punk" and "McNasty." Even his friends seemed to dislike him, with one recalling him as "a mean little xxxxer."

McCain was not only a lousy student, he had his father's taste for drink and a darkly misogynistic streak. The summer after his sophomore year, cruising with a friend near Arlington, McCain tried to pick up a pair of young women. When they laughed at him, he cursed them so vilely that he was hauled into court on a profanity charge.

McCain's admittance to Annapolis was preordained by his bloodline. But martial discipline did not seem to have much of an impact on his character. By his own account, McCain was a lazy, incurious student; he squeaked by only by prevailing upon his buddies to help him cram for exams. He continued to get sauced and treat girls badly. Before meeting a girlfriend's parents for the first time, McCain got so xxxxfaced that he literally crashed through the screen door when he showed up in his white midshipman's uniform.

His grandfather's name and his father's forbearance brought McCain a charmed existence at Annapolis. On his first trip at sea — to Rio de Janeiro aboard the USS Hunt — the captain was a former student of his father. While McCain's classmates learned the ins and outs of the boiler room, McCain got to pilot the ship to South America and back. In Rio, he hobnobbed with admirals and the president of Brazil.

Back on campus, McCain's short fuse was legend. "We'd hear this thunderous screaming and yelling between him and his roommate — doors slamming — and one of them would go running down the hall," recalls Phil Butler, who lived across the hall from McCain at the academy. "It was a regular occurrence."

When McCain was not shown the pampering to which he was accustomed, he grew petulant — even abusive. He repeatedly blew up in the face of his commanding officer. It was the kind of insubordination that would have gotten any other midshipman kicked out of Annapolis. But his classmates soon realized that McCain was untouchable. Midway though his final year, McCain faced expulsion, about to "bilge out" because of excessive demerits. After his mother intervened, however, the academy's commandant stepped in. Calling McCain "spoiled" to his face, he nonetheless issued a reprieve, scaling back the demerits. McCain dodged expulsion a second time by convincing another midshipman to take the fall after McCain was caught with contraband......

"He was a huge screw-off," recalls Butler. "He was always on probation. The only reason he graduated was because of his father and his grandfather — they couldn't exactly get rid of him."

McCain's self-described "four-year course of insubordination" ended with him graduating fifth from the bottom — 894th out of a class of 899. It was a record of mediocrity he would continue as a pilot.


In the cockpit, McCain was not a top gun, or even a middling gun. He took little interest in his flight manuals; he had other priorities.

"I enjoyed the off-duty life of a Navy flier more than I enjoyed the actual flying," McCain writes. "I drove a Corvette, dated a lot, spent all my free hours at bars and beach parties." McCain chased a lot of tail. He hit the dog track. Developed a taste for poker and dice. He picked up models when he could, screwed a stripper when he couldn't.

In the air, the hard-partying McCain had a knack for stalling out his planes in midflight. He was still in training, in Texas, when he crashed his first plane into Corpus Christi Bay during a routine practice landing. The plane stalled, and McCain was knocked cold on impact. When he came to, the plane was underwater, and he had to swim to the surface to be rescued. Some might take such a near-death experience as a wake-up call: McCain took some painkillers and a nap, and then went out carousing that night.

Off duty on his Mediterranean tours, McCain frequented the casinos of Monte Carlo, cultivating his taste for what he calls the "addictive" game of craps. McCain's thrill-seeking carried over into his day job. Flying over the south of Spain one day, he decided to deviate from his flight plan. Rocketing along mere feet above the ground, his plane sliced through a power line. His self-described "daredevil clowning" plunged much of the area into a blackout.

That should have been the end of McCain's flying career. "In the Navy, if you crashed one airplane, nine times out of 10 you would lose your wings," says Butler, who, like his former classmate, was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Spark "a small international incident" like McCain had? Any other pilot would have "found themselves as the deck officer on a destroyer someplace in a hurry," says Butler.

"But, God, he had family pull. He was directly related to the CEO — you know?"

McCain was undeterred by the crashes. Nearly a decade out of the academy, his career adrift, he decided he wanted to fly combat in Vietnam. His motivation wasn't to contain communism or put his country first. It was the only way he could think of to earn the respect of the man he calls his "distant, inscrutable patriarch." He needed to secure a command post in the Navy — and to do that, his career needed the jump-start that only a creditable war record could provide.

