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Journey complete for ex-POW, McCain friend

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Local,Len Lazarick
Everett Alvarez Jr. next week finally will see his friend John McCain become the Republican nominee for president, casting all Maryland’s votes as honorary chairman of the state delegation to the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.

But he easily recalls the first time he ever saw McCain decades ago, on a day near the end of their long captivity in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp — eight years for Alvarez, the first American shot down, and five years for McCain. He recounted the tale with humor last month at a Republican picnic in Davidsonville.

As more American pilots were captured after being shot down in heavy bombing raids, the North Vietnamese were knocking down the walls of the compound, where the downed aviators had previously been kept in small, isolated groups. Prisoners who had known each other only through coded tapping through the walls of their cells were meeting each other for the first time.


“I look across the courtyard and see the men coming in and out of this cell, and in front of this doorway was this figure -- scrawny guy, shocking white hair, arms all mangled," Alvarez said.

“The thing that caught me was he stood in the doorway and every single individual who went in and out, he would stop and shake their hand, and pat them on the back, then the other guy would walk in, he would stop, shake his hand, and pat him on the back. And on and on it went.”

“So I said to a fellow, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

“Oh, that’s John McCain.”

“So I said ‘He’s going to be a politician’ (Alvarez’s audience laughs loudly) -- true story-- ‘either that or he’s going to be the world’s greatest used car salesman.’

“I’m not going to venture about used cars. But I will tell you he’s a masterful, wonderful politician.”

Band of brothers

Out of their hardship, torture, deprivation and isolation in Vietnam, Alvarez and a small band of POWs are among McCain’s most faithful, long-term supporters, campaigning for him through the years. The lessons they all learned in prison and the qualities that kept them alive and loyal to their country and each other are the ones they talk about in McCain.

They are values such as country first before self, service to a cause greater than one’s self, honesty, integrity and faithfulness. It was fidelity to a code of conduct that led both Alvarez and McCain to refuse early release from prison that would have left compatriots behind.

McCain returns Alvarez’s admiration and respect. Since June, the candidate has mentioned him repeatedly in town hall meetings and appearances in Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Virginia, Colorado, and most recently, on Aug. 16 at the Saddleback Church in California before a group of evangelical Christians.

Pastor Rick Warren asked McCain: “What’s the most gut-wrenching decision you’ve ever had to make?”

“It was long ago and far away in a prison camp in North Vietnam,” McCain replied. “My father was a high-ranking admiral. The Vietnamese came and said that I could leave prison early. And we had a code of conduct that said you only leave by order of capture. I also had a dear and beloved friend who was from California named Ev Alvarez, who had been shot down and captured a couple of years before me. … And so I said no.

“I’m very happy I didn’t know the war was going to last for another three years or so. Not only [was it] the toughest decision I ever made, but I’m most happy about that decision than any decision I ever made in my life.”

After Vietnam, politics

McCain has explained the decision to refuse release in more complicated ways in books and speeches, but there’s no doubt that he and Alvarez, a Mexican-American from Salinas, Calif., became friends. “I didn’t get to know John until when we really got home,” Alvarez told The Examiner.

Released from Vietnam in 1973, they both returned to the Navy, and they both got to know the governor of California — Ronald Reagan. As ex-POWs, “we were invited to many, many things,” said Alvarez, who once spent a week baby-sitting the Reagan’s 10-year-old son, Ronnie.

He and McCain “got to see each other more and more. A lot of it centered around the Reagan activity,” Alvarez said. Unlike McCain, who became the Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate, “I was a total novice when it came to politics.”

When they left the Navy, McCain moved to Arizona and took up politics, running for the House and then the Senate. Alvarez, after getting his law degree, was appointed by then-President Reagan as deputy director of the Peace Corps and then deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. In 1988 and again in 1992, McCain and Alvarez co-chaired Veterans for Bush, campaigning for George H.W. Bush.

The fraternity

“It’s a fraternity that no one will understand,” said Diane Lawrence, John McCain’s physical therapist. She worked with the tortured aviator twice a week for nine months to allow him to bend a leg “frozen straight out” so he could fly again. “It was excruciatingly painful,” she said.

McCain introduced her to her future husband and another POW who was a leader at the prison, the late Vice Admiral William Lawrence.

At the Anne Arundel home of Maryland Republican Chairman James Pelura for a July picnic, ex-POWs, friends and family occupied two tables, filled with laughter and kidding. The men are, after all, that special breed of high-flying daredevils, former fighter pilots, the women point out.

Retired Navy Capt. Ned Schuman introduced Alvarez to the crowd, noting that the Californian had already been incarcerated three years when Shuman arrived. “Eight-and-a-half years is pretty arduous and painful,” Shuman said. After cataloging Alvarez’s long public service career and family, Shuman said, “Most of all, he’s a great guy, he’s a true patriot and more than anything else, he’s a Republican.”

Shuman lives in Annapolis when he’s not on his sailboat and does little politically. But at McCain’s request, he became the off-campus sponsor for John “Jack” McCain IV, now going into his final year at the Naval Academy.

As the longest-serving prisoner, Alvarez holds a special place among the relatively small band of about 500 POWs held by the North Vietnamese — compared to the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands captured in the Korean War and World War II.

Orson Swindle, a downed Marine pilot who shared a cell with McCain for 18 months, said, in the Rat Pack, as he referred to the coterie of ex-POWs and McCain campaigners, “Ev Alvarez is our Frank Sinatra. He’s the chairman of the board.”

“He is just a stellar human being,” Swindle said. “We are about the only ones who can understand what he went through,” especially being alone for a year after being shot down as part of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incidents that helped justify Congress’s informal declaration of war.

