STOCKTON — As the memorial service for Sen. John McCain took place three time zones away in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the Stockton Veterans of Foreign Wars held its own public service for the American war hero and maverick politician.

Dozens gathered at the Stockton Vietnam Memorial to pay respects and honor McCain, who died Aug. 25 at age 81. Just after sunrise, a live broadcast of the funeral service from D.C. was streamed at Luneta Post 52 at the Memorial Civic Auditorium.

The half-hour local program started with a blessing of the grounds by Vietnam veterans Joe Maes, Terry Hanson and Charlie Flores. Specks of sage were sprinkled around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall bearing the names of Stockton men killed or missing in action.

A large piece of black fabric was draped over the wall as a framed photograph of McCain stood beside it.

Post Cmdr. Sam Pachuca received many questions in the days after McCain’s death about whether a local memorial would be able to be put together in time, but he knew it had to be done.  

“I knew that all veterans had a place in their heart for Sen. John McCain, a POW and a dedicated servant to our country,” Pachuca, 71, said.

“One thing that inspired me about his life was his love for America. He never relinquished that feeling in his five-and-a-half years as a POW and not ever in his service in Congress and Senate to our country. John McCain is one of those individuals I feel that is an elite American, one who shows what America is all about.”

After a presentation of the colors by Post 52 and the national anthem by the Stockton Portsmen, Vietnam vet Bill Henry read aloud McCain’s inspiring last letter to the U.S. that was recently made public.

“Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead,” McCain wrote. “I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”

McCain went on to write that U.S. citizens belong to the world’s greatest republic and are a blessing to humanity when it comes to upholding ideals at home and abroad.

“We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.”

“We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals,” wrote McCain. “We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”

The letter closes with the same remarks McCain made 10 years ago as he conceded defeat to Barack Obama in his second attempt to become president.

“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Presenting the local eulogy was 73-year-old Rick Dimas, another Vietnam veteran. He called McCain a warrior, hero, statesman, and a brother, and reflected about the chance encounter he had with him in 2008 in Stockton.

McCain made a stop at the Civic Auditorium and while attending, Dimas got McCain’s attention and a thumbs up after waving his POW flag. Soon after, he was invited to meet the Republican presidential nominee after meeting Everett Alvarez, the longest-held prisoner in Vietnam.

“I asked if I could meet McCain and at the end of the rally, (Alvarez) took me to meet him and his wife, Cindy, and I told McCain this was a great honor and he signed my POW flag,” Dimas said.

Dimas would return to Vietnam years later with his wife and a friend to spend 17 days traveling the country. Although they were denied permission to visit the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp where McCain spent five brutal years, Dimas would be able to see the spot where McCain landed after his plane was shot down.

“Despite the infamous history of the Vietnam war, Vietnam today is one of the most pro-American countries in Southeast Asia, and in the world, with 80 percent Vietnamese viewing the American favorably,” said Dimas. 

“God bless John McCain. Thank you for your service, duty, honor, country — I salute you.”

As the services came to a close, attendees placed red and white poppies at the foot of the memorial.

Said Pachuca: “In saying this goodbye to a great American, to the senator, it was an inspiration to know more about Sen. McCain and how much he loved his country. If only we had the continued spirit — and I hope we do — that McCain has, to continue to lift our country above all.”

Contact reporter Nicholas Filipas at (209) 546-8257 or nfilipas@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasfilipas.