Max Cleland on Soldiers, Wars Worth Fighting and Karl Rove

Former Sen. Max Cleland discusses Heart of a Patriot.

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After losing both legs and his right arm on the battlefield in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, Max Cleland returned stateside still knowing one thing: He wanted to serve his country. In Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove, Cleland, a Democrat and former U.S. senator from Georgia, candidly describes his life in politics, from being head of the Veterans Administration under President Carter to his defeat in the 2002 Senate race and the devastating depression that followed. In June, President Obama appointed him secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Cleland recently spoke with U.S. News about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, his devotion to public service, and today's soldier. Excerpts:

Did you write this for the American veterans you address in the opening of the book?

First of all, I wrote the book for me. I had decided to share it with others and lead it off with an open letter to America's veterans because I feel that America's veterans, or those of us who come home, bring our wars with us. And the wars within—within our minds and our hearts and our spirits—are often the most difficult to win.

Once a young, eager soldier, what would you say to those considering the military today?

Stay young and eager. If you join the military today, and you join the Army or the Marine Corps, the odds are incredibly good that you're going into harm's way. The good news is that the president is re-evaluating the strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will probably be shifting from a counterinsurgency role in Afghanistan, which is essentially a defensive role, to a counterterrorism role in Pakistan, which is a winning role for us.

What makes a war worth fighting?

I think that is in the mind and heart and spirit of each veteran, whether it's worth it or not. If you don't lose a whole hell of a lot, you're probably gonna think that your military service was legitimately a plus. If you lose a hell of a lot, then the war is increasingly less worth it.

Is Afghanistan a war worth fighting?

If the president shifts from an emphasis on counterinsurgency towards an emphasis on killing or capturing al Qaeda, then the total effort becomes worth it. Because we have to win the counterterrorism battle against al Qaeda, or they will continue to blow us up.

What was your biggest surprise upon becoming a U.S. senator?

The biggest surprise for me was becoming a U.S. senator. Sen. Tom Daschle, who later became my majority leader, once asked me, "What do you like best about being in the U.S. Senate?" I said, "Being in the U.S. Senate." And he said, "What do you like least about being in the U.S. Senate?" And I said, "Trying to stay in the United States Senate."

What was your biggest letdown about being in the Senate?

Losing. In 2002. The family I had counted on, who provided me help and support after Vietnam—namely, the people of Georgia—voted for somebody else who never served in the American military and beat me, who had left so much on the battlefield. I went into deep, dark depression for a number of years when I lost everything but my life.

Have campaign politics gotten better or worse since you lost your re-election campaign in 2002?

Well, I will say that with Karl Rove out of the White House, things have gotten better. He went against military people, and in order to beat them—[John] McCain, me, and [John] Kerry—his goal was to take away our service. You can't do that. That is beyond the pale. It should not be an issue in a campaign one way or the other.

You went back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2004 for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. How has the government's treatment of veterans changed since your first experience at Walter Reed in 1968?

Well, there's a greater acknowledgment that the hidden wounds of war are real. I think I helped with that when I became head of the VA. In 1978, the VA psychiatrist finally admitted that there was something called PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. So, in 1980, we put together the Vet Center with the counseling model dealing with the emotional aftermath of war for veterans and their families.