Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. While we should honor America's heroes every day, on this day in particular we must take time to remember the service and sacrifice of those who were prisoners of war or are still missing in action today, along with their long-suffering families.
I have had the honor of meeting former POWs, and every time I wonder if I could have done what they did. We must never forget their fortitude and strength, nor those still missing, most of whose final stories are unlikely to ever be known. Over 9,000 servicemembers are still listed as MIA from the Korean and Vietnam wars alone.
My thoughts turn today to my fellow Naval Academy graduate, John McCain. I always felt honored when he would call as I was running for Senate to check up on me. A prisoner of war for five and a half years, he personified the best of American selflessness. His refusal to accept an offer to "jump the line" and be unconditionally released led to nearly two years of solitary confinement and other forms of torture. Upon his release and return to the United States, he wrote a harrowing first-person account of his ordeal in which he mentioned with gratitude all of the young supporters who wrote to him since his return, often sending POW bracelets bearing his name.
"This outpouring," McCain wrote, "on behalf of us who were prisoners of war is staggering, and a little embarrassing because basically we feel that we are just average American Navy, Marine and Air Force pilots who got shot down. Anybody else in our place would have performed just as well."
That humility — that deep sense of honor and duty and faith — is what makes America great.
My wife Susan was involved in efforts to search through old Soviet Union records in Ukraine looking for clues about POW/MIAs shot down by Soviet planes during the Korean War. On one occasion, after days of painstakingly combing through archives, a former Soviet general working with her team said, in exasperation: "Why do you Americans care so much?!" The answer can be found in the ideal that John McCain and so many others represented and stood far: service to country above self.
We must never forget what today represents to those who lived that selfless ideal to its fullest, nor why — from Hong Kong to Ukraine — people demonstrate for freedom and justice by waving the American flag. The United States of America, to such people, is not merely a symbol, but an aspiration. And we are only so considered because of heroes like John McCain.
On this day, let us all step back from our busy lives to feel gratitude, and to reflect on and pray for all those who sacrificed their freedom — or their lives — so we can live free today.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Penn., served more than 30 years in the Navy, rising to the rank of three-star admiral and serving as deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements. He is currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination.