PHOENIX — Military service members and veterans were among thousands in Arizona to gather to pay their respects to Sen. John McCain, who died Saturday at age 81.
People stood in line for hours in the Phoenix heat, carrying umbrellas and sipping cold water, to watch the motorcade transporting McCain’s body and to file past his casket at the public viewing at the Arizona Capitol building during the state’s two days of official mourning Wednesday and Thursday.
The viewing of McCain’s closed, flag-draped casket came on what would have been the Republican senator’s 82nd birthday and followed an emotional private ceremony with McCain’s family and colleagues.
By 8 a.m. Thursday, several dozen veterans and active military members had taken spots along sidewalks to watch the motorcade taking McCain’s casket from the capitol building to a church for his memorial service.
Marine Corps veteran Michael Fellars stood on a roadway outside of North Phoenix Baptist Church waiting to see the funeral procession. Fellars was the fourth person in line Wednesday to attend the public viewing at the Capitol.
Fellars said he was most impressed with McCain’s advocacy on behalf of people who serve in the military. McCain served in the Navy as a pilot who was shot down in 1967 and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain “was about the only politician that I have ever known who cared for the people in his country, and he tried his level best to make it a better place in which to live,” Fellars said.
Honor guard member Valentine Costalez praised McCain for championing the military during his Senate career.
“He’s done so much for us,” said Costalez, who stood watch earlier this week while McCain’s body was at a funeral home.
Judith Hatch, a veteran from Phoenix, handed out flags to those who were assembled. She says Arizona lost a champion for the military.
“We definitely have lost a strong advocate, so we’ll need someone who is going to step up to the plate,” Hatch said.
For some Arizona residents, McCain has been a political fixture in the state for their entire lives. He took office in Arizona in the early 1980s, first as a congressman and then as a senator in the seat once held by Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke forcefully at the church service, saying politics wasn’t what was most important to McCain, it was the underlying values that mattered.
Dabbing his eyes as he spoke, Biden said he thought of McCain as a brother, with “a lot of family fights.”
He said McCain embodied basic values including fairness, honesty and respect.
McCain “could not stand the abuse of power wherever he saw it, in whatever form, in whatever country,” Biden said.
Biden said he and McCain have both known the affliction that claimed McCain’s life. The aggressive form of brain cancer was also the cause of death of Biden’s son Beau.
Among those paying their respects were Vietnamese veterans in their uniforms, who saluted McCain’s flag-draped casket Wednesday.
A group of more than 80 Vietnamese residents came from Southern California on two buses to pay their respects to the McCain. The group wore specially made yellow T-shirts that said, “We salute our hero Senator John McCain.”
McCain was beloved for his history of fighting alongside the South Vietnamese and for supporting the families of political detainees.
In the 1990s, McCain pushed an amendment to a law that allowed for unmarried, adult children of detainees to come to the U.S., said Derrick Nguyen, an attorney and a community organizer.
He says many families that "wouldn't have made it to America made it here."
McCain was also called a hero by a woman who stood in line with her two young sons. She said she brought them “to show them what a real hero was.”
Kassandra Morales, a Democrat, waited on Wednesday at the Arizona Capitol with her sons, ages 8 and 2½. The Democrat brought a bouquet of flowers and said she has always looked up to the Republican senator.
The 44-year-old says she's been following the longtime senator since she was 18 and always voted for him despite her party affiliation.
Even the electronic signs on freeways in the Phoenix area paid tribute to McCain.
The signs said, "Country First Rest In Peace Senator McCain."
McCain’s former colleagues, Sen. Jeff Flake and former Sen. Jon Kyl, both touched McCain’s casket during a service attended by family and politicians on Wednesday.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said McCain was one of the only politicians who could get people to set aside politics.
Ducey said Arizona residents knew they could follow McCain because he was trusted and tested, qualities that are in short supply.
After the memorial service Thursday, a military flight was to take McCain’s body to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony and lying-in-state Friday at the U.S. Capitol and a memorial service Saturday at Washington National Cathedral. A private memorial service and burial is planned for Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.