Max Cleland volunteered to fight in Vietnam, and was rewarded with the Silver Star for his "gallantry in action." But he did not escape the brutality of the war; he lost both legs and his right arm when a fellow soldier accidentally dropped a grenade.
When he returned home, he chose a life of public service and politics, serving variously as a Veterans Administration chief, a state legislator and eventually a U.S. senator representing his home state of Georgia. His public-sector career lasted until 2002, when he lost his U.S. Senate seat to Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss.
During that heated campaign, Chambliss ran misleading and negative ads, using Cleland's procedural votes on setting up the Department of Homeland Security to challenge the sitting senator's national-security credentials and to question his patriotism. Cleland has said that politics and public service had long been the things that gave him purpose — they allowed him to "focus on something outside myself" — and that the end of that career left him "back dying on the battlefield." After 9/11, the loss of his Senate seat and the invasion of Iraq, Cleland suffered a relapse of a long-dormant case of post-traumatic stress disorder and entered Walter Reed hospital for treatment.
His new memoir — titled Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove — is his account of his idyllic Georgia childhood, his life-altering wartime experience and the dark days that followed the end of his Senate career. He joins Terry Gross for a conversation about those experiences.