Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove

Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove

by Max Cleland, Ben Raines

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By the time he had reached middle age, Max Cleland thought he had nothing to live for. Vietnam had left him a triple amputee. He had lost his seat in the U.S. Senate, and in the grip of depression he had lost his fiancée, too. But instead of giving up, Cleland discovered that he has what it takes to survive: the heart of a patriot.

Doctors did not give Cleland much hope when he returned from Vietnam, but he overcame his despair through his bonds with other wounded soldiers. Against all odds, he realized his dream of becoming a Senator. But after being smeared as unpatriotic in a reelection campaign, a long-dormant case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder sent him back to Walter Reed Hospital. Surrounded by the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Cleland again found the faith and endurance to regain control of his life.

In a gut-wrenching memoir that is free of bitterness but frank about the costs of being a soldier, Max Cleland describes with love the ties America’s soldiers forge with one another, along with the disillusionment many of them experience when they come home. Heart of a Patriot is a story about the joy of serving the country you love, no matter the cost—and how to recover from the deepest wounds of war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439141267
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/06/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Max Cleland is a Vietnam War veteran and former U.S. Senator from Georgia who has served as the head of the Veterans Administration and on the 9/11 Commission. He became Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission in 2009.

Ben Raines is an award winning environmental journalist with the Mobile Press Register. He lives with his wife and son in Fairhope, Alabama.

Read an Excerpt


An Open Letter to America's Veterans

America sends the flower of its youth abroad to fight its wars. Because of that, America's military is always staffed with the stoutest, finest, most courageous people in the country. If as soldiers we are not that way when we enter the military, the military makes us that way by the time we get out. In the end, the military is still made up of everyday people like you and me. As such, most of us have no special skills to cope with the challenges wartime military service presents. Regular life simply cannot prepare a person for the brutish sensory overload of combat.

Coming back from military service in a time of war, we may be wounded in ways that don't show to the world at large. Some of the deepest wounds we suffer may be inflicted without leaving so much as a scratch. No matter what you are feeling when you come home, no matter how crazy you feel inside, know that you are not mentally ill. As combat veterans, we have been through some of the most traumatic life experiences possible. War is as close to hell on earth as anything ever could be. That does make us different from our loved ones back home. War marks us all, some more deeply than others.

As veterans, we have paid a price to serve our country. We have suffered. And we may suffer for a lifetime. The soldier never gets to choose his or her war. The wars choose us, and not all are just. I believe the emotional casualties of the misguided wars may be the hardest of all to bear.

The soldier's lot is to be exposed to traumatic, life-threatening events — happenings that take us to places no bodies, minds, or souls should ever visit. It is a journey to the dark places of life — terror, fear, pain, death, wounding, loss, grief, despair, and hopelessness. We have been traumatized physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Some of us cope with exposure to hell better than others. Some are able to think of their combat experiences as but unpleasant vignettes in a long and wonderful life. It is not to those veterans I am speaking. I love them, but I am not afraid for them.

I am speaking to the rest of my brothers and sisters, those who find themselves trapped in the misery of memories as I was for so long.

For them, I am afraid.

To those veterans I say, you are not alone.

Many of us have been overwhelmed by war. Many of us have been unable to cope on our own with what has happened to us or with what we have done. Many of us have been left hopeless, lost, and confused about ourselves and our lives in ways we never thought possible.

That does not make us victims.

It makes us veterans.

As veterans of war, we are vulnerable to the memories of those experiences for the rest of our lives. Movies, the nightly news, the death of a loved one, even simple stress can serve as a trigger that reminds us of the hell we were once in. Just that remembrance can sometimes be enough to undo all the buckles we used to put ourselves back together when we got home.

Our bodies, minds, and spirits react automatically to these memory triggers. They feel the hurts and fear and horror anew each time. The curse of the soldier is that he never forgets.

Having once felt mortal danger and pure terror, our bodies prepare for it again. That helped us survive on the battlefield. However, what saved us on the battlefield doesn't work very well back here at home. It is impossible to forget our experiences in the military. But it is possible to deal with them positively. It is possible to take control of them.

That's what I've had to do.

I've found in my own life that I had to exude positive energy into the world in order not to be overwhelmed with sadness and grief over what I have lost. My body, my soul, my spirit, and my belief in life itself were stolen from me by the disaster of the Vietnam War. I found solace in attempting to "turn my pain into somebody else's gain" by immersing myself in politics and public service. In particular, I devoted myself to helping my fellow veterans and disabled friends heal. This was a great help to me in my life. But when I lost my reelection bid for the U.S. Senate in 2002, my life fell apart. The staff that had helped me politically and physically so I could keep on running with no legs was gone. The pleasure of having a job worth doing and the money to keep me afloat were gone.