“He’s one of a kind,” Swindle said. In an example of the macabre sense of humor of the brotherhood, the ex POWs hold an annual reunion on Tet, the Asian New Year, at the Nam Viet restaurant in Arlington.

“I never cease to be in awe of them,” said Thomasine “Tammy” Alvarez, Everett’s wife. “They’re a very special group.

“They downplay their strength of endurance. They don’t look at themselves as the heroes they definitely are,” Tammy Alvarez added. “They are not perfect by any means, but they sure as heck come close to it."

“The term ‘honorary’ is often overused in politics,” said Don Murphy, the former delegate who chairs Maryland’s convention delegation. “Having one of the longest-serving POWs in American history as a member of our delegation redefines the word.”

The good life

Everett Alvarez, with Anthony Pitch, wrote an unflinching 1989 book about his Vietnam years, “Chained Eagle,” reissued in paperback three years ago. The chapter titles alone give the flavor of the book: “Isolation and Starvation,” “In a Concrete Straightjacket,” “Anguish on the Homefront,” “Torture,” “Betrayed,” “Desolation.” Lots of bad things happened to Alvarez, including being divorced by his first wife.

Life has been pretty good to Alvarez since his return. Marriage to Tammy, completing his Naval career, presidential appointments. As he details in a second book, “Code of Conduct,” it was life of the usual ups and downs, professionally and personally, but more ups than downs.

In the process, he has bought and sold one government consulting business, Conwal Inc., and recently founded another, Alvarez & Associates. The family has a home in Rockville and one they built on the Eastern Shore.

The couple has two sons who clearly have followed on the path of “service to a cause greater than one’s self.” Marc, 34, put his law practice on hold to be an advance man for John McCain, a position so ill paid that he had to sell his car, his father reported. Bryan, 32, is a Navy doctor now stationed in San Diego for his residency after two tours of duty with Marine units in Iraq.

Veterans for McCain

Alvarez is no longer a political novice, but his new business in Silver Spring has prevented the level of campaigning he did for McCain in 1999 and 2000.

“I spent a lot more time traveling with him,” riding the Straight-Talk Express bus in the first campaign for president, Alvarez said. “It was just a couple of us, just John and myself sometimes. I was just there for moral support. Just a buddy.”

When in need, McCain turns to buddies like Alvarez and Swindle, who served as a presidential appointee in the Commerce Department and most recently on the Federal Trade Commission and is now a consultant in the information security field. Swindle said he pitched in last summer “when the wheels sort of fell off the wagon” of the McCain campaign, and the Arizona senator was counted out of the race by politicos and media. He helped launch what they called the “No-Surrender Tour.”

Swindle and Alvarez are often used as McCain surrogates with veterans groups. In early August, Alvarez flew to Albuquerque, N.M., one of the battleground states, to speak to a veterans group there.

Their message is simple and similar.

McCain “is an extraordinary man of great courage, character, intellect, honor and duty,” said Swindle. When he was “almost dead,” he still refused early release. He’s “a man with many flaws and a man who makes mistakes,” but he has the integrity to admit them.

“You can trust that he will always do what he truly believes is in the best interest of his country,” Alvarez said. “He is honest, because he’s honest to himself. And he’s human. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s made mistakes.”

One of the worst of them was his embarrassing entanglement with banker Charles Keating, a friend and major contributor involved in the late 1980s savings and loan scandal for whom McCain and others intervened with federal regulators. Alvarez said McCain will tell you “it’s the worst thing he’s ever been through, including the [Vietnamese] camp commander” in Vietnam.

“In all the years I’ve known John and spent time with him, I’ve never seen that so-called temper,” Alvarez said. “What I have seen is passion, and you want someone who has passion, you don’t want someone who flips this way and flaps that way,” an allusion to Barack Obama.

“I think [Obama] is a good man, but I don’t think he can hold a candle to John McCain,” Swindle said. “He’s a very small man compared to a giant.”  

The Gallup Poll, interviewing 2,238 veterans in tracking polls earlier this month, found that ex-military “solidly back McCain over Obama, 56 percent to 34 percent,” said Jeffrey Jones of Gallup. But “McCain is doing only about as well among military veterans as Bush did in 2004.” The support is mainly attributed to veterans’ strong Republican leanings, as might be expected among a group overwhelmingly older and male.  

“We’ve got a long struggle ahead of us,” Swindle said last week. “It’s going to be hard campaigning,” but “I know John McCain works best in adversity. There were very few people who thought we had a chance to do this.”
“I think we have a tremendous task to let the people know what a treasure we have in this man,” Alvarez said. He’s still ready to do his part.

Up close and personal

Name: Everett Alvarez Jr.
Age: 70 (born Dec. 23, 1937 in Salinas, Calif.).
Education: University of Santa Clara, B.S., 1960; Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, Calif., M.S., 1976; George Washington University, J.D., 1982.
Family: Wife, Thomasine Ilyas “Tammy” Alvarez; son, Marc, 34, lawyer and McCain advance man; Bryan, 32, Navy doctor.
Military: As Navy lieutenant j.g he was shot down on Aug. 5, 1964, flying an A-4 fighter; released Feb. 12, 1973; retired as a commander, 1980.
Honors: Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, POW Medal; named after him are a high school in Salinas, Calif., a park in Santa Clara, Calif., two housing projects in California and Texas, and a post office in Rockville, Md.
Career: Deputy director, Peace Corps, 1987; deputy administrator, Veterans Administration, 1982-1986; president, Conwal Inc. consulting firm, 1987-2004, McLean, Va.; founder and CEO, Alvarez and Associates, Silver Spring, 2004-present; member and current chairman, Board of Regents of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, 1988-present.
Books authored: Chained Eagle, Code of Conduct.

llazarick@baltimoreexaminer.com
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