U.S. Senator John McCain is a much-beloved man in Georgia. The former presidential candidate was an active lobbyist for Georgia's NATO bid, and strongly supported the country during its August 2008 war with Russia.
So when McCain visited Georgia this week, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili needed a special way to express his appreciation -- something even more special than the Order of the National Hero of Georgia, the country's highest state honor, which McCain accepted on January 11 in a pomp-filled ceremony
in the Black Sea city of Batumi.
So he gave him a gun. And not just any gun -- a pistol that he claimed had once belonged to an American pilot captured by Soviet troops in Vietnam. The gesture was meant as a tribute to McCain, a former navy pilot who spent six brutal years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
How exactly did a U.S. military-issue pistol from the Vietnam war come to be in Saakashvili's possession?
The Georgian president explained it all began with the Russia-Georgia war, when one of the Russian generals, "as is their habit," started a side business selling off military gasoline to a local horde of Georgian businessmen in the city of Gori.
"This actually bought us some time," Saakashvili said with barely disguised mirth. "The Russians were so passionate about selling the gasoline that they forgot to leave enough for themselves."
One day, Saakashvili recounted, the Russian general sadly informed his Georgian customers that he could no longer sell any gasoline, as he had just received orders to move on Tbilisi, and needed fuel to do so.
Reluctant to give up sales altogether, the general instead offered up a pistol which he said he had claimed as booty from an American pilot taken prisoner by Soviet soldiers during the Vietnam War -- a pilot, one imagines, very much like McCain.
Apparently untroubled by questions of how and why a Russian general came to be carrying a U.S. pistol plundered 40 years earlier, an unnamed Georgian businessman happily purchased the gun and passed it to local administrators, who gave it to Saakashvili.
"I cannot be sure which pilot owned this pistol," the Georgian president reasonably acknowledged, before going all circuitous: "But this weapon can still shoot. And these people" -- Russians -- "are still shooting at us. But I am giving this pistol back to this American hero, John McCain."
McCain, nonplussed but smiling, took the pistol out of its holster and held it up to applause from the crowd.
"Of all the honors I've received in my life, the National Hero Award is among the most meaningful and it is one that I would cherish forever," the senator said later. No comment on the pistol, though.
-- Daisy Sindelar