Even as he was in the midst of planning his funeral arrangements, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) looked for ways to inspire and encourage Americans. Not only did he posthumously release a farewell letter to his fellow Americans urging us to “believe always in the promise and greatness of America,” but in the last few days of his life, he sent a congratulatory letter to a recent graduate and future Navy pilot — who received it after the Arizona senator passed away.
Navy Ensign Sam Bongiorno received the letter from McCain on Monday, August 27; according to CNN, it was mailed on August 25, which was the same day that McCain passed away.
Bongiorno recently graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and will undergo pilot training at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base.
According to James Mitchell, director of the community initiatives team at Luke, sending such a letter wasn’t out of the norm for McCain.
“He had a special place in his heart for Naval Aviators,” Mitchell told the Arizona Republic.
McCain graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1958 and retired from the Navy in 1981. During his five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he was tortured and beaten to the point that his body did not entirely recover; afterwards, according to the New York Times, “he knew that his Navy future would be limited by his physical disabilities,” so he decided to serve his country in a different way. As senator, he championed the American military, served on the Armed Services Committee, and frequently visited American troops in war zones.
An image of the full letter from McCain is available at the Arizona Republic. The text is below:
It gives me great pleasure to congratulate you on your graduation from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. This is a momentous achievement of which you and your family should be proud.
I commend you for your decision to serve our nation. The dedication and determination you exhibited in completing your degree at the USMAA will serve you well as you begin your service as a Naval Aviator in the United States Navy. It is young people like you who make the future of this nation brighter and stronger.
Again, congratulations on this achievement. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
United States Senator
It was very bittersweet to get a gesture like that from someone that has been a role model to me for many years. And it was an honor to have been able to receive that as one of his last letters that he sent from his office
Bongiorno, who was born and raised in Arizona, praised McCain as a “very honorable man” willing to take accountability and admit mistakes:
I think McCain was a very honorable man. I’ve seen a lot of interviews with him. And one of the things that struck me was just how often he would admit his mistakes or admit that he was wrong. And I think that that was crucial to his success and to his reputation as someone that could be trusted to, you know, help run the country. And I think that that was a big factor in his military career as well.
Bongiorno also explained why he sees the letter as special and revealed he plans to frame the letter:
This weekend, I’m hopefully going to frame it. And I’ll definitely cherish the gesture of goodwill. You know, in a way it was kind of passing the baton to a new generation. I consider it a gesture towards not just me but my peers as well who are also joining me in, you know, becoming junior officers and trying to learn to fly these aircraft.
This letter can be added to the multiple stories about the ways McCain inspired others. McCain signed the letter while in the final days of his life and nearing the end of medical treatment for his brain cancer. There were no expectations that he would do something like this. And yet, he did.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.