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Column

'It’s as if he’s kicking John McCain’s coffin'

Veterans close ranks around McCain, fire back at Trump’s latest attack on late Senator

Jack LeGros, a helicopter door gunner during the Vietnam War, was on his way into the Veterans Administration’s Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center on Tuesday afternoon when I asked him what he thought about President Trump’s continued attacks on late Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“I think he’s an … ”

I can’t complete that sentence in a family newspaper, but I’m sure you can hazard a pretty good guess as to how LeGros finished his thought.

The veteran, 77, walked with a limp. He said he thinks exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam is causing his pain.

“My foot started getting hot, like it was in hot sand, and it steadily progressed up my legs,” said LeGros, who has also been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder for many years.

LeGros said he doesn’t care much for Trump, period. But even veterans who support the president told me they can’t understand why the president would speak with such contempt about a man who devoted his life to public service, endured years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down in Vietnam, and died of brain cancer 7 months ago.

Just last weekend Trump, who was in a particularly cranky mood, tweeted about his political issues with McCain and said, incorrectly, that McCain finished last in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I don’t like it,” said Rubin Elfman, a World War II Army veteran who served in Germany and told me he will turn 93 next month.

Elfman said he likes Trump’s politics but doesn’t understand his McCain obsession.

“Listen,” Elfman said, “the man served his country.”

In 1999, I briefly rode with McCain on his “Straight Talk Express” as he traveled through New Hampshire in a run for the presidency. His politics weren’t mine, but I couldn’t help but admire the man, who had trouble raising his arm high enough to comb his hair due to the wartime torture he had suffered. A short time later, in Hanoi, I visited the dank, miserable cell where McCain spent much of his 5-plus years in captivity.

I once foolishly thought Trump’s relentless insistence that the first black president of the United States was African would doom him as a crank, but it didn’t. I thought that mocking the looks of a female opponent and the wife of another opponent in the presidential primary would be the end of him, but it wasn’t.

I finally realized Trump wouldn’t lose his base of supporters by saying things that were cruel, undignified, racially offensive or patently false.

But a war hero? Especially one now dead who happened to be in Trump’s own party?

Of course, Trump might dispute that assessment. Our president, who did not serve in the military, infamously said of McCain:

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was shot down. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Trump survived that, as vile as it was, which may be why he felt emboldened to take another poke at McCain over the weekend.

“He should let it go. In this case, no one cares what he thinks about John McCain,” said Vietnam veteran Terry Barker, who added that he voted for Trump and otherwise likes his politics.

“I’m offended,” said Carlos Gonzalez, who served in the Army after the Vietnam War. “He was a dodger.”

“Yeah,” said Tony Rushing, who was in the Navy in the late 1960s. “A draft dodger.”

To be precise, Trump had several deferments for being in college and another for bone spurs on the heels of his feet. The daughters of a New York podiatrist said in December that their father offered the diagnosis as a favor to their landlord, Trump’s father.

“What is a bone spur?” Vietnam veteran Andrew Sanchez asked me in the lobby of the VA.

I’m not sure he was expecting an answer. He asked if I served and I said no, I didn’t. When I was of age, the Vietnam War was ending and a draft lottery was in place. My number didn’t come up.

Edie Koller, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, told me how she felt about the president maligning a war hero.

“I find it offensive as a veteran,” she said.

Emperor F. Seidl, who served in the Marines and the Army, and spent time in Vietnam, called himself a solid Trump supporter.

“But regarding the Trump comments,” Seidl said, “I’d like to take him in the back room and kick his behind.”

I don’t know if it would be fair to beat up a man with bone spurs.

After leaving the Valley, I decided to make a phone call to a veteran who has spent many a day in VA hospitals. Ron Kovic, author of the bestselling wartime memoir “Born on the Fourth of July,” was paralyzed by combat injuries and later took to the streets as a leader of the anti-war movement.

Kovic, who has been in a wheelchair for a half-century, told me he once debated McCain and he had quite a few political differences with him. But he also had a great deal of admiration for McCain himself.

“The one thing I always respected was his dignity as a human being, as a man, and the fact that he served, and sacrificed, and suffered greatly. ... And he came home. He came back from that and he gave everything,” Kovic said.

“These attacks against him are just outrageous, especially where they’re coming from – from someone who never wore the uniform, who never served his country, never put his life in danger, and it’s just unconscionable.

“It’s as if he’s kicking John McCain’s coffin.”

Steve Lopez is a California native who has been an L.A. Times columnist since 2001. He can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com

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