May 28, 2018 12:00 PM EDT

Every year on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, Americans take time to honor their fellow citizens who have died serving in the armed forces. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one day on which those Americans are remembered.

Case in point: this poignant anecdote about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), himself a Navy veteran who spent more than five years in the prisoner-of-war camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

Memorial Day marks the premiere of an HBO documentary about McCain, which features his longtime speechwriter Mark Salter, who also co-wrote McCain’s latest memoir. Speaking about the documentary, TIME asked Salter to recall a favorite memory about McCain, and Salter mentioned something McCain did last summer, after 10 crew members were killed when the destroyer USS John S. McCain — which is named after the Senator’s father and grandfather, both Navy admiralscollided with a merchant vessel east of Singapore.

Salter said he had gone to have dinner with McCain at his Phoenix home. The Senator was a few weeks into treatment for the brain cancer he continues to battle and, Salter says, the effects were starting to be visible to those who spent time with him. But, Salter says, he found that McCain had nonetheless given himself a difficult task.

“He was sitting at a table calling the families of every member on the USS John S. McCain that had been killed in that accident to express his condolences,” says Salter. “He’s not the Secretary of the Navy. He’s not the Secretary of Defense. He’s not the President of the United States. [He’s] just one American recognizing the sacrifice that other American families had just made and wanting them to know that he was thinking about them, wanting to know — what did they need? What could he do for them? Then he’d call his staff and say, ‘this family wants this, see what we can do to get it for them.’

“No fanfare, drew no attention to it. Just a guy being decent at a moment when he had a lot of things to deal with.”

The HBO documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, which also features insight from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden, premieres at 8 p.m. on Monday.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at

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