Cleland on recovery from emotional wounds of war

By Stephen Lowman

In his memoir "Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove," former Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland writes about painful moments from his past with candor and frankness -- qualities seldom associated with politicians.

How did he think he could get away with being so honest?

"I can do it because I am not running for anything!"

We spoke last week before a discussion and signing event of his book at Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington. In "Heart of a Patriot" Cleland recounts the grenade explosion in Vietnam that left him a triple-amputee, his long convalescence at Walter Reed, and the depression he sunk into after his 2002 Senate loss, which cost him his fiancée and left him feeling suicidal.

In one emotionally naked moment early in the book, the 25-year-old Cleland sits in the lobby of a Hilton hotel in Washington and waits anxiously for a former girlfriend to walk through the door.

Desperate "to get with a woman" after coming home from Vietnam and then laying in bed for months at Walter Reed recovering, he saved up his money to book the hotel's most expensive suite for a night. When she finally arrives she is as pretty as he remembers. He, however, is now wheelchair-bound, lacking both legs below his knees and his right forearm.

She fled after twenty minutes, leaving Cleland to feel like "like some kind of monster."

When he began putting his memories on paper two and a half years ago they were intended only for himself.

"It was basically therapy," he said. "You got to be real and honest with yourself. None of us are perfect. It has been terribly painful to go back over my own imperfections and talk about my losses, my screw-ups."

The book took shape after he realized this therapeutic exercise could help others -- particularly veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan -- who find themselves in a similar situation. Cleland, who was Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under President Carter, titles his first chapter "An Open Letter to America's Veterans." His message is that recovery from the emotional wounds of war is possible with the help of others.

"I thought the cure for depression was to read another inspirational book. Boy was I wrong: I have a shelf of them to prove it," he writes in the book. Regular sessions with a psychiatrist and the use of the anti-depressant Cymbalta were able to effect the change the books could not.

However, the irony that he wrote a book meant to inspire is not lost on Cleland.

"I hope it does encourage some people who might have thought they had gotten to the end of their road, especially war veterans, to hang in there one more hour, one more day. This book won't cure depression but it might inspire someone to say, "If Cleland couldn't deal with it by himself, maybe I should get help, too," he said.

An outspoken critic of the Bush administration (and, as the subtitle announces, he has much to say on the subject of Karl Rove, who he blames for orchestrating ads that compared Cleland to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden), Cleland does not shy from giving his opinions about the Obama administration's policies in Afghanistan.

"The right objective is killing or capturing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, not just throwing more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. The mission is to kill or capture the alligators, not to drain the swamp," he said.

In May, President Obama nominated Cleland to head the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees 24 American military cemeteries abroad. Cleland said he had no plans to run for elected office in the future because he now lives by the acronym S.O.S.

"I now find in my relationships with people, with women, with the job, that I need Safety, Organization, Stability," he said. "None of which is part of Georgia politics."

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 20, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Thank you Stephen, for this fantastic piece on Max Cleland. I saw him speak a few years ago in Nampa, Idaho and was horrified to learn that he was "swiftboated." How could one who lost roughly half of his body in war be considered unpatriotic on any count? I'm really excited about your interview with him and can't wait to read the memoir of this honorable American. Thanks!

Posted by: linnaenelson | October 20, 2009 1:00 PM

THIS is the face of war. Not some adolescent-friendly video-game or sanitized macho Fox News story or Pentagon-approved, show-no-blood footage. It's broken men, ruined lives, and dead children.

When we demand "war", we are asking for more stories like Max Cleland's. Millions of them.

There is no lower form of barbarity than to desire war.

Posted by: DupontJay | October 20, 2009 1:54 PM

Thank you for speaking out. All Veterans Against Vietnam, and Veterans Against Iraq/Afghanistan are doing a great job for the future of this country. The United States must stop its emphasis on military conqest and join the human race and help the cause of peace and economic justice. Otherwise, we are probably goners.

Posted by: jeangerard1 | October 20, 2009 2:42 PM

Do any of the Post webmasters realize that the links on the A&L column and blog page for Short Stack have been wrong for WEEKS?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/artsandliving/columns-blogs/index.html?nid=roll_entnews

For the past several weeks, they have been links to the Reliable Source blog.

Posted by: prokaryote | October 20, 2009 4:08 PM

I've always admired Max Cleland, from the time I knew him as Georgia's Secretary of State. My only quibble is with the reviewer of his book, Stephen Lowman, and his obvious grammatical errors, such as "and the depression he sunk (sank) into," and "and then laying (lying) in bed for months." Where was the editor on this one?

Posted by: fpstatham | October 21, 2009 8:16 AM

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