There are many experiences that shape a person’s life. For U.S. Sen. John McCain, one of those experiences is something only a handful of Americans can say they’ve lived through: Being a prisoner of war.
Jim Bedinger is one of those Americans. He was a POW with McCain.
Upon learning of McCain’s death, Bedinger told NBC 7 that his hope was that he did not suffer, knowing that he had suffered enough.
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McCain was a Navy pilot in Vietnam when he was shot down during a bombing raid in 1967. Bedinger says he thinks McCain knew it was a miracle he’d survived at all.
“I think he thought, yes. 'I'm lucky to be here, I'm going make the most of it,'” Bedinger said.
It was 1969 when Bedinger arrived at the notorious prison camp in Vietnam known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was months after his arrival that he entered an area with McCain and other prisoners.
They were isolated from any news and it was Bedinger who shared with McCain, with careful communication through the prison cell walls, that another Navy pilot turned astronaut, Neil Armstrong, had just landed on the Moon.
“John was absolutely delighted when he heard that,” he said.
And there were other very important developments that interested McCain, like Who won the World Series? Who won the Stanley Cup? Is the AFL still playing the NFL?
On the day Bedinger and McCain met, the first thing McCain desperately wanted to know was who had won the Army-Navy football game that year.
It was Christmas Eve and Bedinger’s answer, Navy of course, made John’s Christmas Day, he said.
There were terrible abuse and torture in POW camps in Vietnam.
There are many accounts of what McCain went through. Bedinger said when the group was caught passing notes McCain took the brunt of the punishment.
He was held in a place known as The Hole.
“For 24 hours a day he was in leg irons, his hands were handcuffed and at night there was a ring they put around his neck and they put it through a ring in the wall, so he couldn’t even get out of bed.”
But McCain didn’t give up. He fought even harder.
“His faith doubled down, you know. 'OK, you’re going treat me bad and I’m going to fight back, and I’m going to give as good as I get,'” Bedinger said.
And that faith, says Bedinger, got him and McCain through those difficult years.
"Faith in God, faith in country, faith in your fellow POWs, and your families,” he said
But how does someone come out of an experience of being a prisoner of war as optimistic as McCain?
Bedinger sees it this way: “You have to stand in the smell of the sorted fumes of hell to really appreciate some of the things that you just take for granted in our day-to-day.”
It was an experience that shaped McCain and added to his already deep commitment to the United States of America.
“John had deep faith not only in this country, but a deep faith that we were in truly one of the best places in the world.”
This world has lost the fighter, the maverick, the Navy pilot, and U.S. Senator who pushed the limits for a country that he loved so much.
Towards the end of the war, prisoners learned bracelets with their names etched inside were circulating the country. Word of the mementos made it back to POW cells and let them know they were not forgotten.
Let us not forget the sacrifices and dedication of Senator John McCain.