Former POW lauds McCain

Retired colonel spent years in Vietnamese camp with candidate

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— Retired Air Force Col. Tom Kirk wasted few words Tuesday evening.

"If there's one person I met in my life that I would follow to the ends of the Earth, it's John McCain," he said.

Kirk met the Republican presidential nominee in dark circumstances: when the two were prisoners of war in Hanoi, Vietnam. Kirk spent five and a half years at the camp. An altercation with a guard put him in solitary confinement for two of those years. In that period, he saw no Americans.

Dozens of people, many of them veterans, sat in rapt attention during Kirk's speech at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. The colonel shared his glowing opinion of McCain as well as the story of their internment at the "Hanoi Hilton."

The local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts sponsored the event. American Legion Post 44 Cmdr. Bob Printy, who lost a brother in the Vietnam War, said he could not imagine having Kirk's experience.

"We live in a wonderful nation and a beautiful area, so it's important for me to listen to him and understand a little bit about what he went through," Printy said.

VFW Post 4264 Cmdr. Tony Weiss said he hoped the presentation opened people's hearts to Vietnam veterans and helped them understand the troops' experience.

"I think it's just a real honor to have him in Steamboat and be in his presence," Weiss said.

Kirk was shot down in his F-105 dive-bomber Oct. 28, 1967. McCain was shot down two days earlier.

The men didn't meet until Christmas of 1970, Kirk said, when the North Vietnamese brought a large group of prisoners to Hanoi, possibly fearing a raid. Nearly 50 prisoners shared a large room, including Kirk and McCain. They were rescued in 1973.

"I came to know John McCain in extreme depth because we had nothing to do, nothing to write," Kirk said. McCain is a man of honor and integrity who puts his country before all else, Kirk said.

He said that he was worried about the direction of the country and that he believed only McCain could unite and lead America.

Kirk also stressed that Americans must appreciate what they have and work to improve themselves.

"I don't ever forget what freedom means," Kirk said. "I tell you, every day is the Fourth of July to me, even after 34 years."

After the speech, audience members crowded around Kirk to shake his hand and hug him. Outside the community center, Ty Upson, a Marine, said Kirk's speech moved him.

"I had to keep swallowing," Upson said. "You know, Marines don't cry."

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