Your morning jolt: Max Cleland on Afghanistan as Vietnam, and struggles with depression

Revised at 4:55 p.m.:

On a quiet Tuesday night in the shadow of downtown Atlanta, Max Cleland rolled his wheelchair to the head of a welcoming crowd and explained where he’d been the last seven years.

Down the dank rabbit hole of depression and out the other side.

The gathering of 150 or so at the Carter Center was the first event in Georgia associated with the publication of Cleland’s new book, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove.”

Attendees were mostly older. Many were former military, and some were from Cleland’s old neighborhood in Lithonia. A C-SPAN camera was there as well. At least one Republican was in the audience.

The former U.S. senator, who lost his seat to Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002, disappointed some who had assumed that, in the years since, the Vietnam veteran had drifted into the ranks of conspiracy theorists.

Cleland had no answer for the lanky fellow who assumed that, because the former Georgia senator had quit his first post-Senate assignment to the 9-11 commission in 2003, he must have evidence that the attack on New York’s World Trade Center was an inside job.

He had resigned, Cleland said, because President George W. Bush and his White House had stonewalled when it came to saying what they knew about the participants in the attack, and when they knew it.

A woman declared that she knew for a fact that the 2002 election had been stolen from Cleland by the manufacturer of the new touch-screen voting machines used that November.

Cleland said he had his own suspicions, and used the phrase “ripe for fraud” more than once. But he also pointed out the larger and more likely factors responsible for his defeat: Gov. Roy Barnes’ removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, and a ruthless, Washington-directed campaign by Republicans to unseat him. Which included that now-famous TV ad.

“To put my face up there alongside that of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden was bull feathers. But they got away with it,” Cleland said.

What Cleland was most ready to talk about was Afghanistan and his own personal struggle with depression. After his defeat, Cleland said, “I dropped like a rock.”

As a topic, depression runs the length of his book. But it is something new to Georgians. Cleland kept his condition hidden throughout his political career. Voters preferred the Max who always smiled and never said die.

“Public service and public life became my way of coping,” he said.

Cleland credited Jimmy Carter with saving him from oblivion. At loose ends after an unsuccessful race for lieutenant governor, Cleland was appointed head of the Veterans Administration after Carter’s election as president in 1976.

This summer, again at loose ends, Cleland was appointed to head the American Battle Monuments Commission by President Barack Obama. “My heart goes out to another president who saves my rear end at a time when it needed to be saved,” he said.

Cleland said post-traumatic stress and his grievous wounds from Vietnam left him with a lifelong craving for “safety, organization and stability.”

Without that trio, he said, “I go into a massive, deep, dark depression and I get to where I don’t want to live. I don’t go there anymore.”

Cleland spoke with the candor of a man who will never again seek public office. “When your brain is compromised, and your body is riding high with massive anxiety and you can’t shake it, it’s a terrible feeling. And you cannot concentrate. You cannot read.”

So he stays away from TV and newspapers. “I’ve done that for years. It helps me gain a little bit of perspective. I get most of my news second-hand.”

Outside his duties with the monuments commission, Cleland said he intends to focus on military matters.

On Afghanistan, Cleland said the Obama Administration appears to be headed toward a “classic counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism blend, where you use Afghanistan as the anvil, and you use Pakistan as the hammer.”

Afghanistan will be a defensive zone for U.S. troops. The true offensive will take place in Pakistan.

The trick, Cleland said, will be in giving Pakistan the covert help and air support it needs to root out Al Qaeda. Rising debate over the number of troops needed in in Afghanistan is a red herring, the former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee argued.

“The question of boots on the ground is moot as long as you have a sanctuary nearby where the bad guys can go hide. You have to deny them the sanctuary. Otherwise, that’s called Vietnam,” he said.

This is a man who knows his swamps. Inside and out.

