Relating to the masses is not so tall an order for former Congressman and Navy Commander Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a man who has led seemingly many lives. From war hero, to congressman, to convicted felon, to presidentially pardoned, Cunningham has plenty of experience to draw from.
"I don't care if you're a car salesman, if you're in the service, a doctor, a dentist or whatever, the stories I tell can relate to your life," he said on Saturday as he spoke to a small group in Colorado Springs.
In 1967, Cunningham joined the United States Navy, and became the first of only two Navy ACEs to fight in the Vietnam War.
For his service, Cunningham was recommended for the Medal of Honor and holds the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, 15 Air Medals, the Navy Commendation Medal, Presidential Unit Commendation, Navy Commendation Medal, a Purple Heart, and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Star Cluster and Oak Leaf Cluster.
In January 1972, Cunningham's plane was shot down in North Vietnam.
"After I got hit, the airplane was rocking, on fire and it rolled upside down," he said speaking of his famed crash, "The only time I ever asked for divine help was when I was in trouble. I said, 'God please get me out of this.' The airplane slowly righted itself."
The character 'Maverick' from the 1986 film 'Top Gun' was loosely based on Cunningham and his accomplishments during the war.
"In the movie, you saw the scene where I split off, blew by the tower and got in trouble. But I didn't have to see the captain of the base. In real life I had to go down and see Admiral Cooper. He told me If I ever did anything like that again I would be flying rubber dog manure for the rest of my life."
Later, he served as a republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California's 50th district from 1991 to 2005.
In 2005, he resigned from his position in congress and pled guilty to charges of tax evasion and conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud.
He was convicted of accepting $2.4 million in bribes, and sentenced to just over 8 years in federal prison.
"I've made many mistakes," he said, "But my goal today is to make a difference, especially with our kids. I want to pass down what I have learned."
Cunningham was one of 73 pardoned on the final day of Donald Trump's presidency.
While in prison, Cunningham helped fellow inmates obtain their GEDs. "I only had three students in eight years that did not get their GED. I also taught them life skills, like how to balance a check book."
Today, the 79-year-old is the Vice President of the American Fighter Aces Association.
"There are only 17 fighter Aces alive today, three of which are a hundred years old," Cunningham said.
"We're trying to establish a new museum in Texas. The thousands of fighter Aces that existed since WWI have very little recognition and I want to make sure that their stories are told," Cunningham said.
"I just had my second round of chemo," he later shared that he is fighting his second battle with prostate cancer. "As long as I do live I'll be out there trying to work with youngsters."
"I'm traveling and speaking to as many groups as I can to help with the elections in 2022 and 2024. Its a small pay back for the mistakes I've made in my life," he said.
He also advocated his support for Former President Donald Trump's 2024 presidential campaign.
Cunningham and his wife were hosted Saturday by renowned Air Force artist, Rick Broome and his wife Billie Broome.