John W. Warner: Sailor, Marine, father, husband leader and friend

John W. Warner passed away last week and he will be sorely missed by his family, his friends and his nation. His name is certainly not a household name, and most Americans will not be likely to notice that he has left this world since most Americans don’t read The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Washington Times.  

However, his was a life well-lived, and he made a difference in many different ways.  A quick glance at John Warner’s biography can tell you that he served in the Navy in the late stages of World War II; that he served as a Marine Corps officer in the Korean War; that he served as under secretary of the Navy and then secretary of the Navy and followed that by being the leader of America’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.  

He then topped that record of service to our nation by serving a full 30 years as a United States senator where he served as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  

Clearly, John Warner’s record of achievements is something to be admired. However, beside the public record of this fine man, there is a more private side that is equally to be admired and I had the good fortune to witness many of his acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness and some of these more private actions deserve to be known more widely. 

It was in 1969 that I first encountered the name John W. Warner.  I had enlisted in the Navy in October of that year and one of the first things you do as a member of the Armed Services is you learn the chain of command. That chain starts with the president of the United States and passes down through the secretary of Defense and then to the secretary of the Navy and the under secretary of the Navy and then after many steps, on down to me.  

In 1969, the under secretary of the Navy just happened to be John W. Warner and, as a 20-year-old, I had to memorize his name and recite the chain of command whenever asked as a boot recruit.

Ten years later, on Jan. 3, 1979, I began serving as the special assistant to Sen. Warner for national security affairs. It was his first day as the newly-elected United States senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia and he was from the very beginning a kind and thoughtful boss to me and to his entire staff.  Over the next two years I was able to witness numerous selfless actions where he followed the guidepost of “One can get a whole lot done when you don’t care who gets the credit.”  

I will relate only one of these instances where I was an eyewitness to real leadership and real commitment.  It is my confirmed judgement that there were two indispensable people who made the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial a reality.  The first is Jan Scruggs who conceived of the need for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial and selflessly worked to find a way for the memorial to be designed and built.  The second person is John W. Warner, a veteran and a United States senator.  

Early in the senator’s first year in office, there appeared on the senator’s schedule a meeting with a person by the name of Jan Scruggs who wished to discuss a veterans’ issue.  The meeting was held, and I was the assigned staff person to attend the meeting along with the senator. 

Jan Scruggs made an impassioned and energetic appeal to the senator for his help in getting the Congress to support the construction of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial at some appropriate place in Washington.  Mr. Scruggs was a Vietnam veteran and he had been pushing for more than a year his idea that there should be a memorial.  

I could tell that the senator liked the idea immediately, and within minutes he was offering to try and be helpful.  He asked Mr. Scruggs for a description of where things stood.  Did he have an established organization?  An office?  Did he have a telephone and a box of stationery?  While I don’t recall the exact answer, the fact was that the idea was a great idea, but it had not advanced very far beyond that.  There was no office, no phone, no stationery.  There was only the idea.

At that point, the senator left the meeting briefly and came back with a personal check for $10,000 and said take this and set up a bank account, get an office, a telephone and some stationery and then come back so we can get this moving.

Needless to say, Jan Scruggs was almost speechless and before he could reply, Sen. Warner telephoned Ross Perot on the spot and got a pledge of another $10,000 and then called Gov. John Connolly of Texas and got a second pledge of $10,000.

In the weeks and months that followed, John Warner was a tireless advocate within the Senate, in the House of Representatives and with the public for building a memorial as a means of helping to heal the scars that resulted from the terrible way our Vietnam Veterans were treated in the 1960s and 1970s.  Sen. Warner wrote the legislation that was needed in order to make the memorial a reality and he doggedly pursued his colleagues in the Senate to get the legislation passed and signed into law. 

Through his tireless efforts the legislation passed the Senate with all 100 senators as co-sponsors and it was signed into law on Veterans Day 1980.

For more than four decades since then this kind of leadership with humility has been the hallmark of this kind and thoughtful man’s path through life.  He got a lot of things done and he didn’t want any credit.  

John Warner was my boss, my mentor and my friend. America owes him a debt of gratitude and so do I.

• Christopher M. Lehman Sr. served as a defense staffer for Sen. Warner from January 1979. He later served as special assistant for national security affairs to President Ronald Reagan. He is chairman of the board of the Landing Craft Support Museum Foundation.

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