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POW Aftereffects in McCain Unlikely

Research Shows Past Trauma Probably Won't Affect Candidate's Life Span

President Richard M. Nixon welcomed home then-Lt. Cmdr. John McCain in 1973 after the prisoner of war was released by the North Vietnamese after 51/2 years in captivity.
President Richard M. Nixon welcomed home then-Lt. Cmdr. John McCain in 1973 after the prisoner of war was released by the North Vietnamese after 51/2 years in captivity. (U.s. Navy)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008; Page A06

Sen. John McCain's 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam undoubtedly changed the course of his life. But now that he is 71, that remote trauma seems unlikely to shorten his life span or to lead to mental or physical conditions that are not already apparent.

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That is the implication of a body of research on the lifetime effects of captivity and war trauma and the anecdotal experience of the small group of naval aviators imprisoned with McCain at the notorious "Hanoi Hilton."

The Republican presidential candidate's medical records dating to 2000 will be opened for view by the media today in Phoenix. The Arizona senator's multiple cases of melanoma, a potentially lethal skin cancer, are likely to dominate the documents.

Although some experts have speculated that sun exposure during his imprisonment may have led to his cancer, the records are unlikely to speak directly to the effects of his years as a prisoner of war. Despite his painful and harrowing captivity, McCain has never received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said, and research suggests that the syndrome has been rare in American aviator POWs who served in the Vietnam War.

The records being released today contain "no psychological material because McCain has not been treated for anything related to that in the time frame of records we are releasing," she said.

Common sense suggests that any candidate who is campaigning vigorously is unlikely to have a serious disease that has not already declared itself, experts said.

"The demands of the modern campaign are so significant that if one can get through them, one can assume they are as fit as need be," said Mark S. Litwin, a surgeon and "survivorship expert" at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, McCain's years as a POW -- he was released in early 1973 -- constitute a distinctly unusual health variable among presidential aspirants.

There are no published studies of longevity among American POWs who served in Vietnam. Studies of Australian prisoners, however, found that they had slightly increased mortality in the years and decades immediately after the war, particularly from accidents, suicide and substance abuse.

Studies of U.S. troops captured during World War II and the Korean War also found higher death rates in the early decades after their release, mostly from tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver. Once past that period, however, former captives' longevity was scarcely different from that of other veterans.

The most obvious effect of McCain's captivity is in his arms. He broke both of them and a leg after ejecting from his bomber in 1967. Inadequate treatment of the injuries, as well as torture by his captors in Hanoi, left him with a decreased range of motion in his arms -- evident in the shrugging appearance of his shoulders.

At the prison, which received its sarcastic Hanoi Hilton nickname from the Americans held there, McCain was repeatedly beaten, bound and placed in prolonged solitary confinement.


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