by Matt Zeller
I had the honor to meet with Sen. McCain on four occasions in my life. The first was when I volunteered for his first Presidential Campaign in 2000. I was 18. I met him at the Rochester, NY Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park on a cold February Saturday evening. I had spent the afternoon helping to set up the rally and in so doing, got to meet several Vietnam War Veterans, two of whom had served as POWs with Sen. McCain. I’ll never forget the moment he stepped off his Straight Talk Express Bus and into the scrum of media, campaign staff, and adoring fans (at least a thousand people attended the rally in the cold and cramped conditions). His energy was palpable even from a distance. He radiated such an enthusiasm into those around him that by the time he passed by, shook my hand, and quickly signed my copy of his Faith of My Fathers book, I had totally forgotten about how cold it was or how tired we all were from setting up a stage in freezing cold rain. All that mattered was he was there, with us, and ready to speak of a better country than many of us dared to imagine. The Maverick moniker fit him to a T – he transcended partisan politics during that campaign. His speech was especially moving as the rally also served as a makeshift reunion between him and several of his fellow former POWs. In nearly 20 years of at times very personal political engagements of my own, I’ve yet to attend a more emotional or powerful rally.
The second time we met is depicted below. I was 19 and a summer intern in the House of Representatives. He had just succeeded in passing McCain-Feingold (his signature Campaign Finance Reform law) through the Congress. I congratulated him on a cunning victory and for helping to change our country for the better.
The third time was when he personally insisted on meeting my brother Janis Shinwari so he could thank him for his service to our country, for saving the lives of five American service members during his eight years of service as a US military interpreter, and most importantly, to listen and hear his story and he plight of thousands of others facing similar trials in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here’s video of that meeting:
Janis had been in America for three whole days before Sen. McCain reached out to ask for a meeting with us. That’s just the kind of man he was – the genuine article.
I’ll never forget when at the end of the meeting he leapt up with the energy of a seemingly much younger man and said, “Jeanne, damnit, we have to fix this immediately!” Jeanne being Sen. Shaheen, his Democratic counterpart in championing the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program he enacted with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (the SIV program was Kennedy’s last law before he succumbed to the same cancer that has taken our beloved Sen. McCain). He then ordered his staff to sit with Janis, Katie Reisner, and me while we wrote out our proposed fixes to the SIV program on a napkin in the Senate cafeteria. Two months later, those proposed fixes became actual law.
The last time I saw him, depicted below, was at one of his beloved Arizona Diamondbacks games. No One Left Behind COO Jason S. Gorey noticed the Senator and his wife were sitting a few rows ahead of us and suggested we say hello during the 7th Inning Stretch. As we walked up, I wondered if he’d remember me at all. As soon as he saw me his face lit up and he exclaimed, “Matt! So good to see you! Hey don’t think I have forgot about you, because I haven’t. I know we need to get the allotment of visas for this year and you have my word we’re gonna getem!”
Several week’s later, he personally oversaw Congress allocate an additional 4,000 SIVs for Afghans who qualify for the program. Each SIV covers an entire family – so it’s not just 4,000 individuals he saved in that one act, it’s 4,000 families. To date, the SIV program has saved over 75,000 lives – all former US military wartime allies from Afghanistan and Iraq and their immediate families who earn their visas by providing at least two years of “honorable and valuable service” and passing the most rigorous background check we require of any potential emigre.
Senator McCain will remain a personal hero for the rest of my life. Our country is immeasurably a lesser place without him. He personified what it meant to embody selfless service, honor, personal courage, leadership, and dignity. He will be dearly missed. Rest In Peace my friend, we will follow on in service to our great nation thanks to your profound example.
“For what are we born if not to aid one another?” -Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls