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For Max Cleland, Politics Was A Refuge From War

Oct 6, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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As a boy growing up in a small town in Georgia, Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, was inspired by the adventures of the Lone Ranger on his TV screen.

Just as the Lone Ranger was motivated by a sense of duty, so was Cleland. As he tells NPR's Renee Montagne, Cleland's parents raised him "to be an eagle, not a sparrow." When he was in college, he joined the ROTC and volunteered to go to war in Vietnam. There, he was brutally maimed by a grenade that a fellow soldier dropped accidentally. The explosion took away both of his legs and his right arm.

In his new memoir, Heart of a Patriot, Cleland recalls that moment, and how he overcame the trauma it caused. The book is subtitled "How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove."

After his military service, Cleland turned to public service as a way to find meaning in life outside of his own struggles. "It meant survival. It meant a purpose and destiny," he says.

His political career spanned four decades, and ended with a loss to Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002. Cleland says that his opponent — backed by Karl Rove's political machine — questioned his patriotism by airing attack ads that listed his votes on homeland security bills that opposed President George W. Bush's policies.

In the TV ads, those questions were accompanied by images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, followed by photos of Cleland that avoided depicting him in his wheelchair — the visual and physical vestige of his service in Vietnam.

"There are plenty of reasons to go after me, but my military service is not one of them," Cleland says. "Especially when I was running against a guy that had no service in Vietnam and got out of going to Vietnam with a trick knee and multiple deferments. He somehow became the American patriot, and I became somehow less than that."

Cleland says that losing his political career left him with nothing but those old memories from Vietnam that he had tried to shut out of his mind. And that, he said, led him to identify with the challenges America's young soldiers face when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They carry that feeling of helplessness, trauma in their minds. It's stuck there," Cleland says. "That is a terrifying place, and they need some help."

Throughout his book, Cleland quotes the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, who had been wounded during service in World War I. In his semi-autobiographical novel A Farewell To Arms, Hemingway wrote: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places."

Taking comfort in that, Cleland tells Montagne: "Regardless of what we go through — war, political loss, loss of job, spouse, whatever — it is possible to become strong even at the broken places in our lives."

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