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Can’t we ALL salute John McCain — including as a representative of Vietnam veterans?

September 2, 2018

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Terry Frei 

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John McCain during his successful pursuit of Republican presidential nomination in 2008. (Associated Press photo.)

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Charlie Dodge, 72, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Adamson Warmuth Post 6624 in Evans.

Charlie Dodge, 72, was having a soft drink Sunday morning at the bar in Veterans of Foreign Wars Adamson Warmuth Post 6624 in Evans.

He served in the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division and was in Vietnam from 1966 to ’67. Later, he worked for the city of Greeley and as a private security guard.

I asked him about the former Navy flyer, U.S. senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee who died of brain cancer at 81 on Aug. 25, and who was honored with an emotional memorial service Saturday at Washington National Cathedral.

“John McCain?” he asked. “He was a good man. He was really for our country and the Constitution. … It was what he stood up f0r, and he was honest about it.”

The unfathomable was McCain’s five and a half years of captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, including interrogation, beatings and two years of solitary confinement. Yet he turned down a chance to be released earlier than 1973 in what would have been an enemy acknowledgment that his father and grandfather both had been Naval admirals and flyers.

“That was sad,” Dodge said. “But he did right, though, when he refused to come home. The others couldn’t. That’s what it’s about.”

Forty-five years after the end of American involvement in Vietnam, the wounds at times still fester, and those my age can be excused for marveling at the change in attitude about that war and the concession most veterans of it were heroes, too. I was old enough to be deeply emotionally affected and disillusioned by the war, but as it turned out, wasn’t old enough to face the possibility of being called into, or deciding to enlist in, the service before the war ended. (Plus, I likely would have been 4F because of knee surgeries.)

I was raised near a cauldron of a college campus — the University of Oregon in Eugene — as the son of the school’s football coach, Jerry Frei, who also had been a decorated P-38 fighter pilot in World War II. As a South Eugene High School junior, I wrote two major stories for the school paper, The Axe, about the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The second was about the young ex-Navy man still being billed as the group’s leader in advance promotion. He appeared on campus and blasted the war — largely artfully avoided by the children of privilege — as a tragic mistake.

I spoke with the former Navy man, John Kerry, briefly after his speech and wrote the (horrible) story. After it ran, I was proud that my father, as he did with his players involved in the campus anti-war movement, conceded one of the things he had fought for was freedom of expression, if offered civilly. The “civilly” stipulation was important to him, and many in my generation flunked that test part with horrific and, what I always have believed was counterproductive, conduct in protesting the war. That included abominable, unconscionable treatment of Vietnam War veterans after they returned home.

My father did ask me once: “Where would you be if our generation had said no?”

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The South Eugene High Axe, November 1971.

John McCain, Charlie Dodge and so many others said yes. Whether grudgingly or eagerly, whether they retained their belief in the cause or came to reject it, they said yes.

As McCain was laid to rest amid the ongoing national turmoil, can’t we all — or at least all but the most petty — agree because of his captivity and his sacrifice, he also represents Vietnam-era veterans who deserved our salutes long ago and are finally getting them?

“That was a totally different time back then,” Dodge said. “It’s beautiful. It’s great what the country is doing now, what people are doing for the veterans, helping them out, being behind them on everything. Back in the Vietnam time, that was a totally different era.”

John Kerry and John McCain, Vietnam vets on opposite sides of the aisle — but not in this picture. (Associated Press)

He paused, collecting his thoughts.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “You know they’re behind you now. People come up to you and thank your for your service.”

That didn’t happen after he returned?

“Uh … no,” he said. “I don’t think I want to talk about that. I don’t want you to print it.”

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