Day Remembering Vietnam War Veterans
When I think of veterans November comes immediately to mind because of Veteran’s Day. Or Memorial Day coming up soon in May. But I was surprised to see a national observation for veterans on my calendar. March 29 was National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
After I saw this commemoration pop up, it immediately made me think of two things. First was my father who was a Vietnam War veteran. He was not a fan of this war and rarely spoke about it. He passed away some years ago and I wonder his thoughts on such an observation. Second Max Cleland, a disabled Vietnam War veteran and Georgia politician. He died in Nov. 2021. His book, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove,” has been on my list to read. I thought there is no time like the present. This national day of observance was the push I needed to read and review his book.
Reading with My Ears Book Review
In the forward Cleland speaks directly to brothers and sisters of war. Those who are trapped in the memories. To those overwhelmed, coping on their own and struggling with what we have done and what has happened to us. To those left hopeless and confused about our lives. He says, “It does not make us victims, it makes us veterans.”
Cleland was born and raised in Georgia. He lived in the same town I reside in today. There is even a street named after him in the downtown district of the city. His father was in the navy during WW2 and he had other family members who served in the military. He was a captain during the war. He signed up for more time in the war because he felt he had to do his part.
War Injury and Rehabilitation
The day he was wounded by a grenade explosion was April 8, 1968. Eight days after President Johnson called for an end to the war. He came back from Vietnam missing three limbs (right arm and both legs) and was treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Doctors were not optimistic about his future, but through the bonds he formed with other wounded soldiers, and through his own self-determination, he learned how to be mobile and overcome his despair.
As I read about his rehabilitation journey, I learned some new things about amputation such as the importance of knees. When he first tried to get artificial legs there was resistance because he had no knees and you need them to bend for walking and climbing stairs. They are the key to balance and mobility. During that time, they were made of wood and very heavy.
The doctors told him he would need crutches to use the wooden legs. But with one arm that would be nearly impossible. Yet, Cleland was determined to walk again and did everything required to do so. He did walk with those wooden legs until he was upgraded to plastic ones with knee support. Later on, the stress and exhaustion, especially during the beginning of his political career, caused him to go back to using a wheelchair.
He shares openly and honestly about his rehabilitation. For example, trying to get dressed using only one arm. He struggled with buttons on his shirt and putting on pants. It made me think about a recent episode of The Shark Tank where a contestant pitched her business of accessible clothing for people with disabilities, specifically amputees.
He shared about the differences in treatment between Walter Reed and the Veterans Hospital. He was released from Walter Reed and had to continue at the VA Hospital. At that time, they were not prepared to deal with Vietnam veterans as most patients were from the Korean War or WW2. Additionally, he says that 80% of patients were there for health problems unrelated to war . As a result, he felt lonely because he couldn’t connect to the other men as many of them were veterans from a different generation and also heavily medicated.
Reading his story, I could relate to the feeling of loss. Cleland talked about how his feelings of safety, security and sense of self were gone in a heartbeat. Although I didn’t become disabled because of war it did happen pretty quickly and traumatically. My life was turned upside down.
Leads VA and PSD Revealed
Cleland takes his artificial legs and goes home to become the first Vietnam veteran to serve in the Georgia state senate. Next, President Jimmy Carter appoints him head of the Veterans Administration. He believed his mission was “to care for those who have born the battle.”
He recognized the lack of funding for veterans yet always plenty for war. Nine million served in Vietnam, from Aug. 4, 1964, to May 1975, with millions of them wounded and injured. There was a push to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PSD) not just physical injuries. Living on hyper alert takes a toll, seeing death firsthand takes a toll, and killing takes a toll. In 1978VA psychiatrists finally admitted that PSD existed. and became an official psychiatric diagnosis. Meaning that veterans could get treatment and financial benefits. Years later he would benefit from this decision as he too delt with PSD.
At 40, he became Georgia’s youngest secretary of state. During his time in office, he appointed the first Black assistant secretary of state. He opened the process and registered 1 million voters. He was secretary of state for 12 years but was not fulfilled politically.
It wasn’t until he became U.S. Senator. that he accomplished his dream. Battling a smear tactic causing him to lose his seat and 9/11 by the invasion of Iraq, Cleland was pushed to the edge. Depression and PSD surfaced during this time. He was dealing with deep depression and seeking therapy and better medications. He went back to Walter Reed for help.
Seeks Therapist and Help for Depression
At Walter Reed he was thrown back into Vietnam as he saw wounded veterans coming back from the battlefield. He was deeply distressed and moved by what he was seeing as the signs were so similar to what he had also experienced many years before.
Despite all of that, he was able to get help for his depression and PSD. He found a great therapist and medication that actually worked effectively. He learned how to reconcile his past with his present. To remember who and what he was before he went to Vietnam and became disabled. Reclaiming that part of himself was a big part of his healing. He learned to find a new sense of himself at last.
I got quite emotional as I read Cleland’s memoir. I thought about all he went through. All Vietnam veterans went through and probably still do. All my dad went through. Even in some ways how much things haven’t change since then. But also, how much it has changed. I realize the goal is to keep going. To not forget the past but to look forward to the future.