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Open Letter To All Of America's Veterans/ Max Cleland


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

thought possible.

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

were gone.

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.

Max Cleland

Atlanta, Georgia

j just our broken bodies.


Copyright 2009 by Max Cleland