This week, we have all heard many things about the life of Senator John McCain and why the entire nation is mourning his death. I have a personal reason to do so – my stepfather, Captain Gerald (Jerry) Coffee, USN (Ret.) was a POW with him in Vietnam, and actually shared a cell with Senator McCain for part of that time. My father, Colonel John Ditto, USMC (Dec.), also was a contemporary of Senator McCain and they knew each other early on in their careers.
When I came to Washington, D.C., in 1993 just after graduation from college and essentially jobless (although I had lined up a job waiting tables), my first stop was Senator McCain’s office. Of all of the places I had sent letters to seek employment or even just guidance – friends of the family, work colleagues of my parents, tenuous connections I had developed in college – the only response I got was from Senator McCain’s office. His staffer actually called me soon after receiving my letter and encouraged me to stop by the office as soon as I got settled in D.C. – which I did, after a harrowing experience with the metro and a taste of what was to come in terms of the heat of D.C. summers. The staffers with whom I met, Patricia and Deborah, could not have been nicer and gave me helpful hints on where to drop off my resume and start my job search in earnest. That was on a Friday, and on Monday morning, much to my surprise and great excitement, I got a call from Patricia offering me a job as a staff assistant – the fancy title for receptionists in the House and Senate. I could not have been more thrilled. And, even more so when on my first day I found out that the office would be closed and the entire staff bussed to see Senator McCain give the commencement speech at the Naval Academy’s graduation later that month. Think about that for a second: Senator McCain took the entire staff – from the lowly staff assistants, interns, and mailroom coordinators to his Chief of Staff to witness that special day.
During that year, when I dealt with the intense stress of things like cameras filming me answering phones (ringing off the hook) about the Somalian debacle, to taking calls from the President, to dealing with mentally disturbed individuals holing up in our front office, I remembered the generosity and leadership that Senator McCain showed in including his staff at the Naval Academy and that helped me remember that these short-term stressors were for a greater purpose. While after a year, I moved on to another office on Capitol Hill, I didn’t do it because I really wanted to – I did it because Senator McCain’s staff was so loyal and dedicated, they weren’t vacating their jobs like many other Hill staffers did after a year or two, so I had no place to move upward. He was a hard-charging, intense, patriotic, dedicated, and incredibly fair person. Yes, he was passionate, and that sometimes got him crossways with his colleagues, but his passion was from a strong desire to do what was best for this country – and he endured five and a half years of torture in a communist prison to know what can happen when tyranny reigns. Of course, I followed his career, supported his runs for President (including stuffing envelopes for fundraisers during the 2000 campaign since one of his fundraisers, my dear friend Beth Conatser, was also one of my roommates at the time), and applauded his ongoing ability to speak his mind, but remain respectful and statesmanlike.
Senator McCain was a leader among all of his other excellent characteristics. If I can strive to have the amount of leadership he had in his little finger, that will be a major achievement.
I know that all of his colleagues, including my dad, who preceded John in death are very happy to see him. For those of us left behind here, we are so sad to see him go, but so grateful for his legacy of leadership in a free country.