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On my honor

Jack McCain on duty, helping Afghan refugees, and living up to his father’s legacy

Illustration of American flag

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

At 36, Jack McCain has had an impressive military career. The fourth-generation naval officer’s journey has included five deployments in the Pacific, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, as well as participating in search and rescue operations, including three that saved lives.

He taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned a degree in international relations before going on to a master’s degree in security studies from Georgetown University.

But nowhere has the naval aviator — he flies helicopters — forged stronger connections than in Afghanistan, where he’d volunteered for combat as a cultural liaison.

During a tough year of combat training, he also learned about Afghanistan history and politics, learning the Dari language before deploying to Kandahar Airfield as an air adviser, flying alongside, teaching, training with and relying on his Afghan counterparts as an “Afghan Hand.” That’s a link between the U.S. and Afghan militaries, advising on the culture, politics and military issues of the Middle Eastern country.

That birthed a passion — born of gratitude, respect and genuine affection — for helping resettle Afghan evacuees, who took great personal risk to help America’s military, into satisfying lives in the United States.

He still flies as a reserve naval aviator. But back home in Arizona, his day job now is director of state and local government affairs for American Airlines’ Phoenix hub. And President

Joe Biden this year appointed McCain to the Board of Visitors for the U.S. Naval Academy to “inquire into the state of morale and discipline, the curriculum, instruction, physical equipment, fiscal affairs, academic methods,” among other matters.

Despite his personal accomplishments, though, the question of lineage invariably peeps through. And Jack McCain has no intention of cruising on the fact that he’s the son of the late Sen. John S. McCain — is, in fact, John S. McCain IV. He’s also happy to “wiggle out of talking politics.”

He’s simply Jack, he says, though he’s proud to serve as a trustee of the McCain Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to advancing democracy and defending human rights.

He hopes his action speaks louder than his name. “In the military, it took time for people to figure out who I was related to,” says McCain. “I generally do everything I can to obscure that fact. … I never want to make that association explicit because to use that would be incorrect. It would be something that would drive the old man nuts if I were running around talking about who I was related to, provided I am trying to do good work and serve a cause that’s greater than my own self-interest.”

Deseret Magazine talked to McCain about helping Afghan refugees, civility and pursuing passion that serves a greater good.

Deseret Magazine: Your resume is rich. How do you introduce yourself?

Jack McCain: The thing I usually lead with, depending on context, is whoever I’m working for in that moment, which at times is difficult to pin down, whether I’m working for American Airlines, or I’m working for the McCain Institute, or working for the Navy, or on behalf of the Afghan evacuees. The things that become permanent are I’m a veteran, a helicopter pilot — which I love, because it’s probably the most interesting thing about me — and I also am an Arizonan. The older you get, the more you realize how much where you’re from impacts who you become.

DM: Why is working with Afghan refugees important to you?

JM: They protected me in a place where they didn’t have to. I spent a year of my life flying alongside Afghan pilots in Blackhawks in Kandahar and Helmand, which are notably rough neighborhoods. And when the collapse came, I wanted to do everything I could to help protect the people who protected me. It was a long and arduous process. And we didn’t get all of the people that deserved to be evacuated.

Now they’re here. In my specific case, the pilots I flew with and their families are in Arizona. Given that they were willing to bet their lives on the promises that America gave them, we owe them everything we can give now.

DM: How many pilots and how did you help get them here?

JM: About 60 pilots, 250 Afghans in total, so pilots and family members. I was a very small part in a very large effort. I spoke the language and had the contacts on the ground. My job was to organize them, figure out where they were and try to get them moved to positions that could help them get evacuated in different regions. I was a very small piece of a verybig machine in August 2021.

DM: Are you in touch with some of them?

JM: I am in very close contact with almost all of them — efforts to try to help improve their situations, get the kids educated, get them integrated into society so that they can live safe, stable and sustainable lives.

DM: Was the evacuation through an organization?

JM: Their actual evacuation was not. The effort was very, very haphazard. It was just everyone doing what they could. They received support from multiple organizations, one of them being the International Rescue Committee, to help resettle once they arrived in the U.S. It helped provide for some of their basic needs. Because of the way the refugee system works in the U.S., it’s a very short amount of time that they’re taken care of.

These are all educated men and women who operated their craft at high levels in the Afghan military, so they’re not your standard evacuees. I’m trying to help them get what they deserve.

DM: Are paying debts and honor important to you?

