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Sen. John McCain: What Makes a Hero?

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I can’t recall that the late John McCain ever referred to himself as a hero or as the best, smartest or only person who can “make America great.”

That wasn’t his style. He openly admitted, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” But, in my opinion, honesty alone does not make one a hero.

What we call “heroic” is not up to the actual heroes. Heroes are recognized by others who find something extraordinary in the character and conduct of an individual who inspires them.

There is something about their stories that connects and offers a model for living.

Those who called John McCain an American hero indicate their own values; it says something about the character traits they most value.

McCain, the son of naval tradition, was forged in the values of honor, courage and commitment.

The commonly accepted motto of the Navy, “Semper Fortis,” is Latin for “Always Courageous.”

He demonstrated extraordinary courage as a prisoner of war, a presidential candidate and in the face of his own death, which should inspire the admiration and respect of all Americans.

McCain once wrote a book about courage; in it, he cites examples of people he regarded as heroes.

He included stories of soldiers, explorers, Native Americans, a civil rights leader, a Jewish resistance fighter and dissidents. The unifying theme was the quality of their courage.

About his book, “Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life,” he commented that we adopt courage when “our fear is overcome by our conscience and our beliefs and forces us to act.”

His personal story is well known because of his life of public service.

As an American POW in Vietnam, he refused to accept better treatment and early return because his father was a highly regarded Navy admiral.

By remaining in Hanoi, he encouraged his fellow Americans held in captivity. Consequently, he was subjected to brutal beatings.

No doubt his objections to torture, even in the face of great political pressure, were born not only from the academic but also the actual experience.

McCain bore the physical limitations derived from his brutal treatment for the remainder of his life, yet he also came to forgive his captors.

This fact about his life will, I believe, be the dominant narrative for generations to come. The real question is will John McCain be regarded as a hero?

I never imagined the answer could be anything but, “yes.” Now I wonder.

Along with many Americans who served their country, I was shocked and dismayed when it was stated (and on more than a single occasion) that Sen. McCain was not a hero.

His main detractor argued that he did not regard anyone who got captured as a hero.

As offensive as that statement is, it pales in the amount of disgust and disappointment I feel toward those who supported this idea through their silence or outright agreement.

As a presidential candidate, McCain represented faithfully the views of his political party.

He refused, however, to play the wingnut conspiracy theories of his would-be supporters.

When an elderly woman at one of his campaign events accused Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama of not being an American, McCain bravely replied that though they disagreed, he believed Obama was a good and decent man and truly an American.

That he had asked the former president to speak at his funeral is indicative of his desire to end the destructive tribalism present in politics today.

He faced his impending death with valor. For his courage and commitment, he was often criticized in political rallies. Still, he was stubborn in the face of such pressure.

He continued to advocate for comprehensive health care and just immigration policies even when that presented a challenge to the political trends. He proved his “Semper Fortis.”

What makes a hero? In a word, it is “courage.”

John McCain not only had courage, but he inspired it in others. Perhaps, in our current day when courage and truth seem in short supply, we need to argue less about the correct body posture when the national anthem is played and think more upon the trait of courage in a song that ends every verse with the word “brave.”

Ultimately, describing McCain as a hero reveals more about the person doing the judging.

It has been suggested that, in the end, there are just two kinds of people: “Killers and Losers.” John McCain’s life says otherwise.

There is something valiant and admirable in one who is willing to lay down his life for others.

Our values determine our heroes. This is a moment for some deep and personal introspection. John McCain’s life demands that from each of us. Such is the legacy of a true hero.

Charles McGathy

Commander Charles "Chuck" McGathy served in the Chaplain Corps of the United States Navy for 23 years. He has been the pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, North Carolina, since 2006.