Max Cleland: 'I Cried Uncontrollably for 2 1/2 Years'


Melinda Henneberger

Editor in Chief
In a phone interview on Monday, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland was upbeat – "What's goin' on, kid?'' – and quick to laugh. But after losing his U.S. Senate seat to an opponent who ran post-9/11 TV ads that showed the decorated Vietnam vet alongside Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Cleland fell into a depression he was afraid he might not pull out of. It was public service, he says, that had given his life shape and meaning after he left three limbs on a battlefield in Khe Sanh. But without that role, the old darkness came back. Along with his job and his bearings, he lost his relationship with his fiancée. "That's emotionally and physically over,'' he told me. "That's gone.'' And for a time, he was once again a patient at Walter Reed, where he'd first been put back together nearly four decades earlier – and was now surrounded by vets from Iraq and Afghanistan: "I cried uncontrollably for 2 ½ years.''

In his new memoir, "Heart of a Patriot: How I found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove," written with Ben Raines, Cleland describes his journey to hell and back, twice, this last time because "Karl Rove managed to take away our service,'' he says, referring to himself and his friend and fellow veteran John Kerry. Visually, the 2002 ad for his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, suggested that Cleland was in league with terrorists, while the voice-over announced that he'd voted against the Homeland Security legislation he had actually co-sponsored. Can you ever really let something like that go? "You have to have a sense of God in charge,'' he says. "Which really pisses me off.''
He only made the return trip to the land of the living at all, he says, thanks to God, Cymbalta, and "a 12-Step group that meets Tuesday nights in Washington, for people whose lives have crashed and burned.'' Asked if the faith he's talking about is new for him, he laughs and says that at age 67, "the sense that a power greater than myself could save my rear end is!''

Cleland corrects my misimpression that 12-Step groups are only for people with addictions: "I'm a recovering person, a recovering politician, but I quit drinking in '75, thank God, or I wouldn't be talking to you.'' He doesn't think of himself as a recovering alcoholic, "but I don't even want to tempt that fate. My two temptations are chocolate and beautiful women, and sometimes I can handle both.''
He is also a big believer in the antidepressants he fought so hard against taking, and the therapy sessions he never wanted to go to: "It is possible to overcome grievous injury and live the life you were supposed to lead, but you never forget and get over it,'' he says. "Then when that happens again in a massive way, that first trauma comes back.'' Though Cleland himself had pushed for mental health services for vets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder back when he was head of the Veterans Administration under Jimmy Carter, "I had no idea I had P.T.S.D.''
Amazingly, in a world where nearly everybody is either in therapy or ought to be, it was only after Cleland's 2002 loss, he writes in the book, that "I sought psychiatric help for the first time. Thanks to those sessions, I was soon to learn that I hadn't left my war years behind me like I thought. I had just buried them under layer upon layer of scar tissue. The Senate defeat and the war in Iraq quickly ripped all of that away, leaving the great trauma of my life as bare and raw as it had been in 1968. It all conspired to transport me right back to the days of being blown up in Vietnam and lying on the ground dying.''
Seeking help was even harder, he writes, because "[m]y return to Walter Reed coincided almost perfectly with a massive increase in the number of Americans killed and wounded in Iraq. Most of the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are U.S. Army casualties. Walter Reed is the first place they are sent when they return to the States.''
There, for the first time, he saw women soldiers coming back in the same shape he had. "All I could think was, Oh my god, we're sending women to get blown to hell. . . . Slowly I faced up to the thing that was making my recovery so hard. I had voted to give George Bush the power to start his war. . . . When my turn came to protect another generation of young people from fighting and dying and getting maimed in another unwinnable, unnecessary war, I had blown it.''
Yet alongside the younger soldiers, he did get well, and was at home in Georgia watching Barack Obama's inauguration with his 96-year-old father when one of the most extraordinary moments of healing happened. As he describes it in the book, "Midway through, there came a point that lifted me up and changed my world. Obama was speaking of those 'who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.' When he spoke the words 'For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh,' my heart skipped. I couldn't believe he said Khe Sanh. It was an amazing moment for me to finally get recognition, almost 41 years later to the month, for the battle that had changed the course of my life. . . . It made me feel like my sacrifice mattered after all. The war that had taken so much from me was part of America's story.''
Not that he wants to see that story repeated, of course, and that is how he sees the war in Afghanistan playing out unless we shift from a counter-insurgency to a counter-terrorism strategy there: "You cannot pump troops in with a sanctuary for the bad guys right across the border; that's Vietnam! There will never be enough troops – Alexander the Great and the Russians gave up and went home – and victory does not lie in more boots on the ground,'' but in using our air and intelligence assets to go after bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban in Pakistan, and protect Pakistan's nuclear project. "Otherwise, you have Vietnam again, and how did that work out for us? Of course, those guys'' – Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, he means – "never learned from Vietnam because they never went.''
When I ask if he's at all disappointed that Obama's so far following Bush's military playbook, he says, "We will find out; he has not concluded anything yet.''
Obama has, however, made Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, so he has a new job managing the 24 cemeteries where some 200,000 American veterans are buried abroad. "It's been war for me for the last six or seven years, but Obama won – the public saw that Bush was bullfeathers – and that helps me. Public service is who I am and what I do, so I'm coming back to that.''