August 30, 2018 03:49 PM

A good way to pay tribute to John McCain during upcoming memorial services is to honor hospitalized veterans, the late senator’s family says.

“If so inclined, flowers may be sent to your local VA Hospital,” reads a note on the official website listing upcoming memorial events for McCain, who died Saturday of brain cancer at age 81.

The gesture is a fitting tribute to the man who volunteered to serve the country in a time of war, and who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, friends of McCain say.

“John loved the men and women of the armed forces,” says longtime family friend Richard Rovsek. “It meant so much to him to see them recognized.”

While in captivity, McCain was extensively tortured and brutally beaten, and emerged with injuries that remained with him for the rest of his life.

Cindy McCain and her son Jack at John McCain's memorial service
Justin Sullivan/Getty

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, which serves some 9 million veterans at 1,243 medical facilities around the country, the flowers will be much appreciated.

“Sen. McCain’s family once again showed the sense of selfless service that has been their hallmark for over a century,” says Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie in a statement to PEOPLE. 

Veterans, too, welcome the proffered gifts.

“So often these heroes in VA facilities across the country go without notice or the thanks they deserve,” says Chad Longell, who deployed with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a director for the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation. “This gesture not only enriches the life of the veteran receiving it, but it also serves as a reminder of the sacrifice made in service in defense of the country we are all blessed to be citizens of.”

John and Cindy McCain
Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

The suggestion to send flowers to veterans came from the senator’s widow, Cindy McCain, says Carla Eudy, a fundraiser who has worked with and been friends with the family for decades.

“It was Cindy’s idea,” Eudy tells PEOPLE.

Services for McCain have been held in Arizona, and will continue on the East Coast, after the senator’s body arrives Thursday night at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. The senator will lie in state on Friday at the U.S. Capitol, where doors will open to the public at 2 p.m. On Saturday at 8:30 a.m., his body will travel via motorcade from the Capitol for wreath-laying at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

A memorial service will be held later that day at the Washington National Cathedral. The final ceremony will be at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where McCain will be buried alongside his Naval Academy classmate, Admiral Chuck Larson.

Says VA Secretary Wilkie: “He and his family are in the hearts and prayers of all of America’s warriors. He will be missed by all of those who have worn the uniform.”

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