As he would so many times in his career, McCain pulled strings to get ahead. After a game of tennis, McCain prevailed upon the undersecretary of the Navy that he was ready for Vietnam, despite his abysmal flight record. Sure enough, McCain was soon transferred to McCain Field — an air base in Meridian, Mississippi, named after his grandfather — to train for a post on the carrier USS Forrestal.

With a close friend at the base, an alcoholic Marine captain, McCain formed the "Key Fess Yacht Club," which quickly became infamous for hosting toga parties in the officers' quarters and bringing bands down from Memphis to attract loose women to the base. Showing his usual knack for promotion, McCain rose from "vice commodore" to "commodore" of the club.

In 1964, while still at the base, McCain began a serious romance with Carol Shepp, a vivacious former model who had just divorced one of his classmates from Annapolis. Commandeering a Navy plane, McCain spent most weekends flying from Meridian to Philadelphia for their dates. They married the following summer.

That December, McCain crashed again. Flying back from Philadelphia, where he had joined in the reverie of the Army-Navy football game, McCain stalled while coming in for a refueling stop in Norfolk, Virginia. This time he managed to bail out at 1,000 feet. As his parachute deployed, his plane thundered into the trees below.

By now, however, McCain's flying privileges were virtually irrevocable — and he knew it. On one of his runs at McCain Field, when ground control put him in a holding pattern, the lieutenant commander once again pulled his family's rank. "Let me land," McCain demanded over his radio, "or I'll take my field and go home!"


Sometimes 3 a.m. moments occur at 10:52 in the morning.

It was July 29th, 1967, a hot, gusty morning in the Gulf of Tonkin atop the four-acre flight deck of the supercarrier USS Forrestal. Perched in the cockpit of his A-4 Skyhawk, Lt. Cmdr. John McCain ticked nervously through his preflight checklist.

Now 30 years old, McCain was trying to live up to his father's expectations, to finally be known as something other than the xxxx-up grandson of one of the Navy's greatest admirals. That morning, preparing for his sixth bombing run over North Vietnam, the graying pilot's dreams of combat glory were beginning to seem within his reach.

Then, in an instant, the world around McCain erupted in flames. A six-foot-long Zuni rocket, inexplicably launched by an F-4 Phantom across the flight deck, ripped through the fuel tank of McCain's aircraft. Hundreds of gallons of fuel splashed onto the deck and came ablaze. Then: Clank. Clank. Two 1,000-pound bombs dropped from under the belly of McCain's stubby A-4, the Navy's "Tinkertoy Bomber," into the fire.

McCain, who knew more than most pilots about bailing out of a crippled aircraft, leapt forward out of the cockpit, swung himself down from the refueling probe protruding from the nose cone, rolled through the flames and ran to safety across the flight deck. Just then, one of his bombs "cooked off," blowing a crater in the deck and incinerating the sailors who had rushed past McCain with hoses and fire extinguishers. McCain was stung by tiny bits of shrapnel in his legs and chest, but the wounds weren't serious; his father would later report to friends that Johnny "came through without a scratch."

The damage to the Forrestal was far more grievous: The explosion set off a chain reaction of bombs, creating a devastating inferno that would kill 134 of the carrier's 5,000-man crew, injure 161 and threaten to sink the ship.

These are the moments that test men's mettle. Where leaders are born. Leaders like . . . Lt. Cmdr. Herb Hope, pilot of the A-4 three planes down from McCain's. Cornered by flames at the stern of the carrier, Hope hurled himself off the flight deck into a safety net and clambered into the hangar deck below, where the fire was spreading. According to an official Navy history of the fire, Hope then "gallantly took command of a firefighting team" that would help contain the conflagration and ultimately save the ship.

McCain displayed little of Hope's valor. Although he would soon regale The New York Times with tales of the heroism of the brave enlisted men who "stayed to help the pilots fight the fire," McCain took no part in dousing the flames himself. After going belowdecks and briefly helping sailors who were frantically trying to unload bombs from an elevator to the flight deck, McCain retreated to the safety of the "ready room," where off-duty pilots spent their noncombat hours talking trash and playing poker. There, McCain watched the conflagration unfold on the room's closed-circuit television — bearing distant witness to the valiant self-sacrifice of others who died trying to save the ship, pushing jets into the sea to keep their bombs from exploding on deck.

