In June, Max Cleland appeared with President Obama in Normandy, France, to commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day. Just days before, Obama had named Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, charged with overseeing the cemeteries and memorials around the world that honor U.S. soldiers who died in battle. For Cleland, who lost both legs and his right arm to a grenade in Vietnam, the D-Day remembrance was the beginning of a new career, coming almost seven years after losing his U.S. Senate seat to Saxby Chambliss in one of the ugliest races Georgia has seen in years. Perhaps most memorable about the campaign was a Chambliss TV ad that linked an image of Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Cleland’s defeat unmoored him. His depression became so severe that he ended up back at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., where he’d gone decades before to recuperate from his war injuries. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder led him to an even greater understanding of the challenges faced by returning veterans. Always an outspoken advocate for veterans (he served as head of Veterans Affairs under President Carter), Cleland has now written a memoir, out this month. Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove
pulls no punches about George W. Bush, Georgia’s election system, and the long road back from defeat. Cleland will speak and sign books at the Carter Center at 7 p.m. on October 13. To accompany the following excerpt, Atlanta
magazine editor Steve Fennessy talked with Cleland about the memoir. You dropped out of the public eye after the 2002 election. As you write in your book, that period after your loss to Saxby Chambliss put you in a tailspin.
It was the worst period in my life. The lowest point was when I ended up back in Walter Reed again after forty years and realized this time I had to repair my mind and my soul and my psyche, rather than my body. They are really the best in the business. They understand post-traumatic stress disorder. They understand the things that can follow from that—the depression, the extent to which life can go black. I’m still in touch with my counselor and my psychiatrist at Walter Reed, and they’re helping me put my life back together now, just like Walter Reed helped me put my body back together forty-one years ago.