The late Sen. John McCain and retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught were among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at the White House on Thursday.
The two veterans — McCain for his storied political career after being a prisoner of war and Vaught for accomplishments that blazed a trail for women in the military — received the award from President Joe Biden — along with 15 other Americans, including a Gold Star father who had a recent turn in the political spotlight.
Biden awarded the medals during a ceremony in the East Room, reminiscing about the accomplishments of and his relationships with recipients such as McCain. The medal was also awarded to Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast; Fred Gray, a Black attorney and Alabama legislator who represented Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks; Steve Jobs, the co-founder and tech visionary at Apple; and actor Denzel Washington.
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“I never stopped admiring John [McCain], never said a negative thing about him in my life, because I knew his honor, his courage and his commitment,” said Biden, who first met McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, as Navy liaison to Congress in the 1970s. “That was John McCain, and the code he inherited from his family that served before him was passed on to his brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren today.”
McCain, who died in 2018 after a battle with brain cancer, was a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam when he was shot down; he endured torture and solitary confinement for more than five years as a prisoner of war. At the time, his father became the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and the North Vietnamese dangled an early release, but McCain refused.
During the height of his political career, McCain clinched the Republican nomination to run for president against Barack Obama and Biden, the Democratic vice presidential pick, in 2008. “We ran against each other, which I didn’t like, on tickets for the highest office in the land,” Biden said.
The Republican senator from Arizona was a towering figure on Capitol Hill who sat on and once helmed the Armed Services Committee, where he was known for grilling Pentagon brass and top officials over what he perceived as waste and abuse.
Toward the end of his life, he became a foil to President Donald Trump, a member of his own political party who once questioned whether McCain was a hero for being a prisoner of war during Vietnam. Even as Trump won widespread party loyalty, McCain never seemed to fully bend to the president’s will and, in the end, Trump wasn’t invited to his funeral.
Even as glioblastoma wore him down, McCain continued work as a senator, famously returning to Washington with an incision scar over his eye to vote on health care legislation in the summer of 2017. He continued to attend Armed Services hearings but in a wheelchair.
After his death, McCain laid in state in the Senate rotunda at the Capitol — a rare honor decided by both Republicans and Democrats — before being buried at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Another veteran medal recipient on Thursday never had McCain’s notoriety, but did have an outsized impact on the role of women in the armed services, with many gender barriers falling in recent decades.
Vaught, an Air Force veteran who enlisted in 1957 and retired in 1985, is one of the most decorated women in military history, mirroring that arc toward greater inclusion, and her nearly three-decade career was a series of firsts for female service members.
During her service, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law in 1967 allowing women to move into the upper ranks of the military, saying the “bill does not create any female generals or female admirals — but it does make that possible.” Johnson also acknowledged that “our gentlemen officers may not be too enthusiastic” about women in those roles.
When Vaught retired years later, she was one of only seven female generals in the military, and among only three in the Air Force, according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, a nonprofit organization that has honored Vaught.
But Vaught also broke the glass ceiling multiple times along the way: the first woman on an operational deployment with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing in 1966; the first female Air Force officer to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in 1972; and the first woman promoted to brigadier general in the Air Force in the comptroller field in 1980, according to the museum.
“She enlisted in the 1950s because she wanted to be a leader,” Biden said. “She did that and more, becoming the first woman in almost every leadership role she held in nearly 30 years in uniform, shattering conventions, shaping a new tradition of our military, and she couldn’t stop after retirement.”
After retirement, she headed the effort to create the Military Women’s Memorial, the first national memorial to women in military service, which stands at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery.
Vaught attended the White House ceremony and saluted as Biden attached the medal around her neck.
Presidents have been awarding the Medal of Freedom since the 1960s and often dole out dozens of the awards to Americans from all backgrounds, some famous and some not so much. Choices can often be political in nature.
Trump gave the medal to Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth, but also conservative radio host and firebrand Rush Limbaugh and also Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who had loyally defended Trump.
On Thursday, Biden awarded Khizr Khan, a Muslim-American Gold Star father from Virginia, who became famous in 2016 when he was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention backing Hillary Clinton’s run for president.
His son, Humayun Khan, was an Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004 while protecting his unit from a suicide bomber. The elder Khan spoke out at the DNC against Trump — holding aloft a pocket Constitution, asking rhetorically whether Trump had ever read it — and got into a public dispute with the then-candidate for president over his positions on Muslims and military service.
“Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America, you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities,” Khan said at the convention. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
Khan was the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center, and served on Biden’s Commission on International Religious Freedom, according to the White House.
Biden said he was linked to Khan through the pain of losing a child. The president said he hadn’t asked Khan about the pocket Constitution Khan said he always carried in 2016, but “I imagine that is still in your pocket as a reminder of the charge that has to be kept.”
— Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.
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