Sen. John McCain was the one that many veterans wanted to see at Friday’s black-tie affair for Medal of Honor recipients.
But McCain, perhaps the nation’s most storied veteran, looked into the faces of dozens of the nation’s most decorated war heroes and rejected any comparison to his own life.
"They were the real leaders," said McCain, R-Ariz. "They were tougher than I was. They were more courageous than I was. It’s because of them that I did as well as I did."
McCain said he’ll never be in the same class as the 69 recipients of the Medal of Honor who gathered Friday for the final dinner of their weeklong convention in the Valley.
He turned away from his own experiences as a Vietnam prisoner of war to talk about others in his past who received the military’s highest award for valor. That included Col. Bud Day, the ranking officer during much of McCain’s five years as a POW.
They didn’t all agree with McCain’s politics, but they welcomed him as a true brother-in-arms.
"He’s done very well with his career and he’s done a lot of work for people," said Gary Wetzel of Milwaukee who received the Medal of Honor and lost his left arm during his service in Vietnam. "He’s a good guy."
Much of this week’s convention for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society was devoted to bringing the story of these heroes to the Valley through visits to schools, cultural sites and the Arizona Veterans Home.
On their last night, the medal recipients recognized others who share their commitment to supporting the armed services in word and in deed.
Las Vegas lounge star Wayne Newton was honored for more than 40 years of performances for troops around the world through the United Service Organizations. Newton said he was in junior officer training while he attended a Phoenix high school. But asthma prevented from enrolling in the military after graduation.
His disappointment melted away after he performed for a room full of happy Marines during one of his earliest appearances in Vegas.
"I told my manager I was going to Vietnam," Newton said. "I said I can’t fight but I can sing."
The society also recognized war correspondent Joseph Galloway, who has written profiles on many of the medal recipients and co-authored the book "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young."
"I know what it’s like in war, what it means," said Galloway, who was a journalist in the Vietnam War. "I’ve always been impressed at how humble these men are as heroes who have done things that are hard to grasp and hard to believe. Every one of them will say this (the Medal of Honor) is not for me. This is for all of the guys who died."
But the highest honor, the Patriot Award, went to McCain. He was praised for his efforts as a lawmaker to help other veterans and for a life that holds military service in the highest esteem.