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Former U.S. Senator and Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland on stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Max Cleland won his first political race when he was elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1970. Less than four years before, he'd nearly died in a grenade explosion in Vietnam. Cleland lost his legs and his right arm and spent the next few years in military hospitals, often feeling hopeless about his own future.
There's a line Cleland likes that comes from Ernest Hemingway: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Cleland says his experience in dealing with his severe injury made him think about how he could do something that mattered with his life. He turned to a pre-war passion: politics.
In the state legislature, Cleland became an ally of the state's new, reformist governor: Jimmy Carter. Later, when Carter became president he named Cleland to head the U.S. Veterans Administration.
He returned to Georgia and served as secretary of state for 14 years. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Cleland lost his seat after just one term, following a bitter race for re-election in 2002. Although he voted for the Bush tax cuts and voted to authorize the president's decision to go to war, Cleland was vilified by Republicans for his role in attempting to block the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Cleland and Democrats say the GOP ran a smear campaign questioning his patriotism and linking him with Osama Bin Laden. His Republican opponents dismiss that charge, pointing out that Cleland voted 11 times against a Bush-backed bill that would essentially curtail labor influence in how employees of the new department would be paid.
Recently, Cleland has been campaigning on behalf several Democratic candidates who are veterans. One of those he's helped is Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war vet who won the Democratic nomination for an Illinois seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Duckworth is also an amputee; she lost her legs in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade downed the helicopter she was flying.
Cleland spoke with NPR about Duckworth's fighting spirit, and how his own war experiences influenced his career:
Q: What it is about Tammy Duckworth that reminds you of yourself?
Her sense of having been blown to Hell and back. And that, coming back to this country, you know that you're not going to sit on your rear end. You're not just going to collect a retirement or a pension. You're going to fight like hell for a new life, a new job, a new career and one in public service. That's Tammy Duckworth, and I identify with her at every point.
Q: Is military service different from public service?
People who volunteer for the all-volunteer force have a deep commitment, not just to the nation or to get an education, or to fighting the enemy. They have a deep commitment to public service. They see that as part of their calling in life. I did. I don't think I was called to get blown up. But the good Lord saw fit to save me on the battlefield, with the help of friends. My goal was to try to continue as best I could my public service to others. Particularly my fellow veterans.
Q: Do you think troops coming back from Iraq are going to have an impact on this country's politics, the way Vietnam-era vets did?
These veterans have been there, done that, gotten a few holes in their T-shirts. And as they come back to this country, they're going to run for public office, they're going to become leaders, they're going to become business people, and they're going to make a tremendous impact on this country. They come back with definite ideas about Iraq, about the American military, and how we need to change course and particularly about how we need to take better care of our veterans.
Q: Can you tell the story of when you first started getting into politics?
I came up to Washington as a young pine knot out of Georgia, not knowing anything. I wasn't even registered to vote. I just wanted to get out of the land of Florida where I was going to school, at Stetson University. I was going nowhere. I was a C+ student and darn proud of it, because that's as well as I could do. One day, I saw a picture in the student newspaper of some kids shaking hands with Bobby Kennedy, who was U.S. attorney general at the time. I said, 'How'd they get a chance to do that?' It was through the Washington Semester Program. I said, 'Whoa baby! This is my ticket out of here.' So I applied and got a chance to come.
I got up here and I got full of action and government. That was in the fall of '63, when President Kennedy got assassinated. And it radicalized me toward the system, toward politics, toward public service. What rattled around in my mind was that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, and now that he was dead, I was that new generation of Americans coming along.
Q: When you write about your first race for the Georgia state legislature in 1970, one thing that comes through is how physically demanding it was ...
The legs almost killed me. I could only wear them for a maximum of six hours. When you take a step as a double amputee or a triple amputee, it takes nine times the amount of effort as a normal person. That will wear you out. And so that first campaign was physically exhausting, I just couldn't hardly believe it. But the campaign was all I had. I didn't have any job offers. Nobody wanted to hire me. I've never had an offer of a permanent job. Not ever. Public service seemed like the only way to be gainfully employed. Plus it's what I wanted to do. It gave me a sense of achievement and accomplishment. I wanted to be in politics.
Q: Do you think there was more pressure on vets from the Vietnam generation than on those coming out of Iraq now?
No, when you're blown up, you're blown up. And your battles are your own, regardless of which war you fought in. And I have learned that the body, mind and spirit can go through tremendous stresses and challenges. It's really, quite frankly, amazing how much you can get through. And for those like Tammy Duckworth and me, we want to give back to others, which helps us heal and turn our pain into somebody else's gain. That's a powerful need.
Q: You still go for trauma counseling for your experiences in Vietnam. How is the war in Iraq affecting you personally?
The Iraq War has triggered all kinds of stuff. I still cannot watch television for long periods of time. I still do not want to know anything about the war. But you can't escape it. Same thing with my fellow Vietnam veterans. This is just another Vietnam for us. The same lack of strategy, lack of an endgame, the bad guys you can't hardly name. And no matter what happens to you, you wind up back in the States saying, 'What the hell was it all about?' We've seen this movie before, and we know how this movie ends. It's not a happy ending.