Well done, good and faithful servant

Marti Crow
Marti Crow

I’m writing a tribute in memory of Max Cleland, who died last week. In 1980, Mr. Cleland published a book that touched my husband’s and my life. Ten years earlier, in 1970, I spent many hours at the Beach Pavilion part of Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. I was in my 20s, still a newlywed, and my husband was recovering from a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Mike was wounded while serving as a platoon leader with the 1st Cavalry Division.

Mr. Cleland’s book, “Strong in the Broken Places,” is the inspiring story of Max’s encounter with near death in war. In April 1968, Capt. Cleland was a battalion signal officer serving with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division during the Battle of Khe Sanh. On April 8, with only a month left in his tour, a helicopter flew him and two other soldiers to the treeless top of Hill 471, east of Khe Sanh where he had been ordered to set up a radio relay station. Cleland jumped out of the helicopter as it landed, followed by the two soldiers. As they turned to watch the copter lift off, Cleland reached down to pick up a grenade he believed had dropped off his flak jacket. It exploded, slamming him backward, shredding both his legs and his right arm. Due to the severity of his wounds, doctors amputated both of Cleland’s legs above the knee and his right forearm. At that time he was 25 years old.

I heard about Mr. Cleland when he was named the administrator of the Veterans Administration in 1977. I still have my copy of his wonderful book. He did not consider himself a hero of Vietnam, nor did he consider himself a victim. He did not find out until years later, when he met the soldier who saved his life, that the grenade was not from his belt but rather dropped by another soldier. In his book, he describes the long recovery process, both physical and emotional, how difficult it was to just perform the normal things that most of us take for granted. Getting out of bed in the morning. Preparing yourself a meal. Taking a shower.

The title of “Strong in the Broken Places” comes from a novel, “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway which contains the following quote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Max, with a degree in history and dreams of public service and politics, romanticized war like the young Hemingway. He even said that he didn’t want to miss “our generation’s war.”

As he faces his life changing injuries, Max writes: “The physical wounds were the first to heal and the easiest to deal with. ... The mental and emotional wounds – and a whole suite of spiritual wounds – have been far more difficult to overcome.” His writings reveal how a distraught young man dealt with a situation he could not handle alone. He found the two things that carried him through life’s darkest times, the grace of God and the help of our friends. He said, “Let go and let God.”

Max Cleland was the only child of a working class family in Georgia. Like many Americans, he was raised to be self-sufficient, to win, to be successful and in control. Learning to let go and let God was the toughest challenge of his life. As his life went on, Max became an extraordinary success in a career of service and politics. He was elected to the Georgia Senate in 1971 and named VA administrator in 1977. His leadership at the VA was an inspiration for many veterans who were struggling with the aftereffects of war, disabled in body and spirit. He went on to serve as the secretary of state in Georgia in 1983 and as a United States senator in 1997. In 2009, he was named secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

I did not meet Max but he and my husband corresponded over the years. In 2017, I heard his voice in Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam. He showed us how to never surrender to any of the challenges in this world. He had other losses, hurts and disappointments, but he did not respond with bitterness or anger. He provided an example of faith in action. He maintained his connection to veterans, especially those suffering from wounds and PTSD.

For the 54 years after his war injury, Max exemplified service to country and to others which enabled him to provide a form of leadership that was grounded in kindness, respect and hope. His faith was strong and enduring, helping him to overcome feelings of depression, anxiety, dread, shame, helplessness and guilt.

In 2009, Mr. Cleland wrote a second book, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove.” I’m planning to read it because I need Max’s thoughts on surviving the petty cruelty of today’s American political environment. I need another reading of his first book as well. His story and his life touched me and mine in many ways. Rest in peace, Max Cleland. Well done, good and faithful servant. Let go and let God.

Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.