JM: Honor is a very interesting concept of differing levels, from the personal level to national or even international. The concepts may be a little arcane, but they are important because they provide you with an ethos, with guidance into circumstances where there may not be a clear right thing to do — or circumstances in which it’s difficult to do the right thing.

There’s a very popular line: “Character is doing the right thing when no one’s looking.” I’ve come to hate that line, because I believe it is most difficult sometimes to do the right thing when everyone is looking. You see that throughout history and throughout your personal life. The idea of honor and character is simply doing the right thing by virtue of the fact it’s the right thing to do.

I speak about civility more often. It seems to be a little more pertinent. Whether that’s perception or reality, I’m not sure. But civility, especially interpersonal and political civility, are vastly important not just for bringing the temperature of discourse down. Without civility, it becomes easy to fire back and forth as opposed to, in a political sense, legislating.

You have to cooperate to legislate. If you can’t respect the person across from you or you can’t speak to them, you certainly can’t cooperate. Then you don’t get anything done, which is why you see almost political paralysis across state, local and national governments.

Civility is very near and dear to me.

DM: Where beside politics do you see incivility?

JM: I spend a significant amount of time on social media. I think that’s a place where civility would be very useful. It becomes easy to see the person sitting across from you or the person you’re interacting with as an avatar or a nameless, faceless being as opposed to a human being. It becomes easy to say things that we wouldn’t necessarily say if we were close to watch the consequences. I don’t have a pitch and I’m not selling anything. I just think that to reframe ourselves when it comes to civility in interpersonal discourse, social media, even news media and politics would be a useful exercise for all of us.

DM: What challenges do you see people face?

JM: Everybody’s circumstances are a little bit different, but one of the broad-stroke things is uncertainty — whether it’s inflation or whatever talking point you want to use, which can become partisan quickly. But this idea of things not being certain or not feeling right becomes a problem.

I think it has myriad causes and influences. At the end of it, lacking certainty is a difficult way to live and has a tendency to give you a bit of tunnel vision, to maybe not make decisions the same way you would if you were able to look further ahead.

I do see a lack of civility between individuals at all levels of government and personal media as a problem because people have stopped trusting the sources of information that they usually did and started finding alternatives. Or maybe it’s not even a lack of trust, but the availability of different sources of information. The best way for ideas to be better is a free marketplace of ideas.

I’m not one to intimate that there should be some sort of censorship or anything like that. But I do see a symptom in our inability to talk to one another.

DM: What are the bright lights in your life right now?

JM: The brightest light — also the perfect duality, the brightest and darkest light that I have at this moment — is the circumstances of the Afghan humanitarian parolees, because they are here and I’m incredibly happy about it. They’re no longer in danger. They have opportunity. But integration into a society that’s alien to you is an almost impossible feat when you are not prepared for it — and nobody was — and when you are not given resources to thrive.

I was a cultural adviser in Afghanistan, so I am very aware of what it takes to integrate into another society. There are an incredible number of well-intentioned and willing people that have stepped up to help. But it takes a larger effort because 70,000 to 100,000 Afghans are now evacuating. It is an amazing fact that that effort happened. But it is also worrisome that we have not followed through.

I would also say I am happy to be gainfully employed, I’m happy living back in Arizona and still able to fly on weekends in the reserves. Frankly, I enjoy that because it’s fun — and it’s difficult and dangerous and exciting. And still able to give back, even if it’s not full-time. It’s one weekend a month, two weeks a year. And sometimes that’s good enough.

DM: Can readers make a difference to those refugees?

JM: Absolutely. There’s a piece of legislation that has not passed. It has been worked on through blood, sweat and tears by a massive number of people, but it is stalled. It’s called the Afghan Adjustment Act. If any reader feels compelled or reads up on this issue and feels like they have a desire to call their congressmen, burn up the phone lines, send emails — just get the awareness that this needs to pass. The legislation fixes a lot of the problems that we’ve had since arrival. Plenty of people are worried about vetting and it fixes that problem. It provides them resources and codifies their legal status in the United States. They have a degree of uncertainty that would be impossible to live under. They don’t know if in less than a year they’re going to get deported back to Afghanistan.

I would also say, if you run into or know of Afghan refugees in your community, do what you can to reach out, ask what they need or simply present a friendly face because they arein a place that is about as different from their home as anything could be.

DM: Any last word?

JM: I would say that the guiding light that I was given by my old man was “Whatever you do, find and serve a cause greater than your own self-interest.”

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.