While you ponder that, consider these items found while perusing this morning’s ajc.com:

  • MARTA board to pay $480,000 for lobbying.
  • Probe intensifies as DeKalb schools office searched.
  • Cobb County inspects half of its flood-damaged homes; cities to start today.
  • Judge rules for incumbent in Marietta election case.
  • Cobb County sheriff renews immigration program.
  • Courts, DA plead case against Gwinnett budget cuts.
  • Georgia’s on-time grad rate up slightly.
  • Swine flu kills Georgia girl, 10.
  • Tech-UGA game won’t move to Dome.
  • Clayton County pulls plug on bus service.
  • DeKalb to partner with developer on GM site.
  • After settlement, King family turns eyes to healing.
  • Some opinion:

  • We’d rather protect guns than lives of good dads.
  • Control health costs without raising taxes.
  • And from beyond:

  • WP: Snowe may be on the other side, but she called all the plays.
  • NYT: Russia resists U.S. position on sanctions for Iran.
  • Miami Herald: Faced with a deep recession, Cuba tries socialism lite.
  • For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.

    26 comments Add your comment

    General Sherman

    October 14th, 2009
    10:52 am

    Max,I served two tours in Viet Nam,I feel today as I did back then that the democrats deserted us and Obama and his co horts are doing the same.We need to stop fighting everyones wars and concentrate on americas needs.The country is going to hell in a hand basket and we just keep spending and exspect the people of the United States to keep picking up the tab.The liberals (including you) are going to destroy this country!

    Ga Values

    October 14th, 2009
    11:08 am

    I only served 13 months and 6 days in Viet Nam. If I had a take back vote, I would now vote for Max. He did not repesent Georgia very well but he did a much better job than Saxby Chambliss. Max unlike Saxby did not sell Georgia’s vote to the highest bidder.

    Coastal Cavalier

    October 14th, 2009
    11:31 am

    If I hear one more time how one commercial cost Cleland an election I will scream. This is an urban legend that just won’t die. I’ll sick “The Mythbusters” on it.

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    12:10 pm

    Ga Values-
    “Max unlike Saxby did not sell Georgia’s vote to the highest bidder” That is one heck of a charge. Please inform us of the specific votes Saxby sold, whom he sold them to and at what price. You have to back up what has a potential to be a criminal charge(s).

    General Sherman

    October 14th, 2009
    12:45 pm

    Max lost because people were tired of his liberal ideas,and his support for jimmah and the rest in Washington.Obama is taking us down the same trail.We will tuck our tail before accomplishing our goal.as we did in Viet Nam!I do not agree with war,but we started it and we need to complete the job.

    Producer

    October 14th, 2009
    1:02 pm

    Give it a rest, Max. You might dispute this, but you weren’t simply entitled to that senate seat because you mishandled a grenade. You were a liberal seeking protection of the federal union workers when you should have been working on the security of this country first and foremost. You got called on your actions. Politics is tough! Stop sniveling! You just got appointed to another taxpayer funded post so you can quit being a victim.

    Bo Chambliss LOBBYIST

    October 14th, 2009
    1:14 pm

    RetiredSoldier

    Saxby sure didn’t give away his vote on TARP, he got more than $2,500,000 from the banking industry. His leadership on ETHANOL sure doesn’t come cheap.

    Ga Values

    October 14th, 2009
    1:50 pm

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    12:10 pm

    Try reading this, preferably on an empty stomach:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/26/AR2009092602083.html

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    2:36 pm

    BCL- Can’t take you serious, Saxby didn’t receive that much from the banking industry, maybe you mean over his entire career? Libs and conservatives both get special interest money.

    Ga Values-

    Read the article, sorry you have to do better than that. Saxby’s leadership PAC received 692K out of all leadership PAC’s of 355 million. Sounds like Saxby was shortchanged. I don’t agree with these types of PAC’s but most members of Congress have them.

    Again, what specific votes were bought from whom for what price. If you have that, share the info, if not you should email Saxby and ask for forgivness.

