John McCain graduated from the US Naval Academy at Anapolis in 1958. He was the third generation in his family to graduate from the academy. McCain’s father, John McCain II, was a four star Navy admiral, and McCain spent most of his childhood on Naval bases. McCain’s paternal grandfather, John McCain I, was also a decorated admiral in the navy.
McCain was known as a “rule breaker” while a student at the Naval Academy, and graduated with low grades. During the first years of his career in the Navy, McCain was involved in three plane crashes, although none of them caused injury.
The reckless, rule breaking student went on to spend five and a half years as a prisoner of war and was highly decorated for his service. Here’s what you need to know:
1. McCain Was Awarded the Silver Star For His ‘Conspicuous Gallantry and Intrepidity’ While He Was a Prisoner of War
After McCain’s captors in Vietnam figured out that he was the son of a prominent Naval commander, they offered to let him go back home. But McCain refused to accept preferential treatment. He cited Article III of the Military Code of Conduct, which calls on members of the military to “accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.” McCain told his captors he would only accept freedom if the other POWs were freed too — something which his captors didn’t agree to.
McCain’s Silver Star citation credits him with moving the North Vietnamese away from the practice of torture. The citation reads, “Commander McCain’s captors, completely ignoring international agreements, subjected Commander McCain to extreme mental and physical cruelties in an attempt to obtain military information and false confessions for propaganda purposes. Through his resistance to those brutalities, he contributed significantly toward the eventual abandonment of harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese, which was attracting international attention.”
2. McCain Was Released from North Vietnam in 1973 and Was Awarded two Purple Hearts
McCain spent five and a half years in North Vietnam, being moved around from one prison to another, and enduring extreme torture. His arms were broken, and he suffered lasting nerve damage from the years of beating and torture. After his return to the US, McCain wanted to go back to active duty for the Navy. But he found that he had lost so much physical strength and flexibility that he was unable to advance.
3. McCain Was Honored With the Distinguished Flying Cross For His Acts of Heroism
On October 26, 1967, a McCain was flying a bombing mission over North Vietnam when a missile struck his plane. He was forced to and forced eject and was knocked him unconscious in the fall. McCain was then taken as a prisoner of war. He was held in various prisons in North Vietnam, including the infamous”Hanoi Hilton,” where he was beaten, tortured, and denied medical treatment.
McCain also spent years in solitary confinement. His captors offered to release him when they learned that his father was a high-ranking Naval officer, but McCain insisted that he would not leave unless his fellow POWs were released too.
After his release, McCain was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to members of the military who perform acts of heroism while participating in a flight.
4. McCain Was Awarded Three Bronze Stars and Two Legion of Merit Awards
After his release from Vietnam, McCain was awarded three bronze stars and two legion of merit awards.
The American War Library says that the Bronze Star Medal “is awarded to any person who, after December 6, 1941, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight.”
The Legion of Merit medal is awarded for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements” according to the US military.
5. After His Experience in Vietnam, McCain Became an Outspoken Opponent of ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ Techniques
McCain experienced beatings and torture while a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When he entered the Senate, he became an outspoken advocate for the rights of prisoners of war.
In 2005, McCain backed an amendment to forbid “waterboarding,” an interrogation technique which simulates the experience of drowning. McCain also argued that the CIA had an obligation to avoid cruel interrogation practices.
During a campaign stop in 2007, McCain said, “Anyone who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure. It is a horrible torture technique used by Pol Pot and being used on Buddhist monks as we speak. People who have worn the uniform and had the experience know that this is a terrible and odious practice and should never be condoned in the U.S. We are a better nation than that.”