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Max Cleland: Revisiting Old Wounds Renews War Hero’s Faith

How the depression Max Cleland experienced following an electoral defeat opened a door to healing.

Max Cleland; photograph by Aaron Clamage for Guideposts.
Credit: Aaron Clamage

I knew things were bad when I broke down weeping in the kitchen that evening. It was Thanksgiving. I was loading the dishwasher at my fiancée’s house. Liz and I had just had friends over for a delicious dinner. Yet I was completely miserable.

A few weeks before, I had unexpectedly lost my reelection bid for the United States Senate. Polls had shown me ahead. But this was 2002, the year before we went to war in Iraq. American politics was like a tinderbox. Some commercials had run impugning my patriotism. That’s about all it took.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, I had lost both legs and an arm on the battlefield. Now I had lost my job. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

I closed the dishwasher and wiped down the counter, trying to compose myself. Our guests had gone home, but I couldn’t let Liz see me like this. She walked into the kitchen. Maybe it was seeing her and thinking about the future we’d planned together. I felt a wave of deep sadness come over me. Future? What future?

I recognized the feeling. It took me straight back to that day atop Hill 471, east of Khe Sanh. That’s where I had reached out to pick up a loose grenade, not realizing it was live. The grenade had been dropped by another soldier on my radio team, though I didn’t learn that until years later.

I thought I had made peace with the war and with my injuries. But this election loss revealed the truth. I was broken.

“Max, what’s wrong?” Liz asked. I was weeping again. I couldn’t stop.

I wish I could say that I cried for just a few days more then got over my election loss and moved on. But I didn’t.

On the outside, the next couple of years of my life looked okay. I got a part-time job teaching political science at American University in Washington, D.C., and even served for a time on a government commission investigating the events of September 11, 2001.

But I barely managed to do those jobs. The minute I’d walk through the door of my small apartment in Arlington, Virginia, I would break down crying. At night I couldn’t sleep. And if I did finally get to sleep, I had weird dreams. I realized what a luxury it had been to serve in the Senate. I had a staff there. An office. A place to go every day. I had work that made me feel like I mattered. Now, I drifted, alone.

I saw a doctor who prescribed an antidepressant. It didn’t help. Liz and I finally called off our engagement. I knew I was in no shape to be a good partner for anyone.

The pain grew unendurable. I remembered an old friend named Howard who had also struggled with depression. How had he coped with it?

I called him. “I’m taking the pills they prescribed, but they’re useless,” I told him.

“Who’s your therapist?” Howard asked.

“Therapist? I don’t have one. I need a job to help me get back on top, not a therapist,” I said.

“Max, you need to talk to someone,” Howard said. “You can’t work your way out of depression. You need help. Talk to my therapist here in Miami. Maybe she can recommend someone up there in D.C.”

I hated thinking of myself as a head case, but I was desperate. I called Howard’s therapist and she recommended someone named Val, who worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

I steeled myself for my first appointment. Walter Reed was where I had been treated for my Vietnam injuries. When I’d checked out of the hospital in 1968, I’d hoped that I would never have to go back. I had been to war, been wounded, gone through rehab and moved on with my life.

Now I wheeled myself along the hallway toward Val’s office. The guys in the hallway were missing legs, arms and eyes, but those wounds were from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not from Vietnam. Wars may have different names but they still do the same thing to soldiers.

My initial sessions with Val weren’t promising. Mostly, I wept. Once, sitting in her office, I heard a familiar sound coming from the room next door. I listened. It was my own voice! A wounded soldier was watching a documentary I had been a part of a few years earlier called Strong at the Broken Places. I could hear myself talking about my war wounds and how I’d come back to make a life in public service.

I felt mortified. If only that soldier knew that the so-called inspirational figure on the screen was actually crying his eyes out right next door!

Val tried to get me to understand that I was a lot like the other wounded soldiers there at Walter Reed. Though my battlefield experience was decades old, I was nevertheless in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Losing your Senate seat was a terrible shock,” she explained. “It made you feel powerless, just like you felt right after your injury in Vietnam. The psychological wounds of war can lie dormant for years until they’re triggered by some new trauma. What you’re going through is understandable.”

Okay, but what exactly was I supposed to do about it? Knowing why I was so depressed didn’t help me feel any better. If anything, I despaired all over again, realizing that my war wounds hadn’t yet healed. I had just buried them under layer upon layer of scar tissue.

One day out of the blue, Val asked, “Max, where’s your faith?”

I stared at her. “Faith?” I exclaimed. What did faith have to do with digging out of PTSD?

“You need something to believe in,” Val said, “something bigger than yourself to hold onto. No one climbs out of depression alone, especially not from PTSD. I want you to work on this.”

If I hadn’t already developed a good working relationship with Val, I might have left her office right then and never gone back. I believed in God. I’d read the Bible. For years I’d started my days with prayer. And where had that gotten me? I didn’t need to go to church. I needed to get better!

Val persisted, asking me each week whether I had done anything to cultivate my faith. She never pressured me to join a church. Instead, she simply wanted me to turn to God as I understood him, like they say in 12-step programs, a loving power greater than myself to help me overcome all the fears, doubts and despair I had been holding in since my injury in Vietnam.

One day I happened across a book called A General’s Spiritual Journey. It was about a man I deeply admired, Lieutenant General Hal Moore, who was now retired. He was a decorated officer who had led his battalion in Vietnam through overwhelming odds in the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.

General Moore, it turned out, was a man of powerful faith who had spent some time praying in a monastery in Kentucky before leading his troops in Vietnam. The book compiled his most profound meditations on God and the soldier’s life.

One passage leapt out at me, where a minister is quoted as saying, When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for you to stand upon, or you will be taught how to fly.

I reread those words. I was in the darkness. Yet I didn’t have to stay there! I could do as Val had urged, as General Moore had believed. I could step out and try to find ground to stand on. Maybe I could even fly.

It wasn’t my old war wounds holding me in this dark place. It wasn’t losing my Senate seat. It was trying to base my life on some fleeting accomplishment, on worldly recognition that I thought could somehow take the place of what I had lost on the battlefield. Only God could fill that void.

It’s been over three years now since I read those powerful words from General Moore’s book. With the help of continued counseling sessions from Val and weekly meetings with a group of others who are struggling with their own sense of purposelessness, I am working through my PTSD and trying to turn over my inner demons to God. I pray now with a new, deeper understanding.

I even have an office again. In June 2009 President Barack Obama appointed me to head the American Battle Monuments Commission, overseeing the 24 overseas military cemeteries where our soldiers have been laid to rest and 25 monuments honoring missing and fallen soldiers of the First and Second World Wars.

Helping take care of these men and women who gave their lives for our country and reaching out to other veterans and their families gives meaning and purpose to my days—a meaning and purpose that I now know can come only from a power greater than ourselves, the loving God who lifted me out of darkness into light.

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