    Bo Chambliss LOBBYIST

    October 14th, 2009
    3:34 pm

    Saxby took $2,683,000.00 from Banks, Insurance companies, and Real estate firms all of which got big bucks from TARP. If you need an earmark send Saxby a check. Saxby deliveres for the LOBBYIST.

    http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/industries.php?cycle=2008&cid=N00002685

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    3:49 pm

    Ok Bo I’ll bite, during what time frame and in comparison to how much Chris Dodd received? Are you implying what Saxby did was a. illegal b. unethical c. what all the other politicans do in Washington?

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    3:52 pm

    I missed real estate firms, which real estate firms? I own a real estate company, no TARP funds here. I sure could use some TARP. You seem to be the expert, can you help?

    billy bob from cobb

    October 14th, 2009
    4:26 pm

    How did max get blown up? I heard it was his own doing.

    Bo Chambliss LOBBYIST

    October 14th, 2009
    4:52 pm

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    3:52 pm

    If you had sent Saxby a check you would have been on the TARP list.. If you don’t pay you don’t play. Saxby delivers.

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    5:05 pm

    Cute Bo, but not an answer. You said Real Estate firms got TARP money, which ones? Attacks are one thing, it’s real a pisser when the facts get in your way.

    RetiredSoldier

    October 14th, 2009
    5:07 pm

    Bo please refer to the 3:49 post and give us facts.

    Producer

    October 14th, 2009
    5:40 pm

    Billy Bob, it was an accident. Stories vary but he was injured because he mishandled a grenade and the rest is history. Whether he was playing with it, whether he was picking up a grenade he didn’t know was a live one, one thing is certain, it was not a battle related incident.

    Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

    October 14th, 2009
    9:50 pm

    A Marine getting off the helicopter behind Captain Cleland dropped the grenade off of his web gear, moron.

    Bob in Winder

    October 15th, 2009
    6:40 am

    Everyone knows Chambliss is a crook but we voted for him because he said he would change. Stupid voters.

    Producer

    October 15th, 2009
    8:30 am

    Hence, it wasn’t battle related. Thanks for confirming my point. And grenades don’t activate themselves if they are just dropped. The pin must be removed first. There is more to this than even you know, Will.

    RetiredSoldier

    October 15th, 2009
    9:54 am

    Bob in Winder-

    “Everyone knows Chambliss is a crook…” Is that so, what FACTS do you have? Have you reported these facts to the police? It’s perfectly ok to disagree with an elected offical’s position. There is never a need to slander someone unless you are willing to lay out the facts.

    billy bob from cobb

    October 15th, 2009
    2:29 pm

    I guess phone sex helps him get through the dark nights. who holds the phone for him

    Cantrell

    October 15th, 2009
    3:36 pm

    I am a veteran who served 6 yrs. under Ronald Regan.I voted for Saxby. I am a daughter of the American Revolution, Civil War, WW1, WWII, Korea and The Gulf War. Regardless of the cause of injury, war is hell. How can you criticize someone for an injury incurred because they were serving their country? Viet Nam was a debacle we got into under the Kennedy administration, because the French couldn’t handle the Khemer Rouge. They (French) dropped the basket in our laps and hauled ass. The American Government DRAFTED America’s youth to fight a war the French were unwilling to fight. TOO MANY of our brothers and fathers were slaughtered there. That Max has served his country (at an extremely high price) for all these years and publicly held his head high, speaks to the man’s personal integrity. Whether your agree with his politics or not, he is still A Great American. As Kennedy said… “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
    Lunch is on me Max.

    RetiredSoldier

    October 15th, 2009
    5:12 pm

    Cantrell-

    The French were fighting the Viet Minh in Viet Nam, the Khemer Rouge were in Cambodia. All part of Indiochina.

    Bob in Winder

    October 15th, 2009
    6:21 pm

    RetiredSoldier…Are you on Saxby’s staff or 1 of those college interns. No one can as dumb as you act.

    TEA 4 2

    October 16th, 2009
    6:44 am

    How can anyone support a big spending, big government, pro amnesty RINO like Saxby? Saxby and his special interest buddies have destroyed the Republican Party.