As the ship burned, McCain took a moment to mourn his misfortune; his combat career appeared to be going up in smoke. "This distressed me considerably," he recalls in Faith of My Fathers. "I feared my ambitions were among the casualties in the calamity that had claimed the Forrestal."

The fire blazed late into the night. The following morning, while oxygen-masked rescue workers toiled to recover bodies from the lower decks, McCain was making fast friends with R.W. "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times, who had arrived by helicopter to cover the deadliest Naval calamity since the Second World War. The son of admiralty surviving a near-death experience certainly made for good copy, and McCain colorfully recounted how he had saved his skin. But when Apple and other reporters left the ship, the story took an even stranger turn: McCain left with them. As the heroic crew of the Forrestal mourned its fallen brothers and the broken ship limped toward the Philippines for repairs, McCain zipped off to Saigon for what he recalls as "some welcome R&R."


Ensconced in Apple's villa in Saigon, McCain and the Times reporter forged a relationship that would prove critical to the ambitious pilot's career in the years ahead. Apple effectively became the charter member of McCain's media "base," an elite corps of admiring reporters who helped create his reputation for "straight talk."

Sipping scotch and reflecting on the fire aboard the Forrestal, McCain sounded like the peaceniks he would pillory after his return from Hanoi. "Now that I've seen what the bombs and napalm did to the people on our ship," he told Apple, "I'm not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam." Here, it seemed, was a frank-talking warrior, one willing to speak out against the military establishment in the name of truth........

Edited by William Kelly
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In addition to crashing planes in the military, the politician McCain has helped the American economy crash. A living disaster in both walks of life.

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Guest Stephen Turner
McCain was undeterred by the crashes. Nearly a decade out of the academy, his career adrift, he decided he wanted to fly combat in Vietnam. His motivation wasn't to contain communism or put his country first. It was the only way he could think of to earn the respect of the man he calls his "distant, inscrutable patriarch."..

Christ just what America, and by extention, the World needs, another Father hating/obsessed, semi alcoholic screw-up with temper management issues. Where does the GOP keep finding them?

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In addition to crashing planes in the military, the politician McCain has helped the American economy crash. A living disaster in both walks of life.

Is McCain Able?

by Fred Reed



October 4, 2008

I frankly don’t believe John McCain’s medical records, or at any rate the portions released to the New York Times. The man was held in solitary for years, tortured until bones fractured, until he confessed to war crimes, until he tried to hang himself.

That he broke can’t be held against him: Almost anyone would have. (In my view GIs should be told to confess to anything whatever right from the start.) But the assertion that he came through unscathed, warm and humorous and psychically sound, just isn’t plausible. It doesn’t happen that way.

Now, PTSD. A lot of people, including vets, don’t believe that PTSD exists. I didn’t. One reason is that they tend to think of it as something verging on the psychotic, as for example seeing nonexistent snipers in the hedgerows of suburban Philadelphia. The other common notion is that those who have it dive under tables at the sound of a backfire. Vets tend to think, “I don’t know anybody like that. I certainly don’t see snipers in the rafters. This whole PTSD business sounds like a crock.”

So it does. But it isn’t.

And of course many people, chiefly men, regard with suspicion anything that smells of psychobabble, anything touchy-feely. To them PTSD sounds like Can’t-Get-a-Date Personality Disorder – something for Oprah to talk about to bored housewives. So they dismiss it.

Let me de-babble the discussion and state a simple fact: A lot of guys come back from wars really, truly messed up in the head, and it doesn’t go away. They aren’t going to talk to you about it. They figure it’s none of your goddamned business. If you push, they will tell you so, angrily.

If you weren’t in those forsaken paddies, they think, if you didn’t go through what they did, you’re off their radar screens. They’ll talk to you about football, the weather, and whatever happened in the newspaper yesterday. Just don’t even try to talk about Viet Nam. Or whatever war it was. They don’t want to think about it, and talking about it to weenies feels like being naked in a train station.

There are a lot of these brain-burnt guys out there. They don’t want your pity. They don’t pity themselves. They just don’t want to expose that part of themselves to you. They put a wall around themselves. You can’t see it. It’s there.