My relationships began to crumble, especially the one with my fiancée.

I went down in my life in every way it is possible to go down. Massive depression took over. I went down with a grief over my losses that I had never known before. I went down thinking that God was not for me anymore. I no longer wanted to live. With the start of the Iraq War, my own post-traumatic stress disorder came roaring back nearly 40 years after I was in combat. I never saw it coming. Thoughts of war and death simply consumed me. I thought I was past that.

It taught me that none of us are ever past it. But all of us can get past it enough to be happy.

When I went down, my sense of safety, organization, structure, and stability collapsed. My anxiety went sky-high. My brain chemicals, which had helped me stay hopeful and optimistic, dropped through the floor. My brain stopped working. My mind, which I had counted on all my life to pull me through and help clarify challenges, fell into despair. My spirit dropped like a rock as all hope I had for a good life went away. I was totally wounded and wiped out — hopeless and overwhelmed. Just like I had been on that April day in 1968 when the grenade ripped off my legs and my right arm. Emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally, I was bleeding and dying. I wound up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center almost 40 years after I had been treated there the first time. This time around, I was in search of being put back together again in my mind, heart, and soul. When I was there the first time, the doctors didn't really treat our hearts and minds, just our broken bodies. Post-traumatic stress disorder didn't officially exist. Neither did counseling for it. What a world of difference several decades make!

Recovery is possible. There are people who can help.

Through weekly counseling, medication for anxiety and depression, and weekly attendance at a spiritual Twelve Step recovery group, I began to heal. My personal recovery and renewal have taken years. I still talk to my PTSD counselor at Walter Reed occasionally when I need to do so. I still take a low dose of antianxiety and antidepression medication. I still stay in touch with my brothers in my Tuesday night Twelve Step group at the "last house on the block." As a brother in that group, I lean on my fellow attendees, especially my fellow veterans, and feed off their experience, strength, and hope.

Which is why I am writing this open letter especially to those who have suffered what Shakespeare referred to as "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" by getting blown up, shot up, or otherwise wounded in the service of our country. For me, the physical wounds were the first to heal and the easiest to deal with. It is not easy to run for political office or try to run forward in life with no legs. But I've been able to do it. The mental and emotional wounds — and a whole suite of spiritual wounds — have been far more difficult to overcome. They are the most subtle of all, and the hardest to heal. From time to time, I am overwhelmed by the sense of meaninglessness I feel regarding the Vietnam War, in which I was a young participant, and the Iraq War Resolution, which I voted for as a U.S. senator. To keep my sanity, I must not dwell on my part in those disastrous episodes in American history. I try not to blame myself too much. I work on my own recovery and renewal knowing that I can't help anyone else unless I get, as Hemingway put it after his war, "strong at the broken places."

I try to get enough sleep so my mind can regenerate. I exercise. I still walk with no legs, putting my stumps on pillows and sliding across the floor to get my aerobic workouts. Occasionally I do sit-ups and push-ups and curls with weights. I stay in touch with the members of my group and read literature like the Bible, which guides my prayer and meditation and helps me remember that God is with me, not against me. I work on my physical, spiritual, and mental recovery and renewal every day.

Recovery is possible from even the most grievous wounds of war, politics, and life. But we veterans remain painfully aware of our experiences. As my trauma counselor tells me, it is fine to look in the rearview mirror from time to time to see where you've been, but it is much more important to look through the windshield to see where you want to go. We can't let where we've been dominate and control where we are headed. Otherwise, we live an upside-down life.

In addition to trying to muster the courage and the faith to move forward each day, I try to remember that I am blessed to have the grace of God and the help of friends to point the way and help me along my path.

I wish you the same.

