By MaryTherese Griffin, Warrior Care and TransitionOctober 31, 2017
ARLINGTON, Va. - If you put a Soldier's uniform on at any point in your life, the phrase "failure is not an option" has crossed your brain a time or two. During Warrior Care Month, Army Warrior Care and Transition would like to shed light on one of the country's most famous wounded warriors, Max Cleland. The now retired Georgia politician, held the offices of Senator, Secretary of State, Secretary of Battle Monuments and served as the Administrator of Veterans Affairs after being appointed by President Jimmy Carter. After all his years of service, Cleland still has words of encouragement when it comes to our military.
On April 8, 1968, Cleland's life changed forever when a member of his platoon dropped a grenade while they were exiting a helicopter in Vietnam. Cleland took much of the blast losing both legs and his right arm. Suffering such severe injuries were not part of his plan.
"My plan was to come back home to Lithonia, Georgia and get involved in politics. But, I had to spend a year and a half in a VA hospital. Then I thought no legs, right hand blown up…I'm screwed," Cleland said of his post-Vietnam plans. "I got home in December of 1969 sitting in the living room of my parents' home with no girlfriend, no job, no future, and no money. I thought 'what the heck?' I'll go ahead and get involved in politics anyway!"
His mother's living room became his campaign headquarters as he ran for state senate. Cleland would go on to win the November 1970 election and join the Georgia State Senate at the age of 28. That same election would also make Jimmy Carter the Georgia Governor. When Carter became President in 1977, he appointed a then 34 year old Max Cleland to lead the Veterans Affairs Administration. Cleland is most proud of the role he played in the creation of the Veterans Centers, which have since grown to over 300 nationwide.
Cleland knows firsthand what war does to the mind, body and soul. Finding meaning after an injury or illness can be extremely difficult. "I think that is the challenge. For those of us who came home from war, we search for meaning for the rest of our lives." Cleland is reminded of Dr. Viktor Frankl who wrote a book after his time in concentration camps during WWII titled "Man's Search for Meaning." In the book, he refers to Nietzsche who said, "If I know the why, I can live with any how."
The difficulty for service members and their families after wars back then was much different than they are today.
"Totally difficult… it's hard to measure on a scale, and I'm not sure I could do it again. I am an only child and my parents…I just can't imagine what it was like for them," Cleland said. When asked if there were services for adaptive reconditioning or transitioning out, the decorated Soldier chuckles…"Not at all...not only no but hell no." At that time, there was no Veterans Administration or Warrior Care and Transition. There were no programs like adaptive reconditioning or career and education readiness for those Soldiers transitioning out of the military. There was no help to plan for the future and no help for the families of the wounded. Despite the lack of programs and support available, Cleland came up with what he calls "drivers."
"We have these drivers in our lives, for me it's these three: The drive to survive, the drive to get better, and the drive to thrive," said Cleland who is definitely in the driver's seat. His new attitude revolved around, "FAILURE TO THRIVE WILL KILL YOU!"
Cleland cautioned it would be great if the rest of the world could understand how hard it is to not let your injury or illness define you no matter who you are or what your circumstances are. "Quite frankly it takes an enormous amount of energy to deal with your wounds and try to act and behave normally, sometimes you can't act and behave normally."
The tide has changed and today's service members are treated far differently than the Vietnam Soldiers who were spat upon when they returned home.
"Things have changed 100% in every way. Public attitude back during Vietnam was so down on Veterans, we were 'baby killers' in their eyes. I had a neighbor that didn't speak to me for five years after I returned. Now, we are considered warriors and people actually say 'thank you for your service.'"
Cleland credits the end of the draft with the change in public opinion, particularly because no one was being forced to have their life threatened by war. The now all-volunteer force also has the Veterans Affairs Administration, service warrior care programs like Army Warrior Care and Transition and several other programs and organizations focused on helping wounded warriors.
"The institutions are now understanding that you don't come home whole…you need certain skills, not just the GI Bill. In 1978 the VA recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disease as a disability and our service members today have been stressed to the breaking point by repeated tours, assignments, and deployments."
Many Soldiers still don't know what WCT is or does. Had it been around when Max Cleland was at war in the 1960's, life perhaps would have been easier for him and his parents. For Soldiers today, Cleland wants them to know there is abundant help out there. He is particularly proud of 877-WARVETS, a 24 hour hotline combat veterans and their families can call to talk about their military experience or other issues they face in their readjustment to civilian life.
Max Cleland wrote about his experiences in his book "Strong at the Broken Places" and wants veterans to know that no matter what has happened you should always have one goal in mind: to survive.
"Your goal needs to be to survive. Those survival skills you learned in war don't translate to everyday life back home. You are now in another war of readjustment and seeking meaning. You must acknowledge you need help and I don't just mean physical help. Everyone comes back different. Lastly, you must find your joy… I had a therapist at Walter Reed once say to me, Cleland, if you can experience joy of life you win, regardless of what happened to you."
All photos Courtesy Stetson University, Deland Florida Max Cleland Collection