Often they seem like fairly normal guys with three divorces who drink too much and their children say, “It was like he was somewhere else.” Perfectly normal guys who have had seventeen jobs because their bosses are always useless bastards. Perfectly normal guys who live out in the desert and do serious scuba or hang glide because they just don’t give a xxxx.

Not all. Some manage to hold it together and become things thought to be respectable, such as senators or writers or defense attorneys. A subsurface lode of hostility can be useful in a trial lawyer. Anger is energizing. It can fuel a career.

With PTSD, or whatever you want to call it, the anger is the giveaway. These vets carry a load of subterranean fury that you don’t want to look at. As they would say, I xxxx you not one pound. I know a lot of these guys. A buddy of mine – two tours in bad places, killed a whole lot of people up close – now has no tolerance for frustration. He's ready to spread your teeth over a wide radius if you even seem to think about getting in his face. Admirable? No. But don’t make the experiment.

Sounds like McCain. His explosiveness is notorious.

Another guy I know, writer, freelanced all his life because he couldn’t get along with people in offices. A writer can package this as sturdy independence, as being a colorful maverick. The fellow is approximately sane, or at least apparently sane. Get three drinks in him, bring up the war, and his voice starts shaking and it’s time to change the subject right now.

A fair few PTSD guys become writers: It’s solitary, you don’t have to put up with bosses, and you don’t have to be stable.

How do these vets get this way? Not by anything you want to hear about, anything that you will see on the nightly news. The RPG hits your tank, the cherry juice cooks off, and three of your buddies burn to death screaming because they couldn’t get out fast enough. You lose a leg and half your face to a mortar round. You just see things: A Chicom 122 cuts a cyclo driver in half and you watch him trying to crawl with his guts hanging out. He doesn’t crawl long. You get shot down over Hanoi and spend years being tortured. The military is a fun place. You have all sorts of unusual experiences.

It messes your head up. I promise.

I said anger – yes, but anger at what? At whom? Here I’m on soft ground because vets don’t talk much about this stuff among themselves. At least those I know don’t. But, to the extent that I am competent to judge, they aren’t mad at those who shot them, or shot at them. “The VC were only doing their job.” They hate those who sent them to a pointless war, who exposed them in thousands to Agent Orange, knowing that it was poisonous and carcinogenic, at those posing fat-ass pols who sent them to die for nothing while they ate prime rib in DC.

Or they just hate. Psychologically the verb can be intransitive. They don’t know what they hate, but don’t get in the way of it.

Not all respond this way. Some choose to intensify their patriotism – it avoids admitting that you have been suckered – and direct their hatred at the hippies, the liberals, the press, all of whom they figure lost the war. But the anger is still there. Most of the time, you don’t notice it. They turn off, often seem emotionally cold. But that explosive venom remains. We’re not talking about a fiery Irish temper. We’re talking half crazy.

Those who seek help, typically from the VA, end up on Thissa-dol and Thatta-dol, on antidepressants and calmants and even antipsychotics. They sorta help. Sorta isn’t good enough with men who control carrier battle groups.

From the New York Times story, “Mr. McCain also learned to control his temper and not to become angry over insignificant things, the doctors said.” I don’t believe it. It doesn’t fit accounts of people who know him. It isn’t how heads work.

McCain is well known for his violent and irrational temper. A friend of mine, Ken Smith, was flack for Governor Mecham of Arizona during a meeting with McCain. The governor somehow irritated McCain. Says Ken, “McCain was leaning forward with a clinched fist. I reached out my left arm, as politely and as non-threatening as I could, and I pushed McCain back. What I remember is how taut and hard his body was, not from working out and lifting weights, but rather from anger and adrenalin. I made an excuse to leave and get them apart.”

For what he went through in Vietnamese jails he deserves sympathy and admiration. It isn’t qualification for the presidency.

October 4, 2008

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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I find it unremarkable that he was there. It could well have been a deliberate attempt to hurt / kill him, but a very stupid one if it was. The Zuni is unguided, so they'd have to rely the weapon being pointed exactly at his aircraft, and the weapon flying a perfectly straight course over a very short distance. Also, the resulting fire / damage would put everyone at risk. Much easier to simply knife him at some time, somewhere in the maze of passageways. With around 5000 people onboard, it would be difficult to pinpoint who did it. Probably like a Navy version of "fragging".

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