THE POST-POW YEARSTHE POST-POW YEARS: FIRST OF TWO PARTS — When John McCain limped home from a Hanoi prison camp in 1973 with a badly injured knee that he could not bend, Navy doctors gave him the bad news: His 15-year career as a jet pilot was over. He would never fly again.
But McCain surprised his doctors by making a dramatic comeback. With a ferocious determination to fly again and a tough physical therapy regimen, he got his wings back and not long after was awarded command of the Navy's largest aviation squadron, VA-174, at Cecil Field in Florida. Blue-chip connections in the Nixon administration helped.
These days, when the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is asked about his qualifications to lead and manage, he points to his command of that squadron as proof he has the right stuff to be president.
"I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy, not for profit, but for patriotism," McCain said at a candidate forum in New Hampshire. "I'm proud of that record of leadership."
McCain's bravery during his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war is a well-told story. But how he regained his career after the Vietnam War has received less attention in his autobiography and other writings about his life.
A review of Navy records and interviews with more than a dozen of his former colleagues paint a picture of a commander who was lionized by his troops as a war hero and respected by aviators as a fair and effective manager. He had rugged good looks and a common touch, and was fiercely loyal to those who worked for him, his former colleagues say.
But those Navy records also cast some doubt on the importance of a claim McCain makes in his autobiography -- that he took bold steps to improve the readiness of the squadron. Some of McCain's contemporaries don't recall key parts of a management initiative that he describes in that book. And although the squadron was well-run under McCain, it appeared to be no better managed than before he arrived or after he left, according to interviews and records.
But there's no doubt it was a big job. Running the squadron, with its 1,000 personnel and fleet of 75 jets, was like managing a small corporation.
"It speaks for itself," McCain said in a recent interview. "You implement the principles of leadership. You address issues. You work hard. You try to inspire the people under your command. It is not any different from any other leadership role. It all boils down to treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself. It is one of the essentials of leadership."
'An unlimited future'
McCain's confidential military fitness reports, which were released to The Times by his campaign staff, judged him an "exceptional naval officer with an unlimited future" and "unequivocally recommend him for accelerated promotion to captain and major command."
The fight to put his career back on track started almost as soon as McCain returned from Hanoi.
He first angled for a position at the prestigious National War College, but the Navy balked because he was only a lieutenant commander. So McCain gained entry by appealing directly to John Warner, then secretary of the Navy and a close friend of McCain's father, an admiral commanding Pacific forces during the Vietnam War.
"John wasn't the only one who got some consideration," said Warner, now a Republican senator from Virginia. It was Pentagon policy to assist returning POWs in reestablishing their careers.
While attending the war college, McCain focused on fixing the knee injured when he was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam. Through a friend, he met Diane Lawrence, a physical therapist, and told her that he needed to bend the knee 90 degrees to pass a flight physical. She said it was the worst knee injury she had ever seen.
"I told him, 'I know what your goal is, but can you stand the pain?' " Lawrence recalled. "He said, 'Yeah, honey, I can stand the pain.' "
So, hour after hour, McCain would lie on his stomach as Lawrence rested McCain's leg against her shoulder and bent the knee degree by degree.
Even when McCain could bend his knee a little more than 90 degrees, convincing doctors that he could fly was another challenge.
"I think he threatened every Navy doctor he met," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain supporter who spent 25 years as a military attorney. "Every doctor told him, 'John, forget it. You won't fly again.' But he was going to get into a cockpit if it killed him."
Ultimately, he passed a flight physical at the Navy field in Pensacola. He went back to Lawrence's clinic in Virginia to deliver the news in person. "We both cried," she said.
McCain's arrival at Cecil Field in August 1974 coincided with a difficult period in the U.S. military, punctuated by discipline problems, drug use, racial tensions, funding shortfalls, equipment defects and morale problems left from the Vietnam War.