Max Cleland Atlanta, Georgia
Copyright © 2009 by Max Cleland

Table of Contents

Foreword: An Open Letter To America's Veterans 1

1 The Charge Of The Light Brigade 7

2 Beginnings 17

3 Discovery 31

4 Splendor In The Grass 37

5 The Oval Office 45

6 Vietnam 53

7 Hanging In The Balance 59

8 Lz Home 65

9 Walter Wonderful 77

10 The Hopeless 89

11 The Candidate 107

12 State Senator 117

13 To Care For Him Who Has Borne The Battle 127

14 A Job For Life 135

15 A Splendid Misery 145

16 Turning Point 159

17 The Bush Era 167

18 "We'Re Going To War" 179

19 The Last Race 187

20 An Infamous Commission 201

21 "We Are Drowning In War" 215

22 Band Of Brothers 233

23 Swift-Boated 243

24 A Time To Heal 249

Acknowledgments 261

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Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
ALBUQUERQUEKELL More than 1 year ago
Former United States Senator Max Cleland wrote this autobiographical book about his personal experiences, concentrating on how deeply he has had to reach into his inner strength to overcome the obstacles of physical disability and depression that have fought to control his life for over forty years. Max speaks in the book from the heart about his lifelong desire to be a public servant--whether that meant serving as an Army captain in the Vietnam War to serving as the Administrator of Veterans Affairs under President Jimmy Carter to achieving his ultimate goal, serving his home state of Georgia in the United States Senate. A lot of his achievements would have been remarkable for any man but when intertwined with the post traumatic stress that came from his experiences in Vietnam (courageously grabbing a live grenade dropped by a newly deployed soldier--and losing both legs and his right arm) as well as a natural tendency for depression and the lies from political opponents like saxby chambliss, Ann Coulter and Karl Rove claiming that Senator Cleland is unpatriotic. He expands on his beliefs about the halfway commitment that the United States had towards winning in Vietnam, the anguish that he has about his vote to allow the Bush/Cheney administration to send US troops to Iraq, his pride at putting together the national existence of Vet Centers during his time at the VA and his experience for a year in the government program at American University. Max writes openly about these aspects of his life concentrating on how with the help of his deep faith, his friends and his aggressive therapy at Walter Reed, he has been able to come away from the negatives of life even stronger. I believe that this book will be quite moving for any veteran of the Vietnam days or the Iraq days, or for anyone who knows such a vet. Most importantly, I think that it is an excellent thought piece for any truly patriotic American who is not willing to accept their patriotism being defined by a talking head clown on a "news channel."
AddlestoneBrowsing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Just from the title itself, I found the book to be intriguing. I heard the author speak about the book on NPR and I decided to read it when it came out.Normally I am not fond of books about war, however the subject was only a small part of the plot. The inspiring part of the book was how he came to deal with his disability and run for the Senate despite the fact that he is a triple amputee.The story could have been self-pitying and downtrodden, but Cleland shows a good attitude and personal conviction to show that he wasn't going to let his disability stop him from leading a normal life. I definitely recommend this book to those who have a tendency to say, "I can't." Cleland shows anyone that he can.
cee2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Max Cleland is a Viet Nam veteran, triple amputee, former head of the Veteran's Administration, former US Senator, and member of the 9/11 Commission. He is also a survivor of war and politics (another form of war), as well as tthe psychological trauma experienced by combat veterans. Cleland seems honest in telling of his fears and setbacks as well as his triumphs. He has managed to work through hs PTSD with the help of his family, friends, faith, counselors, and medication. This is his personal story, but it is also the story of the nation and how we often ignore the needs of those who have defended us. He offers a uniques perspective from his experience as veteran, patient, adminstrator, and legislator. My eyes were opened. I recommend this book.
Dr_Wilson_Trivino More than 1 year ago
The legend of Max Cleland is well known in Georgia. All American boy gets drafted to Vietnam, gets wounded, comes home and then picks up the broken pieces and dedicates his life to public life. First the State Senate, then Secretary of Veterans Affairs, followed by Secretary of State of Georgia and his dream job of United States Senator. In Heart of A Patriot: How I found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed, and Karl Rove By Max Cleland with Ben Raines, it masterfully chronicles the ups and downs of Max Cleland the man. Written as a semi-autobiographical tale, Cleland shares with his readers the challenges that he has faced both in and out of the political arena. Cleland has lived a remarkable life and has been on the sidelines of some of the most historic periods of our nation's history. Ever the student, Cleland takes the reader into the rough and tumble world of politics. In a very candid openness, Cleland shares his personal bouts of depression. This openness brings awareness to the issues of mental health and the dominating inner demons. As the political pendulum swung right with a popular President George W. Bush, Cleland loses his prized US Senate seat. He takes a front and center role with the failed Kerry presidential run, all the while plugging away in the hot bed of politics. Cleland rebounds and currently serves as Obama's Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commissions, managing the twenty-four overseas cemeteries where American soldiers are memorialized. Heart of A Patriot: How I found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed, and Karl Rove By Max Cleland with Ben Raines is an inspirational book of a man that was made whole again by his continued commitment to public service.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PeachesLW More than 1 year ago
This book is so inspirational. Even though I know the author personally, I learned so many things about him that I did not know. His honesty regarding his bout with depression makes you want to reach out and just give him a big Hug. He is absolutely amazing.
EB63 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book very much, sincere, touching and explained PTSD in a way I never understood.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the book a very touching story about a strong man who has endured a great deal but also contributed so much, particularly to our veterans. i hope his story improves the care our veterans receive above all else, but also exposes more widely the appalling behavior of Karl Rove and other Republicans who would do absolutely anything to win.
bookgirl1LC More than 1 year ago
How can I describe a true hero? I think this is the only inspirational book I will ever need. Thank you for this gift.