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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: Remembering a friend, Sen. McCain

By Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

Senator. POW. Veteran. Public servant. Patriot. Truth teller. Maverick. Advocate. Statesman. Grateful son. Devoted husband. Loving father. Friend. Hero.

It's difficult to describe U.S. Sen. John McCain in a few words. He was a force of nature. Both in life and death, his legacy looms very large in the U.S. Senate, around our country, and across the world.

There are so many who have told — and will continue to tell — the story of John's life, accolades, and legacy. I'll leave it to others to do it justice. For me, John was a friend. And for that reason alone, I'm heartbroken to have lost him.

Our friendship started first with his wife, Cindy, who I have become very close with over the past few years because of our work together to combat human trafficking. She's a force in her own right and has the same values and courage that John did. Through her, I got to know John better and learn who he was beyond a public figure.

John had two loves: his family and his country. He was devoted to his mother, wife, and children. He provided them with an uncompromising love, and he instilled in them a wisdom borrowed from his own life of hard-fought battles, triumphs, and innumerable lives touched.

When I first arrived in the Senate, I knew well John's reputation as a public servant. But in serving beside him and getting to know him and his family, I got to see up close someone who dedicated his life to standing up for his fellow servicemembers and veterans. He fought for what he believed was right no matter the cost to him. He could be brutal in his disagreements, and lavishing in his praise. He admitted and learned from his mistakes and failings. He deeply respected those who worked hard, especially those who served beside him in the military, the Senate, and across Arizona.

We also formed a bond working together to stand up for Indian Country through our work in the U.S. Senate. One of the last bills of his that became law was legislation he and I worked on together to create Amber Alerts in Indian Country to protect Native American children.

John was a needed and important voice in the U.S. Senate during his decades of service — whether you agreed with him or not. He had the courage to stand up against anyone or anything and always speak his mind because of what he had endured in his lifetime. He didn't hesitate to hold anyone accountable, including himself.

At the same time, he brought people together. John understood that to get results and for the Senate to function as it's supposed to, you have to be able to work together. He was willing to work with anyone — Republican, Democrat, or anyone in between — to do what he believed was just. He also understood that he could disagree with you on an issue and still be your friend. We need more men and women like John McCain in the Senate.

So many of us have stories about John.

Adrienne Linde, a Gold Star wife from Bismarck, posted on Facebook about John several days ago. She wrote about how she attended the State of the Union in 2013 as my guest, and at the congressional dinner before the address, she noticed John from across the room.

She said, "He walked up to me and asked why I was wearing a fallen soldier bracelet. I told him it was for my husband who had been killed in Afghanistan just two months prior. John McCain showed me his bracelet and said a mother of a fallen soldier in Arizona gave him her son's bracelet. He said he'd never taken it off. John McCain then kissed my forehead and said bless you and your family and walked away. His genuine kindness really touched me. A few months ago it seemed apparent his battle with brain cancer would not be beaten. I sent John McCain Darren's bracelet and wished him continued strength. Our country has lost another incredible hero."

This is who John McCain was and what he means to so many Americans — especially to those who served and those who lost loved ones who served. He will be missed by so many. And I will miss my friend.

Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

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