Dear Senator McCain:
As the flight from Bangkok descended through 4,500 feet, I thought of you flying at the same height all those years ago, when your plane was hit and you landed in West Lake, on the outskirts of town.
I rode by the lake on the way in from the airport, and then dropped my bags at the hotel and headed straight for Hoa Lo Prison. It was about a ten minute walk away through the old part of Hanoi, through the chaos and the scooters and the noise. I paid for my ticket and walked in.
I looked around and just started to cry. By myself, in the big room, there, with the honking outside the walls. It wasn’t prompted by anything specific, it was just being there, after all these years.
As I stood there I could so vividly remember the gold POW bracelet your dad sent me when it showed up in the mail, the note on the stationery with the stars. My father then told me that after I put it on, I couldn’t take it off ever, until you came home. I wrapped it around my wrist, not for you really to be honest, but for your dad, and for my friend Sidney. I remember wearing that bracelet at Pearl, playing with Sidney in your parents yard. It’s funny, sitting here now, I wonder what that meant to your mother and father, to see us, children, playing with your name wrapped around my wrist.
I wore it because your dad gave it to me, because my father told me to and for her, you were her father, you weren’t there, it was as simple as that really.
I remember having my wrist taped over for sports, because I wouldn’t take that bracelet off. Every day, they put tape over it, every day they peeled the tape off. I remember that and them telling me that I could just take it off just for football or basketball, but I wouldn’t.
That bracelet stayed on me until I saw you for the first time, on black and white television, walking down these airplane stairs. Then I never had to wear it again, you were home, out of Vietnam, out of the Hanoi Hilton. It’s funny, I never wear jewelry, I don’t even own a watch but I wore that bracelet as if it was the most important thing in the world, and to me, then, it was.
And now here I am.
Standing where you were, all those years. Wearing that bracelet seems so trivial now, being here, but then again, I’m not sure what else a six-year old boy could do.
I am first struck by how incredibly pointless war seems. How whatever it was that caused you to be here and the other POW camps for that long surely can not be worth it. And as you look around Hanoi, you think of the sacrifice and for what?
As I am sure you know, most of where the prison is is now the “Hanoi Towers.” Should you be looking for office space in the old neighborhood, I am promised “It’s THE Place To Do Business in Ha Noi.”
I am also told, and the visa I got today confirms, that this is a Socialist country. Don’t believe it for a second. Capitalism may have been on the last chopper out of Saigon in April of 1975 but it got its ticket punched back, there is no doubt about that.
You don’t often see the Communist gold star and red flag outside a new Gucci store, but it’s a nice photo opportunity for those studying irony. Speaking of retail developments, the one at prison has a complete magnet set for the fridge, I didn’t pick you up one. No, not the t-shirt either. Oh, and they have your flight suit, but I don’t think you’re getting it back.
Five and a half years you gave here and one has to ask for what exactly. All those years of war in this land, all those lives, almost sixty thousand American men and women, those left in wheelchairs, those that killed themselves later, two million Vietnamese dead. Surely there was another way.
I am not and never will question your courage, or the courage of all that fought here. You are and always will be one of my heroes, even if we don’t agree politically, you deserve your honors and all the country can possibly give back to you. And then some.
But seeing this country, seeing what happened to hit, what we did to it, and seeing it now, it’s hard not to think that all that death, and destruction, was just totally and completely useless. My friend Paul who also served here says the lesson of Vietnam is that if you know you’re going to get out, get out quick and save lives.
I wonder about Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. Is the Muslim threat perceived there any more real than the Communist threat here was? Will our kids and grandkids travel to Baghdad or Kabul and wonder why so many had to die there?
I stood in that cell today. By myself. I closed my eyes, I just can’t imagine what you went through, all my life I waited to stand there, to see, for a moment, a fraction of a second what you saw when I wore that bracelet.
I felt devastatingly inadequate and then was overcome with total and complete, and deep, sadness. For what you lost. For what we lost. Just loss stacked on top of grief with a prison full of horror. Nicely wrapped up with a gold POW bracelet on top.
I remember when I gave it back to you. You teared up, probably thinking about your father, holding it in your hand. I remember you quietly saying ‘these meant a lot, they really did.”
I deeply deeply hope so, it was all I could do.