The letter arrived two days after Arizona Sen. John McCain died.
Navy Ensign Sam Bongiorno opened it in shock.
“It gives me great pleasure to congratulate you on your graduation from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy,” McCain wrote in the message, which he signed by hand. “This is a momentous achievement of which you and your family should be proud.”
The letter was dated Aug. 20 and sent from his Phoenix office on Aug. 25, the day of McCain’s death at age 81.
It may have been one of the last letters McCain signed.
Bongiorno, an Arizona native stationed at Luke Air Force Base as he awaits pilot training, said it was a bittersweet moment for him. He has looked up to McCain his whole life and will treasure the letter, he said. But he also knew it was probably one of the last letters to leave McCain’s office.
“It was a way for him to pass the baton on from him as a Naval aviator to me and my peers as people going into that profession,” Bongiorno said.
‘Special place in his heart’ for aviators
The letter was probably dictated or written by McCain himself, said James “Rusty” Mitchell, director of community initiatives team at Luke Air Force Base.
McCain often sent letters to those stationed at Luke, Mitchell said.
“His personality was such that he took special note and care, specially for people who had interaction with his office,” said Mitchell, who had closely worked with McCain since starting at the base in 2003. “He had a special place in his heart for Naval aviators.”
McCain, a Navy pilot, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958 and retired in 1981 as a captain. He flew attack aircraft during the Vietnam War and was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, injured, and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
Bongiorno has lived in Arizona his entire life, other than the five years he recently spent at U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. He graduated from the academy in June and then came to Luke.
He will be at Luke until November, when he will go into pilot training in Pensacola, Florida.
Bongiorno said he has wanted to be a pilot since he was 2 years old. He broke his arm, and when he went under sedation during his surgery to fix it, the doctor told him the mask was a jet pilot’s mask. “My parents told me I wanted to fly ever since.”
He has wanted to serve his country since 9/11.
Bongiorno said McCain has been one of his role models from a young age. He never met him but admired how honorable and respected he was.
McCain and Luke Air Force Base
McCain was a staunch supporter of Luke Air Force Base, Mitchell said.
In 2003, development in the Valley was booming and quickly encroaching on the base, which needs to have lots of buffer room for security reasons. The base was lacking support from local leaders in the West Valley, Mitchell said, and there was a chance it wouldn’t have much of a future there.
McCain was instrumental in changing that, Mitchell said. At a meeting with local officials, he strongly emphasized their need to get on board and the economic importance of having the base in the West Valley.
“He was emphatic about the need for that support,” Mitchell said.
McCain also supported Luke in Washington, Mitchell said, where he served as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
He advocated to secure the F-35 fighter jet pilot training at Luke while at the same time attempting to keep the cost of the jets low, Mitchell said.
“It was incredible,” he said.
McCain’s work coalescing support among local elected officials and securing the F-35 mission was instrumental in securing the base in the West Valley for at least the next 50 years, Mitchell said.