Staunch Allies, Tested by Adversity

By John Wagner and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- When the roll call reaches Maryland on Wednesday night, a convention delegate with a special bond with John McCain is scheduled to step forward to announce the state's 37 votes. Everett Alvarez Jr. of Potomac was a prisoner of war with McCain in the same camp in North Vietnam, where they came to know each other during their final year and a half of captivity in the early 1970s.

Orson Swindle, a Virginia delegate and another former prisoner of war with McCain, was playing a prominent role here Tuesday night. Swindle, who lives in Alexandria, was tapped by the campaign of his decades-old friend to introduce former POWs and Medal of Honor recipients from the convention stage.

Alvarez, 70, and Swindle, 71, are among a coterie of McCain boosters whose support is rooted in the shared adversity of their experiences in Vietnam. Their stories -- and accompanying testimonials about the character of the Arizona senator -- have become a crucial part of the McCain campaign's message here.

"It's a fraternity now," Alvarez said of his fellow POWs. "The whole experience was bonding, because it was total interdependence for survival. We placed the group first."

Neither Alvarez nor Swindle is a newcomer to McCain's cause. Both were early supporters of the maverick's 2000 bid for president.

"I do not agree with him on everything . . . but the one thing I always said about my friend . . . is his loyalty is absolutely unwavering,'' Swindle said. "He is just incredibly loyal to the people that he trusts and loves."

Swindle has been all across the country, including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, speaking on behalf of McCain in front of mostly military crowds. He accompanied McCain on his 2007 "No Surrender Tour," designed to show support for troops and talk down plans for early withdrawal.

This week, Alvarez is making the rounds among state delegations to talk up his former Navy colleague. On Tuesday morning, he stopped by a breakfast gathering of his home delegation, which includes another Vietnam POW, Michael Cronin of North Potomac.

"I have a hard time calling him 'Senator,' " Alvarez told his fellow Marylanders when it was his turn to speak about McCain. "It's just 'John.' Some day shortly, I will have the privilege of calling him 'Mr. President.' "

Lieutenant j.g. Alvarez was 26 when his plane was shot down in 1964 in the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. He became the first prisoner in the "Hanoi Hilton," where he would spend the next 8 1/2 years in captivity, one of the longest periods any American has been a prisoner of war.

Alvarez said he came to know McCain during the final year and a half of that period, when the North Vietnamese loosened rules in the prison camp to allow POWs to interact with those who were not their immediate cellmates. He and McCain never shared a cell -- but Alvarez was well known because of the length of time he had been there.

On the campaign trail, McCain has said that when other POWs became demoralized, he would point to Alvarez as someone who had been there longer.

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