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, lifethreatening
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.
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
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
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.
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. ~ne pleasure
of having a job worth doing and the money to keep me afloat
My relationships began to crumble, especially the one with my
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
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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
Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t officially exist.
Neither did counseling for it. What a world of difference
several decades make!
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 r~n for political office or
try to run forward in life with no legs. But live 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 th~ 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.
j just our broken bodies.
Copyright 2009 by Max Cleland